With the Gran Teatre del Liceu’s music director Josep Pons’ on-going programme to develop playing expertise, this Strauss evening presented another opportunity for the house musicians to work in a symphonic format literally under the spotlight. The programme was a demanding one, fully extending the various sections of the orchestra, the tone poems Death and Transfiguration and Till Eulenspiegel from the composer in his twenties and The Four Last Songs, with the American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner, his true swansong in Lieder form some sixty years later.

Josep Pons
© Igor Cortadellas

A programme of contrasting music, the earlier two pieces from the young composer strong on narrative, empassioned and at times technically complex, the songs a stylistic but not thematic contrast, with a far flatter dynamic expressing contemplative acceptance of the inevitable.

Till  Eulenspiegel lustige Streiche is in rondo form using the whole orchestra, requiring a scurrying and sparkling performance. At a superficial level it sounded cartoonish, but this is the desired result of capably performing a famously sophisticated score. It was a spectacular piece to start the concert, with fine work from all the musicians, especially the brass and woodwind sections. Till’s mockery at conventional morality were well illustrated by an engaged ensemble, highlighted by both impeccable nose-thumbing French Horns and smirking clarinet, characterising Till’s irreverence and impudence. Trombones and drum rolls marked his inevitable end on the gibbet.

Strauss’ near swansong were his Four Last Songs and it was clear that at the very end of his life the idea of one's inevitable passing away was accepted and contemplated peacefully. It is a beautiful antithesis to Death and Transfiguration, contrasting stylistically with the more combative character of the final piece, with six decades separating the two works. The composition needs the full orchestra to soften with the soprano maintaining clarity and fine note extension. Jacquelyn Wagner achieved this admirably even though at times the orchestra appeared to play unheeding the conductor’s clear indication of piano. Her interpretation captured the essence of reflection and acceptance, particularly with Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot.

Because this concert was held in the Opera house and the audience were in general operagoers, this was the most warmly received of the three pieces of music. For the soprano it was a welcome return to the Barcelona stage, being one of the winners of the 2007 edition of the Francesc Viñas Singing Competition held annually in the city and an occasional participant in operas here since then. Kai Gluesten, the orchestra’s leader, played the solos in these last two songs providing an emotional counterpoint to Wagner’s vocal interpretation.

Under Pons’ conducting, Tod und Verklärung, the four-movement struggle against and the subsequent fatalistic acceptance of death, exploited the orchestra’s capacity to the full. In general the orchestra tended to play forte. This volume worked well for the explosive parts depicting struggle in the Allegro molto agitato (second) and Meno mosso (third) movements. The strings produced a lush, compact base for the “idyll“ and in the Moderato finish, with the transfiguration achieved through the final A major chord, the tonality of light performed with crystalline sound.