Can two composers have so much, yet so little in common? Or be such accommodating, yet such uncomfortable bedfellows? The SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg with their principal conductor François-Xavier Roth addressed these questions in exhilarating style, in a “turn-of-the-century time capsule” which thrilled and enchanted upon its opening.

François-Xavier Roth
François-Xavier Roth

An extrovert, precocious “wunderkind”, Richard Strauss’ musical talent was clear from an early age, irrespective of whether one took his remarkably mature teenage composition or flashing, virtuosic brilliance at the piano as proof. Alban Berg, however, whose adolescent passion for literature shaped much of his early adulthood, would bloom significantly later under the earnest, insistent tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg, as part of the small band of musical pioneers who would change the face of tonality forever.

Only seven years separate the completion of Strauss’ vast orchestral tone-poem Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), and Berg’s first few tentative sketches for voice and piano, which would find completion years later as the Seven Early Songs. It’s clear, however, that despite the lyricism which seems to encompass the very soul of both and the undeniable influence of the late-Romantic movement which they share, these are two men coming from different places, and going in very different directions.

The key to interpreting the orchestral works of both composers is not to forget that less is often more. An overcooked fortissimo here, a rather too ponderous largo there, and the sudden peaks of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra take on a somewhat grotesque, pantomime nature. Strauss’ scores, meanwhile, which cannot lay claim to the weight of intellect or emotional depth of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, can become rather banal and turgid. Step forward then, Maestro Roth, whose interpretation – from the copper-cold brooding of the Präludium’s opening to the solemn farewell of Strauss’ eponymous hero – was not only well conceptualized, but sensationally realized.

There was outstanding individual playing across the board. Principal horn Peter Bromig displayed effortless control of the high F natural which floats ominously over the shadowy underworld of the introduction, and Mayumi Shimizu scaled the exposed virtuosic heights of Berg’s trombone writing with aplomb.

The chaotic March which closes Berg’s three pieces is characterized through its extremes of orchestration, which proved just how at one with each other the individual members of this orchestra are. A juddering, rhythmic duet shared by the first trombone and the snare drum was unshakably solid and the excellent xylophone playing lent a brash, staring intensity to the muted trumpets.

This lumbering, crippled piece, written shortly after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, can in no way be described as triumphant – and its wheezing, asthmatic character was starkly depicted by Roth. He chose his most climactic moments with extreme care, the brutal closing hammer strokes revealing the startling effect of Berg’s ironic sentiments.

If there is a discernible sense of foreboding surrounding the Three Pieces for Orchestra, completed in 1915, the Seven Early Songs seem much more at peace with the world. Carl Hauptmann’s “silver, looming mountains”, bathed in a dreamy twilight, were the perfect landscape for Camilla Tilling’s yearning, velvet soprano, and one had the sense that conductor, orchestra and soloist were thinking, moving and breathing as one. Tilling sung exquisitely throughout, her unfussy, rich voice blooming out of the kaleidoscopic orchestral soundscape and at times, blending to become an exotic instrumental colour. She is by no means a powerhouse, but Roth’s sensitivity prevented the orchestra from overpowering her on all but one or two very rare occasions.

Berg first orchestrated the songs almost 20 years after their completion, and a little of their pianistic character is retained. The bittersweet, lingering chords which close nearly every movement are more easily realized by one person sitting at a keyboard, and both the woodwind and horn sections in particular exhibited both outstanding intonation and a real sense of ensemble. They were magical moments indeed.

Striding on to the stage after the interval, Roth immediately summoned his forces and sent them headlong into the Hero’s opening canter in the midst of dropped programmes, startled faces and applause. It was a terrific moment, a real declaration of fun and spontaneity and a refreshing change from the stiff-collared approach to the piece which, for all its mid-section austerity, sizzles at times with a gung-ho sense of adventure the Famous Five would have been proud of.

Strauss is at his best as a painter of pictures, and the vivid colours of the low brass and thundering field drums accounted for a number of particularly gripping moments. Leader Christian Ostertag’s extended violin cadenza was masterful, and flexibly directed by Roth in a manner which in no way betrayed the difficulty of coordinating this almost operatic recitative.

A Hero’s Life is a complex combination of the programmatic and the autobiographical, and the moments in which Strauss reflects on his own personal and professional relationships seem at times compositionally rather self-indulgent. It remains, however, a piece in touch with the peaks and troughs of the human journey which everybody must travel, and the fragile horn solo which ushers in the wistful, aching final string theme was a poignant reflection of this thought.

The rapturous ovation was fully deserved – this was a thrilling ride with an absolutely first-class orchestra.