As the programme for this concert noted, all three works performed here begin quietly. That, however, is where the similarities end. And Richard Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica (which no one would accuse of ending quietly) could hardly have a more different source of inspiration to that of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos: the latter deals with galactic phenomena, the former zeroes in on the day-to-day goings on of the composer’s home life. But it says something about the modernity of Strauss’ score and its subject that it’s a work that can still make us feel a little uneasy, albeit it in a very different way to Salome, with whose gestation it overlapped.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir © Saga Sigurdardottir
Anna Thorvaldsdottir
© Saga Sigurdardottir

The two works do, however, have something in common in terms of their performance history. Though Symphonia Domestica is a product of Strauss’ Berlin years, it was premiered in New York (at Carnegie Hall before, infamously, being put on in Wanamaker’s department store) ahead of a first European performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by the composer. Thorvaldsdottir’s score was also first heard in New York, a commission of the New York Philharmonic first heard at Lincoln Center in April last year. The conductor on that occasion was Esa-Pekka Salonen. Here, for the first European performance, it was conducted by Alan Gilbert, the former NYPO boss who takes up the helm of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra next season.

Described in the programme as “an episodic Odyssey through confusion and order”, it’s an often beguilingly atmospheric score. The opening soundscapes are bare and desolate, low pulsating drones punctuated by the occasional percussive thuds, as well as sundry sighs, groans and sul ponticello whisperings. "Das ist Island," whispered a lady behind me (That’s Iceland). You could hear what she meant, but one soon sensed the work's grander theme as the score quickly established itself as a thing of imaginatively varied textures and rhythms: the former often headily beautiful, the latter occasional brutal.

Thorsvaldsdottir’s command of a large orchestra is hugely impressive, and she conjures up myriad special effects, captured in all their variety and delicacy by Gilbert and the orchestra: brass players blowing through their instruments in a passage that's all blur and swoosh one moment; strings setting off in concentric spirals to create a sense of Ligeti-esque discombobulation; bursts of primal rhythm in the percussion. And what at times felt like a somewhat cool, objective exercise offered moments of disarming beauty towards its close as we heard snatches of warmly melodic material, ideas beyond our reach dimly recollected in the fading of the light, before everything floated off into nothingness.

Programmed to come after Metacosmos, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto seemed to gain in skittishness and playfulness, and it received a performance of darting imagination and fierce, playful virtuosity from the remarkable Lisa Batiashvili. She captured its many mood changes with sparkle and rendered even the most taxing passages profoundly musical. And the profoundly musical passages, such as those gorgeous singing lines of the second movement, were in turn rendered so beautiful that they could have brought warmth to even the coldest corners of Metacosmos’s distant sonic universe. Gilbert followed every twist and turn with agility, the orchestra on spritely, acerbic form.

Conductor and orchestra retained those qualities after the interval for as well played a traversal of Symphonia Domestica as one could hope for. Jonathan Kelly’s opening oboe solo set the tone for the quality of the solo playing (with excellent work later, especially, from the player of the oboe d’amore, an instrument dug out of obscurity by Strauss for the love music). Gilbert set a clear-sighted course through the score’s often knotty counterpoint, finding a suitably Straussian middle ground between mercurial and business-like. The massed first violins, so often given a tricky top line as the other instruments bubble and converse below, were on especially good form. The scherzo was brilliantly characterised, the Adagio melting and ardent by turns, and full of a very human and intimate tenderness.

The finale offered rip-roaring enjoyment and brilliant work from Stefan Dohr and his horns. It’s a piece that the composer seemed reluctant to finish, admittedly, its final minutes featuring as many false endings as Dudley Moore’s Beethovenian variations on Colonel Bogey. Does it overstay its welcome? Certainly not when played like this.

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