Strauss's Tod und Verklärung is the work of a young man seeking to impress with his profundity and modernity after his early success with the wildly exuberant Don Juan. It is often said that the "death" part is more convincing than the "transfiguration" part, and this is largely true - while the former comes off beautifully, the latter is far too prosaic musically for the exalted subject matter. It's not really a question of age (Strauss was just 25 when he composed it), but a matter of compositional strengths, proclivities and weaknesses revealing themselves early - Strauss' musical genius is best expressed by sentimentality, extremity, vulgarity, stylisation: he is simply not capable of Wagnerian profundity, weight and depth. Robin Ticciati went a long way towards papering over these cracks, and slowly the huge symphonic arc of the tone poem was revealed with a glistening sweep. But there were balance issues - the brass and percussion generally far too loud, the little woodwind fragments in the beginning not cutting through the gloriously lush string textures. Something too wasn't connecting musically - there was a curious lack of passion or commitment even although all concerned were making all the right motions.
Mahler's Kindertotenlieder is his toughest song cycle aurally. In it Mahler strips away anything redolent of lushness, fullness, or warmth, the orchestral pallet deliberately drab, bleak and often bordering on ugly. This painful rawness is of course entirely apt for the subject matter, and the poetry receives a completely unsentimental treatment (indeed shockingly so for Mahler). But Mahler relies on the unique emotional impact that the human voice can bestow for these songs to work, and that means using everything that the voice can do expressively. Unfortunately Christopher Maltman's dry baritone was not able to deliver this emotion on this occasion, the lack of sustained line or legato, unchanging gray tone, and muddy diction meaning that the humanity of these songs was not given a proper voice. Ticciati, who is to take over musical directorship of the Glyndebourne festival in 2014, showed that he really understood how to accompany a voice, making sure the orchestra flexed and swayed to support Maltman absolutely ideally: never was there a moment when Maltman was not completely audible, or where ensemble with him was not perfect. That Ticciati should achieve this with a beat that is so erratic and vague is astonishing to me, but I have witnessed him conducting an incandescent Don Giovanni and a glorious Hansel and Gretel with this technique, so it is not a fluke. It is very clearly the milieu in which he most flourishes.
Brahms' Symphony no. 2 is another subdued work, with its uneasy but muted moments of shadow pulling against its sober warmth. Here again, something didn't quite ignite in the chemistry between conductor and orchestra. The lack of clear direction and intent seemed to inspire boredom and perhaps mild recalcitrance from the players: though nothing was badly done, the music wasn't allowed to flow and sing, textures never quite settling or feeling properly balanced. Things improved in the later movements, but moments of quiet beauty in the slow movement and rhythmic brilliance in the scherzo couldn't quite save what was a rather uninvolving reading.
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