Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs hold an important place in the musical canon for voice and orchestra. The 81-year-old composer wrote them in 1948 from his post-war home in Switzerland, setting poetry by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff. Devotees of Strauss’ music often consider these songs the summit of the composer’s entire output, revealing a tremendously colourful inner world reminiscent of the final chapter in the life of their creator. Although Strauss may never have intended these songs to be combined together to form a cycle, they are typically presented together today. The set consists of: “Spring”, “September”, “Going to sleep” and “At sunset”, while their order of presentation has remained a topic of debate.

Angela Meade © Dario Acosta
Angela Meade
© Dario Acosta

American soprano Angela Meade made her debut at the Koerner Hall tonight as the soloist in this quartet of vocal gems with the Ontario Philharmonic. Meade has graced international concert stages in operatic roles by Donizetti, Mozart and Verdi, and orchestral repertoire by Beethoven, Dvořák and Mahler. Art songs seem to occupy a smaller proportion of her repertoire, by comparison; thus, the Strauss was a fine choice to gauge Meade’s full versatility and vocal palette in this genre. Unfortunately, as a result of bronchitis, it was evident that Meade was not in her usual fine form. She struggled most of the time competing and fighting against the densely written orchestral parts. As a result, the soloist limited her focus to the details of tone projection and vocal colours. Sustaining clarity between her dialogues with the orchestra also became an issue. In many instances, Meade was barely audible even to listeners situated at the center orchestra level, and completely covered by the gargantuan orchestral forces led by Marco Parisotto. To add to her challenges, Parisotto often had unexpected tempo changes and dynamic fluctuations, which left unity much to be desired between all musicians concerned. In occasions when Meade did break through the musical barriers, as in the songs “September” and “Going to sleep”, she was capable of delivering exquisite beauty out of Strauss’ melodic writing.

Following intermission, Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 proved to be a meaningful undertaking, highlighting notable sections of the Ontario Philharmonic. Like many of Bruckner’s symphonies, notably in the Third, brass instruments play an integral role, much like how Wagner utilized them in his operas, or in the later symphonic writings of Mahler and Shostakovich. If the strings are considered to be the soul-bearer for a symphonist, then the brass might be likened to the heartbeats. Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony pushes the boundaries of this analogy with greater conviction than any of his earlier compositions. It therefore takes a well prepared orchestra to bring full conviction to this work.

Marco Parisotto took the energetic approach to the symphony that it is currently fashionable. He opened the majestic first movement (marked “not too fast”) like a mountaineering expedition – assisted by the brasses with its soaring themes and tempestuous climax that gave a stream of positive energy. The second movement (Andante) was a noble procession; Parisotto diligently painted his canvas by underlining the delicacy and sweet tenderness of the strings and winds, paired together with outbursts of chorale-like motifs from the brasses. The third movement (Scherzo) was, overall, crisp; at times, however, volume seemed to take dominance over transparency and fluidity. This sacrificed part of the pastoral quality in the trio section of this movement. The Finale was an obvious homage to Bruckner’s musical hero, Richard Wagner. Here, the woodwinds provided evocative moments, particularly from the principals on flute and clarinet. Parisotto’s careful preparation up to the final coda paid off rich dividends with an enchanting journey. The ending died away into an unresolved, poignant conclusion. Special mention goes to the horn solos of this evening. Aside from a few minor blemishes, the horns were a model of technical security and musical refinement.