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S & H Concert Review

Britten / Strauss, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, David Pyatt; Barbican, 30th January. (M. E.)



'What - again?' gasped the lady in front of me at the information desk, on reading that tonight's soloist for the Britten ' Serenade,' John Mark Ainsley, had withdrawn from the concert owing to indisposition, and was to be replaced by Anthony Rolfe Johnson. My own reaction was grimly fatalistic, since this would be the third time I was to experience Rolfe Johnson coming to his star pupil's rescue. Well, these things happen at this time of year, and there was clearly 'a lot of it about,' on the platform as well as in the auditorium.

The LSO seems to be in pretty good nick these days, even though their one-time glamour may have paled in comparison with the sound of recent London visitors such as the Dresden Staatskapelle. The warm, glowing sound which now emanates from the strings may have something to do with the Barbican's new acoustic, or perhaps the orchestra simply plays with more affection under its conductor laureate. This very varied programme showed them at their best, as well as providing a nice balance between the familiar and the under-exposed.

The first and second parts of the concert each began with a work written and first performed when their respective composers were in their twenties, Strauss' tone poem 'Tod und Verklärung' having received its premiere in 1891 when he was 27, and Britten's 'Sinfonia da Requiem' in 1941 when the composer was 28. The 'Sinfonia,' which began the concert, is a fascinating piece in its obvious relationship to the later 'War Requiem,' and its graphic depiction of the horrors of war. As you'd expect, anti- war feeling comes through in every part, and Previn directed a performance of real fire and commitment, especially in the ferocious 'Dies Irae' and the closing page of the lyrical final part.

Strauss' work examines a different approach to death, a remarkably profound one for a man who was only 25 when he began it; at the end of his life, the composer remarked that dying was ‘just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung,' and this wonderful music, with its characteristically intense romantic sweep and its evocation of the beating of the heart and the serene, final acceptance of death which he again depicts in the 'Four Last Songs,' was directed with a fine feeling for the shape of the music and played with more refinement than I had expected from this orchestra, particularly in the woodwind.

In between these pieces we heard Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,' in a performance which it would not be kind to judge too severely. David Pyatt, who plays the horn accompaniment to Schubert's 'Auf dem Strom' to superb effect on the Hyperion recording, had possibly been put off his stroke by the change of soloist, or just the general malaise which seemed prevalent, since his playing was much more tentative than usual, and only in the melancholy, bugle-like final phrases did he really sound at his best. Rolfe Johnson was gracefully substituting at extremely short notice, so one cannot be too carping, but his singing seemed off colour. This is a work in which the voice is relentlessly, rawly exposed, and he had trouble from the very challenging first phrase, and was not able to sustain the right pitch at times, especially during 'Dirge,' although he communicated the poems with real dramatic skill and that love for the shape of the lines with which I have always associated his art.

Strauss' Suite from 'Der Rosenkavalier' was the concluding work of the evening, and it is a work I have always found frustrating, not only because there is a question as to how much Strauss himself had to do with this version of his original composition. For those who love the opera, as I do, it is impossible not to find oneself almost singing along at certain key points, and at others, one just longs to hear the voice, especially during those wonderful moments towards the close of Act 1 where the Marschallin tells her servant what Octavian has to do, set to a heart-rending accompaniment of throbbing strings evoking her laden heart, and of course the sublime final trio, with that arching phrase at 'Hab' mir's gelobt, ihn lieb zu haben..' Nevertheless, the LSO's playing did succeed in involving you with the music on its own terms, the strings playing with such 'schwung' that the word 'Vienna' did spring to one's lips, and the conductor drawing every last ounce of bittersweet quality from the waltz sections.

Melanie Eskenazi


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