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S & H Prom Review

PROM 24: Richard Strauss; Dame Anne Evans, Rebecca Evans, Katarina Karnéus; Choristers of King's College, Cambridge; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Charles Mackerras/Stephen Cleobury conductors, Royal Albert Hall, 5th August 2003 (AR)

Inside a sweltering Albert Hall, this evening, a second devoted to the works of Richard Strauss, got off to a cracking start with the ‘Symphonic Fragment’ from Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae (1938-49), originally arranged by the composer’s friend Clemens Krauss who conducted the long-delayed premiere of the opera in Salzburg in 1952.

The BBC SO horns produced suitably strident sounds in the opening storm sequence, which represents Jupiter’s thundering anger in Act 2 caused by Danae’s love for Midas. In the more lyrical passages Mackerras conducted with great eloquence and grace, especially in the opera’s concluding apotheosis and departure of Jupiter back to Olympus. The BBC SO played with an authentic sounding Straussian accent with some notably stylish brass and woodwind playing; this skilfully edited ‘fragment’ deserves and demands to be played more often.

Before we got the next item in this Straussfest, another example of the composer’s preoccupation with the themes from Greek mythology, there was an eternally long delay whilst the platform was cleared of the orchestra to accommodate the choirs who were to perform Strauss’ unaccompanied choral work An dem Baum Daphne (1943). This was his original arrangement for the choral ending of his opera Daphne, written at the behest of the Vienna State Opera.

Stephen Cleobury conducted the Choristers of King's College, Cambridge and the BBC Singers with great urgency and passion in this telling of the metamorphosis of the nymph Daphne into a laurel tree to escape the unwanted advances of the god Apollo.

There was something kitsch and sentimental about this piece which was in parts reminiscent of Carl Orff’s Nazi Youth associated ‘Music for Children’. While the choral singing had weight and style the intimate details were often blurred and lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall, especially the closing interwoven boy treble and soprano solos.

The high point of the evening came with excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10). Here Mackerras, a truly great Straussian, was in his element having a total command of the score. Like the recent performance of Strauss’ Elektra under Donald Runnicles at the Proms (PROM 15) this abridged concert performance was worthy of any of the major international opera houses in terms of singing, conducting and orchestral playing.

Recently, the soprano Dame Anne Evans announced in a radio interview that this Prom would mark her last public appearance and this farewell concert was a fitting tribute to a great Strauss and Wagner singer. It was also a suitably poignant farewell to see her perform her celebrated Marschallin, a lady only too aware of the passage of time and the need to step aside to make way for a younger generation. What seems incredible is that despite years of singing the most taxing roles in Wagner and Strauss, which have ruined many a voice, her vocal powers are still at their peak, and the famed silvery timbre still intact.

After the intoxicating waltz opening, played with great verve, especially from the rich, swooning horns, the first extract from the opera was the duet between the Marschallin and her younger lover Octavian, the travestie role sung here with presence and suitable ‘masculinity’ by the tall and imposing Katerina Karnéus. Mackerras rightly took this scene representing the morning after a night of illicit passion between the two lovers at a breathless tempo, emphasising the passionate love felt by the impressionable younger man for the older, more experienced woman.

This then gave way to the celebrated soliloquy in which the Marschallin laments the passage of time, realising that her love for Octavian will come to an end. Evans was in perfect voice and full control, her subtle acting skills rising beautifully to the challenge of this difficult aria.

The ’Presentation of the Rose’ scene introduced us to Rebecca Evans, singing the role of Sophie in place of the originally billed Susan Gritton (singing at Glyndebourne instead). Her crystalline soprano timbre blended exquisitely with the warm mezzo of Karnéus, and the two singers were totally convincing as future lovers.

The highlights of the evening were the magnificent trio and concluding duet from this sweetly seductive score.

Again, Mackerras resisted the temptation to play this music too slowly, to milk the pathos. Instead, he kept up a sweeping, intoxicating pace and the orchestra responded accordingly, especially the warm voluptuous horns which so perfectly complimented the singers.

The sublimely blended voices of the three contrasting characters – the Marschallin resigned to losing her young lover, Octavian feeling guilt and confusion, and Sophie ecstatically in love - rose to a magnificent crescendo before the Marschallin’s final "In Gottes Namen" and leave-taking.

It then remained for the two young lovers to sing the exquisite final duet, during which Dame Anne was seen to wipe away some tears.

The audience rightly cheered this superb abridged concert performance, and Mackerras brought Anne Evans back to receive a well-earned standing ovation from the entire house. This was a farewell concert to savour, and it will be repeated on BBC Radio 3, 2 pm Friday 8th August.

Alex Russell





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