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S & H International Concert Review

Strauss, Beethoven: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Thomas Hampson (baritone), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 19th September 2003 (HS)


Three Strauss rarities served as a delicious prelude to one of the most familiar pieces in classical music in this week's San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts. Lyric baritone Thomas Hampson lent tremendous class to Richard Strauss' seldom-heard Notturno, a 15-minute song-cum-tone poem, and Hymnus, a shorter song for baritone and orchestra. Both were written in the waning years of the 19th century, but their restless harmonic shifts and quicksilver response to the texts look ahead to Strauss' more familiar operas, most tellingly Salome.

The program opened with Festival Music for the City of Vienna, an extended fanfare for trumpets, trombones, tubas and timpani. After intermission came Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, a much better representative of music that debuted in Vienna.

Hampson's command of the long line, astonishing breath control, exquisite phrasing and innate sense of drama made the Strauss songs come to life. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra were right with him, together making a strong case that Notturno ought to be heard a lot more than it is. The piece is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, whose "Verklärte Nacht" inspired Schoenberg's sextet written, coincidentally, in the same year (1899). Notturno has much of the same over-the-top romanticism, in this case a description of a dream (or nightmare, more accurately) encounter with Death on a snowy field.

Icy, hollow, sustained chords set the scene with a few strokes. The voice begins its narrative almost immediately and doesn't really pause until the end, shifting its colors from sepulchral to warm to poignant. The poem's reference to the sigh of (Death's) violin ("kam seiner Geige Hauch daher") introduces a sinuous solo violin line, played with a piercing chill by associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman.

Although the music ebb and flows, Strauss never lets the melody soar. It's not that kind of poem, and it's not that kind of work. The music warms up from time to time, but ultimately it's about coming to terms with the cold face of death. And, in the end, it does. A remarkable piece.

Hymnus, about 4 minutes in length, is the third of four songs in Strauss' Opus 33 titled "Four Songs for Voice with Orchestral Accompaniment," written in 1897. It's a paean to an unnamed "great goddess," which rolls along fervently until the final lines, "until death tears up (your maternal heart)" (bis der Tod sie zerreist"). A full silence precedes the line, which is the only one repeated in the piece, and it ends on a restful cadence. Interesting that both pieces hang on the singer dealing with death, one ending with quiet acceptance, the other with poignancy. Hampson, one of the consummate lieder singers of our day, invested them both with raw emotion covered with quiet dignity.

The open brass piece was a disquieting choice. It debuted in Vienna in 1943 at a celebration for Hitler, the composer in attendance, and the martial cadences dredge up unflattering associations, real or imagined, between Strauss and the Nazis. It's an example of occasional music in which the occasion might better be forgotten, but the title makes it difficult. It must be fun, however, for the 21 brass players, arranged antiphonally in a single arc in front of the timpani. They played it with relish.

Tilson Thomas got off to a wonderful start with Beethovenís Fifth, the first movement showing just the right rhythmic punch while allowing enough space for expressive phrasing in the strings and the occasional rubato. The Andante con moto lost a little moto, however, when the brass continually entered just a hair late. From there on, the pulse lost an edge that it didn't regain until the stretto at the very end of the finale.

There was much to appreciate, especially the masterful work of the woodwinds in the third and fourth movements. Tilson Thomas coaxed expressive dynamic shifts from the strings, creating atmospheric moments and plenty of excitement. And that final accelerando into the coda had a sense of improvisation that only a really good performance can achieve.

Harvey Steiman



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