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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.