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Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Strauss: Anna Larsson (contralto), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Elder (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, 18.01.2006 (JPr)



I have to admit that I have never been Mark Elder’s greatest fan and despite most of the kind words in this review he remains, for me, too emotionally detached from the music he conducts. His persona as he talked to the audience so eloquently before the concert makes him appear fairly unassuming, quiet and reserved and this is what comes over in concerts however exceptionally (as in this evening) the programme was conceived, played or sung.

With Mark Elder what is without doubt is his musical intelligence and his involvement in arranging the items performed created a very intelligent programme. In his pre-performance talk to a scattering of people in the Queen Elizabeth Hall (he deserved many more) he said everything was there to lead up to the concluding item, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, which could only be at the end of the evening. It also took into account the more intimate venue. His comments on the music will form the basis of this review because they are of great interest (I hope?).

The opening Mozart symphony (No 34 in C) was there not because it was his 250th birthday but due to it being ‘transparent and effervescent (with) the world of Italian Opera not far away. Mozart composed it in 1780, it was the last he wrote in Salzburg and  it  starts in the elemental world of C major, then  explores other keys before returning.’ He explained how he was trying to see the effect of having the woodwind sitting in front of the conductor, as well as using natural brass instruments because of their ‘edgy, incisive sound’.

Elder considered there would then be ‘an enormous jump’ from the Mozart to the Wesendonck Lieder and Wagner’s music of ‘deep yearning, sadness and passion sung by a genuinely low-voiced singer’ - why are they so reluctant to use the word ‘contralto’ these days? He was intrigued by the effect of hearing these songs sung by someone with a voice a ‘third lower’ than we usually hear female singers sing them. They were performed in the 1976 orchestration by Hans Werner Henze.

Mathilde Wesendonck was married to Otto, a wealthy silk merchant, whose wife and munificence was exploited by Wagner. She was the inspiration behind Wagner composing Tristan und Isolde and he set her fairly routine poetry ‘in an inspired way’ according to Elder. Wagner only orchestrated the last one (Träume) and left the rest to Felix Mottl. Elder recalled his continuing friendship with Henze and he considers his version gives each song ‘a different, more delicate, scale (that is) exquisite and detailed’. Henze, he said, has always tried ‘different ways with music, often taking one chord and splitting it between different instruments (there is) a sense of chamber music because he gives himself a broader palette.’

After the interval there was Stravinsky’s Concerto in E flat for Chamber Orchestra. It is named ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ and was his answer to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, written in 1938 as a 30th wedding anniversary gift for Robert Woods Bliss living on an estate of that name outside Washington, DC. Elder considered this an example of life definitely not imitating art because what he referred to as music with lots of ‘sparkle’ due to notes that are ‘short and pithy’ was written by Stravinsky in Switzerland at one of his worst times. He was living near the sanatorium where his daughter was dying of tuberculosis. Mark Elder considers that in this piece ‘each player has a separate responsibility like in the Wesendonck Lieder as the instruments converse, share, argue in a sort of game.’ He considers the composer’s ‘manipulation of rhythm’ as ‘masterful’ resulting in ‘an immediately recognisable sound world’.

Finally it was to be Metamorphosen, Strauss’ elegy to the Allied bombing of Munich and Dresden, both cities where he had had so much success. According to Elder Strauss’s inspiration had been Goethe who as a literary creator developed the concept of ‘metamorphosis’ because he ‘incubated many ideas in his imagination at any one time and Strauss took it as a long-term developmental idea’. For Elder this has resulted in music that is ‘one arc of sound, from a still beginning starting with sobbing cries it builds up into anguish and anger, ending without reconciliation as we hear intentional quotations from Beethoven’s Eroica.’ Elder considered this music was like a ‘door opening in his soul to find music he had not otherwise composed. Having a grip on the narrative he had not otherwise achieved. His music cries for us all and it is one of his most profound and poignant legacies. Strauss who was from a bygone age showing his concern for a Germany he and his contemporaries had known that was now gone.’ (I, myself, may add that there may well have been a certain expression of guilt too in the music.)

I have considered Mark Elder’s reflections at length as they are a fascinating justification for spending an evening listening to classical music but yet again how many in the audience (apart from those at his talk) would have any grasp of the intellectual thoughts behind the musical items they were hearing? Certainly the cut-and-paste printed programme never considered any of this. When will this get home to the publication managers of the various orchestras and concert halls? A friend with me at this concert said something very profound as we were leaving, something along the lines of ‘that music plays in the world all the time but only takes real form when it is performed’ and I wish more of the modern day concert audiences were attuned that way. Perhaps introductions like Mark Elder’s should be part of the concert proper and not just added-on so everyone really understands what they are hearing?

And finally how was the music I hear you ask? Well despite Mark Elder’s sang-froid I guess the evening had something personal and compelling for everyone. For me it was the immensely tall and striking figure of Anna Larsson focusing on each of the Lieder to give them each a profound individuality by utilizing every facet of her extraordinary contralto voice and technique. Elsewhere, groups of London Philharmonic Orchestra players gave wonderfully assured, technically impeccable performances giving rhythmic life to the Mozart and Stravinsky, heartache to the Wagner and deep resignation to the Strauss. Perhaps the woodwind in the Mozart still had some of their solo lines lost in the mélange from the brass without their valves. Also was I alone in hearing just a little more turmoil in Dumbarton Oaks than Mark Elder expected us to find? 

At the end we had the 23 solo string players Strauss requested with the coup de concert being that they were all (apart from the cellists) standing and given free range to make physical their response to the varying moods the composer embroidered into Metamorphosen. No one exemplified this more than the London Philharmonic’s virtuoso leader, Boris Garlitsky, whose animated intensity probably had more impact on his colleagues - and accounted for more of the emotional impact of the ‘In Memoriam’ final bars - than Mark Elder’s conducting had ever done.



© Jim Pritchard




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