Concert Review

STRAUSS at the Proms 8 September 1999

Don Juan, Four Last Songs, Alpine Symphony

Zubin Mehta with Bavarian State Orchestra and Soile Isokoski (soprano)

The Bavarian State Orchestra, under their Music Director Zubin Mehta, chose an all (Richard) Strauss programme for the first of their London concerts. The orchestra, rich in tradition and boasting historical links with Strauss the conductor, attracted a capacity (and mercifully well-behaved) audience. Their very sound seems tailored to Straussian opulence, with a rich bed of strings and creamy brass, and so, for much of the evening, it was to be.

The opening piece, Don Juan, began shakily with a sloppy opening, the brass late on their crucial entrance. Lines sometimes were not differentiated enough and transitions seemed awkward, the music apparently running out of steam. In fact, throughout the first half there was a tangible feeling of the warm-up. There was much to enjoy, however, in the horns' swaggering statement of their theme and in a beautifully phrased oboe solo. Interested listeners can be recommended to investigate Kempe and the Dresden Staatskapelle on EMI CMS7 64342-2.

Soile Isokoski was the soprano soloist in the Four Last Songs, making her Proms debut. Whilst she has enjoyed success in her native Finland, especially in Mozart, she is little known here, her discography showing her to be a light-voiced and sensitive singer. Listeners are referred to, for example, her haunting contribution to Jarvi's DG set of Nielsen symphonies (DG 437 507-2GH3), and she is the star of a Brahms German Requiem on Opus 111 (OPS30-140).

Unfortunately, what was obvious from this Prom was that she lacks the intimacy and subtlety required for these most demanding of songs. In Fruhling her tone was shrill and she needed to be freer - her literal and earth-bound treatment of the word Vogelgesang was a case in point. September exuded little sense of sadness at the oncoming of autumn. Here even Mehta appeared to be influenced by her superficiality - he refused to give the final horn solo the space it so desperately needed, while Beim Schlafengehen showed the chasm between the orchestra's sensitivity and Isokoski's lack thereof. For a sumptuous version on disc, try Jessye Norman with the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Masur on Philips (411 052-2PH).

There was a shaky start, again, to the Alpine Symphony, the opening lacking a mysterious sense of space. As the brass entered confidence grew, however, long string lines being phrased with a beautiful legato, and the Ascent theme being presented robustly. Strauss gives plenty of opportunities for special effects with his off-stage horns (excellent) and his cowbells, the latter unfortunately exhibiting a (BSE related?) hyperactivity. Throughout Mehta impressed in his picture painting - the waterfall was vivid in the extreme, the thickets eminently (and appropriately) spiky, the Vision beautifully caught and there was a heart-stopping stillness in the Calm before the Storm. Mehta showed a firm grasp of the structure of the piece throughout, the arrival at the summit seeming the natural outcome of the preceding ascent. Even the storm itself convinced, despite a wind machine borrowed straight from Hollywood, and the graduated diminuendo of the end was spellbinding. Small wonder encores were called for - a by-turns seductive and manic Dance of the Seven Veils and a (necessarily) voiceless Ride of the Valkyries.

Admirers of the Alpine have no shortage of choice on disc. Mehta in the studio does not climb the same heights as Mehta live - for a truly authentic and fully convincing account, the composer himself conducts on (EMI) CDC7 54610-2 (recorded in 1941). For a more modern sound Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic act as a sure tour-guide on (DG) 439 017-2GHS.

Colin Clarke

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