lietofinelondon

Driven To Distraction

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Excerpts, Richard Strauss) & A Florentine Tragedy (Zemlinsky)

Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 26 September 2012

Heike Wessels – Bianca
Sergei Skorokhodov – Guido Bardi
Albert Dohmen – Simone

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Vladimir Jurowski

There is always something driven about Jurowski’s conducting and this performance of excerpts from Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and The Florentine Tragedy by Alexander Zemlinsky was no different. And while overall the impact was often nothing less than grandly – at times almost distracting – loud, there were moments when I wished that the conductor would have allowed the music to breathe a little more and there had been more finesse.

Having thought that the Strauss would have included vocal excerpts I have to admit to just a little disappointment that the chunks of FroSch presented at the Royal Festival Hall were purely orchestral. Personally the excerpts did not work for me not because there was no singing but simply they didn’t hang well together. A fact that would not have been improved had there not been pauses between sections. I am pretty sure that there is an orchestral realisation of this opera as a complete work (I could be wrong) but for me the pauses simply exacerbated how disjointed it all felt.

But having said that orchestra’s playing was of a high standard. Jurowski coaxes incredible playing from the London Philharmonic and on the whole they produced a healthy sound. But there were moments where his focus on forward momentum was undermining. For example, the wonderfully expansive main theme was hampered by a less than expansive approach and that wonderful moment with the solo cello and lower strings in the Second Act lacked any sense of wonder or warmth for me. And while you couldn’t fault the pinpoint precision or rhythmic vitality that Jurowski imbued the excerpts with there was a general lack of lushness that is so needed in this of all Strauss’ music. Indeed by the end it felt not unlike an incomplete tone poem.

It’s worth noting however that Jurowski will conduct a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten – an opera that I love – at the Met in 2013 and judging from this ‘highlights package’ it certainly holds promise.

The second half was given over to Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and the performance was dominated by Albert Dohmen’s Simone. The concert programme made passing reference to similarities with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier which while pertinent was a bit of a shame as it did spotlight that while Zemlinsky was an accomplished composer, he cannot stand comparison with Strauss himself. While the base musical vocabulary might be the same, in the hands of Richard Strauss it becomes something magical whereas in the mixing bowl of Zemlinsky it sounds more than a little, well, pedestrian. However there were some beautiful moments. For example how Zemlinsky underlines the passage when Simone condemns his wife to a life at the loom in the orchestra and the closing moments when Simone and Bianca are reunited – for how long you are left to wonder? – although the abrupt ending I think has more to do with the level of Zemlinsky’s talent than anything else. It was interesting however to hear how Zemlinsky also used a waltz theme in the Tragedy and Jurowski’s brutish, almost violent treatment of it.

As I said, Albert Dohmen dominated both the music as written by Zemlinsky himself and musically too. I last heard Dohmen in Berlin in a concert version of Tannhäuser under Janowski. At the time I noted some slight intonation problems but there were no such problems as Simone. Vocally secure and with clean diction perhaps the only thing missing was a sense of the sinister in his characterisation.

I admit that whenever I see a Russian singer listed my heart sinks a little. However I was pleasantly surprised by Sergei Skorokhodov’s performance. His tenor is relatively light in tone and colouring but he managed to rise above the orchestra when required and sang cleanly. Again there was a lack of characterisation but perhaps this is more to do with Zemlinsky’s music than anything else. I see that he has plans to sing Bacchus in Ariadne at Glyndebourne and Froh in Munich, both of which would be interesting to see.

It’s a shame that Zemlinsky didn’t afford Bianca a greater role so that we could hear more of Heike Wessels. Hers was a rich and vibrant mezzo that not only perfectly suited the vocal line but she did make her character less of a cipher than her colleagues on the stage. Again I see that she is singing Waltraute under Janowski in Berlin next year and perhaps a trip to Mannheim is worth considering to see her either as Eboli or Kundry as listed in her biography.

Again the orchestral playing was exemplary and strangely Jurowski seemed to focus more on the detail in Zemlinsky’s score than he did in the Strauss in the first half. Perhaps an unconscious investment to ensure that Zemlinsky’s music wasn’t in too sharp a negative relief to FroSch? But it was in the Zemlinsky that Jurowski’s norm to drive the music forward paid off as it careened to its inevitable ending yet sadly abrupt ending.

Overall an enjoyable evening but Jurowski’s over-driven reading of the pieces did leave me wanting for greater lyricism.

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  2. […] last time I heard Jurowski conduct Strauss was a mixed affair and the same was true of this opening concert. Also sprach Zarathustra – while […]

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