Review: Philharmonia Orchestra - Richard Strauss Concert @ RFH
After Peter Grimes, my time in London wasn’t up just yet.
I would pop on over to the Southbank Centre for one last cultural shot, before leaving for Cardiff.
One of this year's big anniversaries in the arts is the 150th anniversary of the German composer Richard Strauss (not to be confused with the Waltz King, Johannes Strauss II). Perhaps most famous for the usage of his music in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he is a great of the first half of 20th century. Last year was all about Britten. This is Strauss’ turn nowâ€¦
The Philharmonia, conducted by Philippe Jordan (who was not afraid to stomp his feet on the podium at times), began with a great influence on Strauss (and on me), with Richard Wagner’s overture to his opera, TannhÃ¤user. It’s his longest orchestral introduction from his operas (nearly a good fifteen minutes in length) and makes for stirring listening. The orchestra swelled with the enchanting harmonies and ringing melodies. I will confess, it is hard not to think of the utterly brilliant Looney Tunes take on Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc? (voted the best cartoon ever made). The themes from this and other mythical works are used for some hilarious lyrics and the lines are stuck in my head and triggered every time I hear this overture.
This golden start to the evening was then enhanced, as soprano Angela Denoke arrived to sing the birthday composer’s six songs for soprano and orchestra. If you aren’t a fan of Wagner’s intense writing for singers, then Strauss may be your tonic (his Four Last Songs also come with my recommendation). Using the finest German poetry, he creates vivid and varying atmospheres of rose gardens, the three wise men and the ideal of tomorrow. Having just sung Kundry in the Royal Opera’s Parsifal (I desperately wanted to see this), I was taken aback by her total presence in the lines and her deep, sensual appreciation for the songs. She wiped away tears from her eyes in the middle of the set after singing Morgen. A touching moment, which I rarely see singers do live. These songs are a fantastic discovery. I have to listen to this again.
The songs and opera of Strauss are standards in the repertoire today. But his tone poems are also noteworthy for their remarkable, even personalised nature. Although his Don Juan, about the great lover doesn’t grab me as impressive, it was expectable and of course played with vigour by the musicians.
The last two pieces for the night were some of his most famous from his canon. His opera Salome, is notorious for controversy and its shock factor. Based on the story from the Bible (identified in the New Testament and Matthew), via Oscar Wilde’s play, it’s a positively gruesome tale which amounted to riots at performances in both art forms. Salome is adamant that she will get a kiss from Saint John the Baptist, she’ll do anything for it.
He finds her repellent (she is only fourteen as well) and condemns her with scolding, immense words. She has to kiss him, anyway she can. She orders her father Herod (who is most lustful of his daughter) to have John’s head cut off. If he does this, she will dance most exotically for him. She finally receives his head on a silver platter and kisses his lips. Herod realising how much of a monster his child really is, orders her to be killed.
This is fun for all the family (joke). But the two extracts we heard were Salome’s dance, known as the Dance Of The Seven Veils and the final scene in which she lingers over and plays with the decapitated head. The dance is thrilling and exotic, even filled with waltz-like music (the singer who plays Salome is expected to dance naked at the end). The final scene is iconic. In stomach-turning detail, she tells us what it's like to kiss a head no longer on its body. "How bitter," she remarks, "perhaps the taste of love." (I’m still out on that one).
The lush and perfumed music is counteracted with one of the most untraditional notes heard in music at the time. Ending her words with a tumultuous cadence, the dissonant and radical chord (measured at 360 in the score and marked as sfz) blasts out of the orchestra. It is truly spine-chilling, earth-cracking music and one of the greatest moments in all of opera. To give you an idea of its brief yet unforgettable chaos, here it is on sheet music.
I would like to put a link up of the Royal Opera’s most recent production for this scene, but its just to bloody and has nudity (damn shame!). But you can certainly tell Denoke has sung this role before. Her performance was captivating and she had a youthful like innocence and total destructive mania that this role so urgently demands. She has been thrilling company over the evening. I will do my utmost to see her perform again soon.
Here’s to more Straussian adventures over 2014!
Photo Credit: Johan Persson