La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

OSM and Nagano: Homage to Richard Strauss

by Paul E. Robinson

Strauss: Death and Transfiguration Op. 24
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in g minor Op. 22
Strauss: Symphonia Domestica Op. 53

Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
Orchestra symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano

Tuesday, September 23, 2015
Maison symphonique
Montreal, Quebec

In a few weeks time the OSM will embark on its 10th tour of Japan, and its first-ever visit to China. At Maison symphonique the orchestra is currently polishing its tour repertoire. On the basis of what I heard there is still work to be done.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Mixed Message Programming?
The program was titled “Homage to Richard Strauss”, presumably to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, yet nowhere in the printed program was there any reference to this fact. Curiously, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Franz-Paul Decker, a former music director of the OSM, who passed away earlier this year. One of Decker’s specialties was the music of Richard Strauss. Perhaps the title of the concert should have been “Homage to Franz-Paul Decker”, or “Homage to Strauss and Decker” with appropriate essays in the printed program. No reference in the program either to the fact that the Strauss pieces will be featured at the forthcoming concerts in Beijing and Shanghai. My impression is that there isn’t much communication between the OSM administration and the folks who put together the printed program.

Then there is the matter of presenting a program titled “Homage to Richard Strauss” and slipping in a piano concerto by Saint-Saëns. That makes no sense at all. Even program annotator Robert Markow was hard-pressed to find any connection between the two composers. He settled for “the sheer longevity of their lives” – 85 for Strauss and 86 for Saint-Saëns. I note that the China programs will be all-Strauss with the Saint-Saëns tossed out and the Four Last Songs tossed in.

Strauss' Domestic Symphony Rarely Performed
I tip my hat to Kent Nagano and the OSM for presenting the first live performance of the Symphonia Domestica I have heard in more than 60 years of concert going. It is a piece I got to know well long ago through recordings conducted by Fritz Reiner and George Szell. Conceptually it is a monstrosity. Can we really take seriously a piece that celebrates the minutiae of family life using an orchestra of 120 players, lasting 45 minutes and  frequently rising to climaxes of post-Wagnerian sweep and grandeur? No, of course not. It is ridiculous. On the other hand, the Symphonia Domestica contains some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies and stunning orchestral fireworks. So we take it for what it does well and forget the programmatic nonsense.

Nagano and the OSM musicians got a lot out of this Strauss rarity with outstanding playing from nearly every section. The fine bass section met every challenge with accuracy and beautiful tone. I was sitting in the left Loge section near the stage and so had a rather distorted sound picture. The horns, for example, even though they numbered eight, could scarcely be heard. On the other hand, the trombones pointed right at me, seemed prominent throughout the piece.

While most of the parts of the Symphonia Domestica seemed well-prepared, however, I had the sense that the orchestra needed to play the piece a few more times before they really got comfortable with it. The final fugue, for example, can be tremendously exciting but only when the conductor and the players have the confidence to really let go. It needs to go faster, without noticeable stops and starts, to make its full effect.

More Work to be Done!
I had a similar reaction to the performance of Strauss’ much earlier and mercifully much shorter tone poem, Death and Transfiguration. Lots of lovely moments but not yet a fully-realized performance. The final massive climax and the build-up which precedes it are among Strauss’ most inspired conceptions. In Nagano’s hands the climax didn’t come close to being the apocalyptic moment the composer must have had in mind. 

Death and Transfiguration is not the rarity that the Symphonia Domestica is and many listeners will have heard glorious performances on recordings and in the concert hall. My most recent experience came in a live performance by Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic - a gripping experience, and the kind of competition Nagano and the OSM are up against when they travel the world. More work to be done.

Benjamin Grosvenor
Lightweight Saint-Saëns Superbly Played
While the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 made no programmatic sense, the performance was first-class. Twenty-two year old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor gives the impression that he is all business but he found plenty of humor and poetry in the piece. He tossed off the technical challenges with no trouble at all and never pushed the volume. To be sure, this is a lightweight piece but it benefits greatly from the attention of a fine musician like Mr. Grosvenor. Nagano and the OSM gave him a superb accompaniment.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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