The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s first concert after what was apparently a great success at Carnegie Hall opened with 2009 birthday boy Mendelssohn’s popular “Scottish” Symphony which is chronologically his last, numbered his third, conceived before his Second, and inspired by his trip to Scotland that also begat the popular Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”).
How the Andante con moto of the first movement reflects that country I don’t know. Is there any place in Scotland, during any season, that is as sunny, gay, and dainty as this introduction under the carefully shaping Mariss Jansons made it sound? I was torn between marveling at the utter delightfulness of the work and griping at the indulgence and cheap contrast that, in the slow parts, emphasized the laggardly salon-music aspects of this music instead of imbuing it with the snappy zest that Jansons approximated in those quicker passages that Wagner (assuming he managed to see them before 1841) must have greatly appreciated, since he lifted them unambiguously to use in his Flying Dutchman overture. Consequent movements were more enjoyable: the busy excitement of the second movement, intermittently rousing, the touching Adagio, slow but not quite plodding, and the fourth movement getting near some of that explosiveness that makes Janson’s Beethoven great.
After that lovely but underwhelming appetizer, the highlight was surely Anja Harteros’ performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Under the bright spots of the NDR TV production team, Harteros was a striking appearance. She looked four inches taller than she is (standing next to Jansons helps), stunning in a bright pink dress that, combined with her long dark hair, had something of a Bollywood diva stepping out to do her routine. Smokey lows in “Frühling” , worthy of a true mezzo, were a promising beginning to what was surely one of the most impressive vocal performances—not just of the Four Last Songs—I have witnessed. Difficult to say if the BRSO’s holding back volume but not zest was more impressive, or Harteros drowning the orchestra out with her voice—but a feat it was on both participants’ parts.
An imposing performance is one thing, an insensitive one distinctly lacking beauty another. And unfortunately it was that, too. Harteros’ voice was full of steel, unerring and unbending to the luxuriant music. In “Beim Schlafengehen” the violin solo of concertmaster Andreas Röhn elicited tears, Harteros scared them dry again. In the last song, “Im Abendrot”, Harteros’ voice worked better; was not just remarkable but also quite wonderful. Not little enough too late, as it were.
On paper, the idea of programming Ravel’s Second Daphnis & Chloé Suite after Strauss’ Four Last Songs looked like folly at best, injudiciousness more likely. An anti-climactic ditty after this work of content and serene departure? But after the momentary sports of wayward first violins in the Strauss and the modest Mendelssohn, Ravel turned out to be a tonic. The woodwinds were phenomenal in the wakening of day, compelling from the first notes. The smoothest possible, straight-as-an-arrow crescendo leading to a grand triple forte was extraordinary as was the abundance of colors and flutist Henrik Wiese’s display of virtuosity.
The concert on Friday made nearly the opposite impression: The Mendelssohn was reported excellent, Harteros not as loud and with more ‘brass’, less ‘steel’, and the Ravel just casual and overly loud.
R.Strauss, Four Last Songs, Jessye Norman / Masur / Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Mendelssohn, "Scottish" Symphony, WPh / Dohnanyi