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Strauss's Voice Hits Apotheosis With The Four Last Songs

Neil Sowerby enjoys the Wagner and Brahms too

Written by . Published on February 10th 2014.


Strauss's Voice Hits Apotheosis With The Four Last Songs
 

SERENE musical gifts were unwrapped to great effect in the latest instalment of the sublime Strauss’s Voice festival at the Bridgewater Hall. The first of three Halle concerts showcasing the work that epitomises the German composer’s vocal genius, Four Last Songs, kicked off with an instrumental piece by that other, overwhelming Richard – Wagner.

Weary, almost zen-like, in its preparation for the inevitable, nostalgic in the best sense, her voice set against Laurence Roger’s plangent horn solo, it is the apotheosis of all Strauss’s Voice is about. 

The Siegfried Idyll is the ultimate surprise birthday/Christmas present for Wagner’s wife Cosima, who was awoken on Christmas morning 1870 to the strains of the piece, based on themes from Act 3 of Siegfried, played by a small ensemble on their villa staircase. Principal Guest Conductor Markus Stenz gave us a suitably stealthy interpretation as a curtain-raiser to the Four Last Songs.

They, in their way are a surprise gift, too – to music lovers and to his wife, Pauline. It’s commonplace to see the the songs, written in the 1940s when the Strausses were in their late eighties, as a swansong for the whole late Romantic musical tradition. They are also a farewell to the life they had shared, a thank you to Pauline for being his vocal muse. In the final song, Der Abendrot, magnificent soaring soloist Anne Schwanewilms lingers long on the word Tod (death) in the phrase Ist dies etwa der Tod? (is this perhaps death?). Weary, almost zen-like, in its preparation for the inevitable, nostalgic in the best sense, her voice set against Laurence Roger’s plangent horn solo, it is the apotheosis of all Strauss’s Voice is about. 

There is an obviously sensitive, well-honed relationship between the red-clad soprano and both orchestra and conductor and it shows across all the songs, sonorous brass and soft strings underpinning the emotional intensity of her performance.

Der Abendrot is from a high Romantic poem by Eichendorf, the other three songs are treatments of more contemporary verse from Hermann Hesse. I particularly enjoyed the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen" (Going To Sleep) where, after Halle leader Lyn Fletcher’s softly entrancing violin solo, Schwanewilms’ voice soars into the ether. An occasionally inconsistent talent, here she offered us marvels.

After all this, would Brahms’s First Symphony, after the interval, prove an anti-climax? No, Stenz gave us an exuberant, poetic rendering, with strings and horns again in terrific form as the piece, after its earlier tension and introspection, whirled to its triumphant conclusion.

Strauss’s Voice, January 9-March 8 2014.

At the Bridgewater Hall, Lower Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3WS.

Tickets are £10-£38 and can be booked at www.bridgewater-hall.co.uk.

For full details of all concerts and other events visit www.straussvoice.com.

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