Although it is well known that Richard Strauss’s scores are one of Andris Nelson’s favorites, because he knows several of Strauss’s symphonic opuses by heart and has interpreted them countless times, the conductor does not get into the routine again. This time, with a thoughtful and balanced music program, Richard Strauss was able to meet at the Elbe Philharmonic, where he performed two memorable concerts at the Hamburg International Music Festival with the Munich Philharmonic and the American soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen.
In the subtle, intricately designed soundtrack of Strauss’s music, saturated with the harmonious transition of late romanticism, Andris feels like in his most comfortable clothes. Strauss’s harmonious games and transitions, melodies of melodies, dramatic upheavals form stories where harmonies in thick chains tend to move forward to once again become a testament to the composer’s amazing genius in the continuous development of musical events. Andris Nelson leads the drama of this music so persistently and purposefully, in such an ideal way that it is clear to the listener – he understands the meaning of each sound and harmony in this fabric to the depths of their essence.
Nelson is currently one of the most convincing interpreters of Richard Strauss’s music in the world, and every touch of his body is an experience for listeners.
It must be admitted immediately that at the concert on May 20, the Munich Philharmonic was not always able to follow Nelson’s thought perfectly. At times you can hear inaccuracies, the intonational swaying of thick chords, as if in search of balance, your ideal place. Of course, the orchestra in front of us is like a tray on it, the white-celled acoustics of the Elb Philharmonic Hall are inclusive, gently matte, concentrated, highlighting the solo performances of separate groups of instruments. It seems that the sound here is completely cleansed of unnecessary reverberation, similar to listening to an orchestra playing in a recording studio. We can imagine how the musicians themselves feel in such naked acoustics. The sound is centrally concentrated, moving in a particularly large amount of air space in the hall. Let us remember that, due to the long construction of the Elbe Philharmonic, it was a subject of conflicting views and long discussions, both due to its unusually bold and impressive architectural solution and the enormous cost it required (more than EUR 850 million). With its blue-wave roof line in elegant glazing, it rises above the city, across its wide harbor, becoming Hamburg’s brightest sign on the right bank of the River Elbe and competing with other architectural masterpieces of the world’s concert halls. The Great Hall is also visually impressive, but its acoustics, created by the prominent Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, are not unequivocal, and its uniqueness lies in the unusual material chosen for covering the walls of the hall, which is made of plaster and recycled paper.
The concert was started by Richard Strauss’s “Dream by the Fireplace”, a symphonic interlude from the opera “Intermeco”, which introduced Strauss into the world of music in an inspiring mood, indirectly promising the main events of the concert during the evening. One of these events was the following soprano and orchestra by Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”. This philosophical, contemplative opus was composed in May 1948, shortly before the composer’s death. The four songs, based on the poems Herman Hesse’s “Spring”, “September”, “On the Dust” and Joseph von Eichendorf’s “Sunset”, were originally composed as separate compositions, but later Strauss himself wanted them to be played together. (In the compositional whole, the songs were arranged by the composer’s friend Ernst Rots).
In this cycle filled with enlightenment and peace, soprano-American Rachel Wilis-Serensen gave the audience a thoughtful performance, sophisticated vocal technique, her voice balanced with the orchestra, becoming part of the richness of its timbre. Although the pleasant sound of the controlled voice was convincing, as was her interplay with the conductor, there was sometimes a lack of personality charisma in the audience. Probably, the soloist’s performance seemed distant also because she was on the podium behind the orchestra, thus transmitting a voice over the instruments and directing the sound to the listeners as if from afar. This unusual location is most likely due to the specific acoustics of the concert hall and the fact that the audience is sitting around the orchestra, so it would be difficult for the soloist’s voice behind the orchestra to perceive if she had been in front of the orchestra. Although the interpretation seemed distant, Rachel Wilis-Serensen received warm applause and praise from the audience.
In the second part of the concert, the orchestra came to life and literally sparkled in the symphonic poem “Tils Pūcesspieģelis”, which sparkled with the timbre of melodies and wind instruments. Andris Nelsons has played this work a lot, we have also experienced his enthusiastic interpretation in Latvia. And even now, Owl’s story was delicately tasted and shown in great detail: Nelson literally danced the work, highlighting small motifs, twisting small transitions, unexpected dynamic gradations, and the characters in the story almost literally came to life at a brisk pace. The audience was best able to enjoy the orchestra’s great wind performance, which was appreciated and praised.
However, the center of gravity of the concert was Strauss’s symphonic poem “Death and Enlightenment”, which added value to the concert as a thoughtful crown. The task of this music, to look beyond the mundane and to allow the power of the human spirit to triumph, also speaks of the great emotional tension moving through the internal (personality) and external (event) dramatic waves to reach the finale of light, peace and clarity. When the masterpiece fell into the hands of an excellent conductor, we were able to experience a deep, true enjoyment of art and a meaningful spiritual experience. Andris Nelson’s extraordinary musicality makes every concert he hosts special.
In the presence of the music he plays, we can touch the composer’s original idea, the idea of the work, which is transmitted in the most accurate way to the antennas of our perception.
It is Andrew Nelson’s powerful interpretations that are ideally able to convey the colorful, diverse ideas of Richard Strauss’s music in today’s volatile and changing world, so that we can understand, reflect on and, finally, comprehend them.
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