Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder and Bruckner’s Symphony no.9 in D minor are vastly different swan songs. Combining the two works in a programme worked well, especially in performances as precise, passionate and satisfying as this evening’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The Philharmonia Orchestra was led expertly by Christoph von Dohnányi through the subtleties of Strauss and the nuanced violence of Bruckner, to mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth.
The Vier Letzte Lieder are beautiful poems sensitively set to music, which Richard Strauss himself was never able to hear performed. The texts by Hesse (“Frühling”, “September” and “Beim Schlafengehen”) and Eichendorff (“Im Abendrot”), were accompanied by surtitles at this concert, allowing the listener to read English translations alongside - although unfortunately there was no version of the German text available.
Eva-Maria Westbroek joined the Philharmonia in the performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. She is known for a number of operatic roles in the UK, though I will forever associate her with a fantastic performance as Katerina Izmailova in De Nederlandse Opera’s production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. Her vibrato-laden voice was wonderful in the Strauss songs. The dramatic performance, helped by Westbroek’s undeniable stage presence, made for an impressive and heartfelt performance. Both in the lower, quieter parts and in the more dramatic moments Westbroek was utterly convincing, sensitive to the text and the orchestra. The last of the four songs, “Im Abendrot”, was moving, and the final words “Wie sind wir wandermüde, ist dies etwa der Tod?” were poignantly delivered.
Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was left unfinished by its composer. Though there have been some attempts to complete the fourth movement, the Philharmonia’s performance tonight was of the three finished movements. These already make for a formidable symphony, with the outer two slow movements spanning almost half an hour each, linked together by an energetic scherzo.
At times the first movement was played slightly less confidently and passionately than the following two, but the second and third movements were thoroughly absorbing. The Scherzo was as furious as you would want it to be, with the orchestra throwing themselves into the music. In the final monumental Adagio, the Philharmonia brought out both the ethereal and violent elements of the music, and this nuance lead to a thoroughly satisfying finale.
Some of the Philharmonia’s members delivered outstanding performances. Katy Woolley was, as always, faultless and persuasive in her horn solos, concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay played a stunning solo in the Strauss, and principal flautist Samuel Coles’ playing stood out in Bruckner’s Ninth. The whole orchestra was on great form, although a few times I found the brass too overpowering. Other than that (and overpowering brass is not necessarily a bad thing in a Bruckner symphony), von Dohnányi lead the Philharmonia in an excellent performance.