Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jansons review - magnificent Strauss

Barbican, London
If Diana Damrau’s four Last Songs didn’t quite cohere, Jansons and his orchestra’s take on Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben was thrilling and superbly balanced

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Strauss concert with its chief conductor Mariss Jansons opened with the Four Last Songs sung by Diana Damrau as part of her current Barbican residency, which focuses on the composer’s work. Damrau is, of course, an often exemplary Straussian, much admired as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Yet one questions whether her voice itself is ideally suited to his final envoi, which looks back on a life well lived, even as the shadows darken towards its end.

Damrau’s tone is silvery and bright rather than warm, with a penetrating edge that gives the impression of cutting through Strauss’s orchestra rather than soaring comfortably over it, and in this instance an occasional pulse in the sound also suggested a voice under pressure. As one might expect, she phrased with her customary intelligence and gave us more of the words than some interpreters, but throughout we could have done with a bit more of the rapt introversion she brought to the close of September, with its imagery of weary eyes finally closing in sleep. The playing was richly detailed as Jansons probed every shift in Strauss’s textures, but, even so, I admit to being curiously unmoved.

After the interval, however, came a performance of Ein Heldenleben that was, quite simply, one of the most magnificent things to be heard in London for some time. Jansons’ spacious tempi conferred a fierce sense of unity on a work that can easily become episodic in lesser hands. Everything was superbly balanced and structured, so that we were able to appreciate the subtle inexorability of Strauss’s musical argument, even in the notorious battle sequence, where the decibel count, for once, never obscured detail or counterpoint. There was grandeur without bombast at the start, passion without sentimentality in the love scene, and real contentment and serenity at the close. Above all, it was thrillingly played by an orchestra at the peak of its powers that has rarely been equalled in this work. Stunning, every second of it.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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