Strauss and Wagner at the Festival Hall
Seven years ago the great American conductor Lorin Maazel died aged 84. As well as his many recordings, he bequeathed a number of compositions. In 1987 Maazel created a unified orchestral arrangement of music from Wagner ’ s Ring. In a concert at the Festival Hall last week , the Philharmonia under their new young principal conductor Santtu (Santtu-Matias Rouvali to give him his full Finnish name) played this rarely-heard work, which Maazel entitled Ring without Words.
The concert began with the Swedish soprano Miah Persson singing Richard Strauss ’ s Four Last Songs. Completed in 1948, Strauss’s 85th year, the songs embody emotions recalled in tranquility at the end of the composer ’ s life. Ms Persson sang them beautifully, building to a lovely swelling of the vocal line in the third song as she sang of the unguarded soul soaring in free flight. There were glorious moments, particularly in the final song where unabashed joy flows forth as the larks soar, half dreaming, into the haze, before the author faces the gentle solemnity of death. Whether Ms Persson’s voice really had the heft to fill the Festival Hall (could those seated behind the stage hear her well?) may be doubted, but her technical mastery was superb and she showed a beautiful tone, supported by hugely sensitive conducting.
Maazel ’ s Ring without Words, which followed after the interval, really packed a punch under Santtu ’ s baton. The arrangement gives space to orchestral moments from each of the four operas, one after another, though necessarily omitting sensational moments such as the awakening of Brünnhilde, which call for a vocal climax. After an unsteady start, we were treated to an orchestral showcase that reached a magnificent highlight at the halfway mark with Wotan ’ s farewell to his beloved daughter Brünnhilde at the end of the second part of the cycle, Die Walk üre . Other powerful moments were not far away, including Siegfried’s Funeral March from Gö tterd ä mmerung (depicted above).
On a more personal note, I recalled an occasion some fifty years ago, when my landlady in Bayreuth told me of her brothers ’ bodies being brought back from the Eastern front. She told me how the town had held a solemn funeral ceremony, playing the music of Siegfried ’ s funeral march . Heaven knows what these German soldiers had done before they were killed, but I think of her recollection every time I hear it, usually without quite getting the measure of the emotion. This time, however, Santtu and the Philharmonia gave a fearsomely powerful performance that provided the strongest emotional pull to this music I have ever felt.
Even without voices, this performance was a deeply moving experience. I ’ m surprised Lorin Maazel ’ s arrangement, which gives an overview of the entire Ring cycle in just 70 minutes, is not heard more often. It deserves a wider hearing.