A Strauss choral work and an Elgar symphony - Vassily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra shook things up with devastating impact at Prom 19. Strauss's Festival Prelude was written for a grand occasion - the opening of a new concert hall in Vienna in 1913. It's a massive, no-holds-barred piece glorying in drama and excess, ideal for grand surroundings like the Royal Albert Hall Strauss packs intense power concentrated in a relatively short piece. All those instruments have to make their mark - no room for messing about. Petrenko and his orchestra seemed electrified - taut, energetic tempi, perfect cohesion, every note making an impact. Such vibrant energy, We know now what Strauss didn't know in 1913. The Hapsburgs and the gilded magnificence they stood for would be deposed. Vienna, once capital of a great empire, would be become capital of a truncated rump. But for a moment, Petrenko made it come alive again. He made us feel the optimism, the bravado, the sense of limitless confidence. This piece is standard Proms fare, but I don't think Ive ever heard it conducted with so much intelligence or purpose.
This set the scene for Strauss's Deutsche Motette, also from 1913. This piece is even more remarkable, technically, because Strauss does with voices what he does with orchestration. This is a choral piece that defies normal convention. The four basic blocks of voice type are refined, so the piece operates in 16 parts, blending sounds in a wash of extreme subtlety. Strauss didn't have much time for oratorios and choral tradition. In Deutsche Motette he redefines the rules. His text is based on Friedrich Rückert's poem Die Schöpfung ist zur Ruh' gegangen,, (all creation is at rest). The poet describes a panoramic landscape, rendered still in the silence of the night. "Es will der Schlaf auch mich befangen," sleep as a form of suspended animation. The balance of voices is essential, for nothing must destabilize this hypnotic magic, lest the spell be broken. A metaphor, too, for the world of 1913, now lost forever.
Exceptionally beautiful singing. This piece is a tour de force requiring great co-operation between singers, though each voice must remain distinct. Inger Dam-Jensen and Susanna Shakespeare sang the soprano parts, Tara Erraught the mezzo, Adrian Dwyer the tenor and Brindley Sherratt the bass, backed by the BBC Singers. In a performance as good as this, it would be a bit unfair to pick out exceptional singing but Sherratt and Erraught stood out like stars in the firmament, their lower timbre reinforcing the mystical sensuality at the heart of the piece.
Inger Dam-Jensen was the soloist in Strauss Four Last Songs, also magical songs on the theme of sleep and death. Whoever planned this Prom programme knows their music. Nearly 40 years after the Deutsche Motette, perhaps Strauss was looking back on his life and the world he had known. Although we've all heard more ideal performances of these songs (and the maddeningly superficial Prom with Christine Brewer) , listening to Dam-Jensen with lingering memories of the Deutsche Motette made this a performance to remember fondly.
Liverpool, the Cinderella of British cities, has much to be proud of in Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. They're a wonderful team. It's a shame we in London don't get to hear enough of them. They're developing a unique sound - vivid and rejuvenating Petrenko loves Elgar, and hears in him a "Russian soul". Elgar's Symphony no 2 sounds mysterious with Petrenko. Even the "windflower" motif breezes along elusively. There are many cryptic clues in Elgar's music, many of which will never be solved. Four-square performances may be more common, but Petrenko's approach in many ways gets closer to the magic behind the notes.