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Review: R. Strauss & Elgar, LPO & Renee Fleming/Edward Gardner, Snape Maltings, August 24

PUBLISHED: 11:51 04 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:51 04 September 2017

Renee Fleming. Photo: Decca-Timothy White

Renee Fleming. Photo: Decca-Timothy White

Archant

At first sight Richard Strauss and Elgar seem worlds apart in personality and musical style. Yet it is easy to forget that they were close contemporaries (Elgar seven years older) and both made their musical mark around the beginning of the twentieth century.

Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche is a quirky and energetic romp detailing the exploits of a mediaeval peasant of German folklore in vivid and memorable orchestral colours. The exposed soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (notably the horn) distinguished themselves and Edward Gardner’s dynamic conducting gave the work an invigorating swagger and elan. The sharp changes of mood and tempi were perfectly judged and the ending was crisp and clean.

In what turns out to be their final composition few composers have written anything quite so exquisite and moving as Strauss in his Four Last Songs. The words refer to sunset, parting and death and the scoring is both delicate and richly elegiac.

The wind and brass intonation was secure and sonorous, providing a deep carpet over which Renee Fleming wove a vocal spell of every possible colour and emotion. Nothing was forced yet everything had the requisite volume and clarity.

It is said that at the end of the first performance of the work – shortly after the composer’s death – there was hardly a dry eye in the hall and certainly Fleming and Gardner drew an intense emotion from the closing bars.

The arresting opening of Elgar’s first symphony, a quietly confident motif over soft, staccato lower strings, immediately captured the attention. The succeeding Allegro was turbulent, occasionally angry yet with moments of contrasting beauty but all the while reflecting the bustle of a big Edwardian City. The scherzo was sharp and brilliant with excellent string articulation before subsiding (with an echo of the opening of Nimrod) into the deeply felt Adagio, performed with a real depth of feeling and nuanced articulation. Gardner steered the finale unerringly and as the opening theme returned and gradually swept all before it, there was an unmistakeable frisson in the hall which resolved itself into an enthusiastic ovation.

Gareth Jones

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