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Antique tales well told

MUSIC Strauss tone poems RFH, London
The idea of the "tone poem" has been unfashionable for a very long time. Aesthetically, we are still told, it's neither fish nor fowl. Most tone poems are not self-sufficient musical arguments: they are full of details that can only be explained by referring to the story or other non-musical idea that inspired them. But the notion that concert audiences should read a literary programme and then relate the events of the musical work to it is widely deemed improper - or at least ridiculously artificial.

But when the tone poems of Richard Strauss are performed really well, it can be shamefully easy to enjoy them both as music and as the musical portrayal of specific moods and events. Four were performed outstandingly well by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch on Saturday and Tuesday evenings. In fact, I can't remember Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") ever sounding better in a concert hall. This extraordinary piece of self-aggrandisement (Strauss himself is the "Hero") can easily sound inflated, sprawling, over-rich - an outstanding case of "too many notes". But Sawallisch's performance was exceptional. As a structure, it was lucid and gripping: a one-movement symphony as original as Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony or Sibelius's Seventh, if not quite as concise. As pure sound it was remarkable: not sumptuous, but beautifully balanced - details emerged that I hadn't noticed before, and the final wind chord was a near miracle.

Most surprising of all was the emotional conviction. Ein Heldenleben is decidedly non-PC. The opening theme,with its upward-surging horns, is a blatant phallic symbol. Nothing Sylvester Stallone could do would compare to the heroics of Strauss's battle scene. It was both absurd and utterly thrilling and, in the end, very moving.

If Also Sprach Zarathustra wasn't as roundly impressive, that may be because it's even more of a problem piece - an attempt to turn a philosophical idea (Nietzsche's "Superman") into music. Its biggest problem is that its stupendous opening - famous from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - is almost impossible to follow. There were marvellous moments in this performance however: luminous strings in the "consolations of religion" episode, and a thrilling bell effect at the final climax. The two shorter poems also came over very well. Don Juan bust on to the scene with radiant confidence, while in the quiet, minor-key coda, Sawallisch and the Philharmonia showed afresh what an original ending this is - the emptiness of heroism finally exposed.

Both concerts also contained performances of Schumann's Piano Concerto (soloist Peter Donohoe) - a strange piece of planning. Surely there are enough Strauss fans who would want to attend both concerts, for whom two performances of such a well-exposed piece would be more than enough. The first performance wasn't rich in delicacy or fantasy but, in the second, the swinging momentum in the waltz-like finale was impressive - almost Straussian in fact.