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.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot