Classical: Ideas, ideals and ideologies

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The Independent Culture


IDEOLOGIES OF one sort or another dominated last Monday night's all-Richard Strauss Barbican concert by John Boyden's New Queen's Hall Orchestra, under Wyn Morris. First, there was the Orchestra's nut-brown texture, facilitated by gut - or "wire-wound gut" - strings and turn-of- the-century brass and woodwind instruments. The general idea, as has often been stated, is to present a palatable - and authentic - alternative to the louder, harsher and less flexible profile paraded by most modern- instrument orchestras. The choice of Wyn Morris as Principal Conductor seems to me ideal, given Morris's obvious sympathy for interpretative "times past" and his penchant for broadly paced though inwardly emotive musical statements. In Death and Transfiguration, Morris coaxed some glowing string lines for the closing transfiguration section, though I would have welcomed even more of the portamento (expressive sliding from one note to the next) that has on other occasions proved such an attractive aspect of the Orchestra's playing style. Earlier on in the piece, Morris's obvious good intentions were thwarted by imprecise orchestral execution, suspect wind tuning and a frumpish orchestral profile that suggests a fairly urgent need for extra rehearsal time.

The finest orchestral items featured soprano Claire Rutter (replacing Margaret Price) in four songs Op 27 and the celebrated Four Last Songs of 1948. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more haunting account of the post-Wagnerian orchestral preface to Ruhe, meine Seele. Morgen enjoyed some delicious solo violin work from concert-master Robert Gibbs and a trance-like projection of the text from Rutter, especially the line "Mute, we shall look into each other's eyes," while the ethereally trilling winds that hover around the closing pages of "Im Abendrot" brought the concert to an atmospheric close.

The other "ideological" slant concerned the longest piece in the programme, Strauss's elegiac Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. Earlier in the evening, in a controversial but fascinating pre-concert lecture, Matthew Boyden (John's son) conjectured how this most profound of Strauss's works might be seen, in some respects, as a memorial to the doomed Fuhrer. Boyden's claims that Strauss was pro-National Socialist, and that his "collaboration" was prompted more by ideology than material interest, will not have pleased everyone. Morris directed an intensely voiced reading of the score, and while certain inner parts were ill-defined, much of the solo playing was extraordinarily expressive. The orchestral layout had violins to the left, violas centre-stage and cellos and basses on the right, and the plan worked well. Metamorphosen can, on occasion, sound like an extended whinge, but here its contrapuntal workings and contemplative mood were effectively realised. The concert had opened with the adorable Capriccio sextet that also opens Strauss's last opera, and that too confirmed the musical good sense of Boyden's worthy enterprise - though, when it comes to full orchestral execution, an extra spot of cleaning and tightening would not come amiss.