Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Opinions divide as to what kind of soprano voice best serves Strauss's Four Last Songs, but in one respect there is universal agreement – that voice must have a top-most register with the capability of effortlessly spinning the sound so that, in the words of one famous phrase from Hermann Hesse's "Beim Schlafengehen" ("Going to Sleep"), "the soul unwatched would soar in free flight".

The Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn was feted for the bell-like purity of her sound. The tremulous vibrato of advancing years has now inhibited that sound to the point where it no longer freely opens to, and luxuriates in, those key phrases. In this performance with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra, I was more conscious of the lack of projection in the middle voice and the absence of words than of a voice surrendering to the beauty of these settings. Kringelborn sounded nervous and uneasy.

Words were a blur throughout: there was no "miracle" with the arrival of "Spring" in the first song; summer did not "smile" in the second. In "September", the final image of life's sunny season wearily closing its great eyes should transfix us with wonder. But then, that wonder was not conveyed in the sound either and that was to prove the unkindest flaw of all.

Sir Charles had already reminded us what an octogenarian conductor can do for a 24-year old composer in an account of Strauss's first great success, Don Juan, which shot from the starting blocks at a tremendous lick. It was an urgent and propulsive account, a touch breathless, certainly lacking the final degree of rhetoric that can make the piece soar.

But you do wonder at Mackerras's uncompromising zest and stamina. In Beethoven's Symphony No 3, Eroica, it was another hero, another eventful campaign. Deploying his period manners, brassy period trumpets, and hard-sticked timpani, Sir Charles and a revitalised Philharmonia powered us through. It was fresh, articulate and dynamic; even the funeral march cortege moved at indecent haste. Those unearthly string basses were very much last gasps, with bone-rattling timpani rolls affording us only one brief glimpse of heavenly light high in the violins before a deathly plunge to string basses octaves below. Great stuff.

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