MUSIC / Resting on his laurels: Stephen Johnson listens to Strauss and Stravinsky come together on the South Bank
Friday 01 October 1993
Daphne's final love-transformation is surely one of the silliest things in 20th-century opera. It isn't her metamorphosis into a tree that is the problem - in the right directorial hands that could be a visual treat - it is the jumble of sentiments and images in Joseph Gregor's text. What kind of 'immortal love' does Daphne see herself as symbolising? Have her feelings for 'beloved playmate' Leukippos suddenly blossomed into eroticism, and, if so, why does she talk of saving him 'with my chastity'? Apollo's reasoning as he turns her into a laurel bush, 'to serve like a priest', is a masterpiece of non-consequence; however glorious Strauss's writing, it is still a case of papering over dramatic cracks. Far better to forget the situation, sit back and wallow in the music.
And as music, Monday's performance was glorious. Janice Watson's Daphne combined delicacy and tenderness with rock-solid security and strength. Vinson Cole was a musical and surprisingly human Leukippos. Jadwiga Rappe's Gaea, every inch an earth goddess, was another well-rounded role. With this went magnificent orchestral playing, finely attuned to the demands of this sun-saturated score. Under Davis's enthusiastic direction the immense lines aspired and reposed very naturally, tension never sagged.
Stravinsky's entry in Wednesday's Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was far less auspicious. Septet (1953) isn't the dry exercise it initially appears, but its textures need clarifying and the seven members of the BBCSO failed to do this. After that, Alison Wells's charm-rich The Owl and the Pussycat was the tonic we all needed; it deserved its encore. Perhaps the orchestration in Agon (1948) can sound more luminous, but Davis and the BBCSO brought out the nervy, fidgeting intensity and surges of muscular energy. Unfamiliar as Agon is to the average British concert-goer, it seems to have provided stimuli for quite a few major British composers - there are, for instance, Tippett's trumpet fanfares and pre-echoes of the 'Bransle Gay' in Birtwistle's dislocated puppet-dances.
The Strauss part of the evening (after the interval) felt like a different concert rather than the complementary half of a 'compare and contrast' programme. French oboist Maurice Bourgue brought a very welcome Gallic tang to the Oboe Concerto - superb playing altogether in fact. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski (a last-minute substitute for Gianna Rolandi) was impressive in the Four Last Songs - technically firm, tone clear and pure, magnificent control of long, high-flying phrases - but the piece was a touch cold at heart, and leader Michael Davis's solo in 'Beim schlafengehen' didn't raise the temperature. Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Strauss's Symphonia Domestica on Sunday sounds more galvanising - perhaps that will bring back the Daphne spirit.
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