MUSIC: Doing domestic violence: Anthony Payne on the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras in Strauss and Sibelius in London

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The Independent Culture
As Hans Richter remarked after hearing Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica, the cataclysms that close Wagner's Gotterdammerung make not a quarter of the din produced by one Bavarian baby in its bath. Other scenes in Strauss's gargantuan work have elicited similarly ironic comments: the composer's crusty old father told him, 'In the home one simply can't make so much noise.'

But enough has probably been said about these excesses and the self-congratulatory, even voyeuristic, aspects of Strauss's portrait of family life. Ninety years on, we can focus our attention on the purely musical content of what is a vastly intricate symphonic structure.

The problem is that, unlike Ein Heldenleben, Domestica lacks thematic distinction. One does not leave even such a magnificent performance as that given by Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall last Thursday with tunes running in the head. Rather are we exhilarated by the sheer vigour of the invention in general, the unrelenting will to spin notes. Paradoxically, given the excessive emotionalism of Strauss's declared programme, one's feelings are barely engaged; it is the mind that is energised by structure and process, and by Strauss's astonishing skill at manipulating his material.

The fantastic virtuosity displayed by the orchestra, and their clear identification with Strauss's world, only served to illuminate those flaws, as did Mehta's care with texture and his masterful control of Straussian rhetoric, notably in the string of cadential gestures with which the composer very nearly overplays his hand at the close. Earlier, conductor and orchestra had brought a rousing impetus to Wagner's overture Rienzi, and if Schubert's Sixth Symphony was subsequently delivered with little more than routine charm, it still engaged our sympathies.

Three days after experiencing Strauss's extravagant and wanton skills came the chance to hear a masterpiece of diametrically opposed expression at the Barbican Centre: Sibelius's Fourth Symphony. It was a piquant juxtaposition that brought Sibelius's famous bon mot forcibly to mind - that, while other composers made cocktails of various hues, he provided cold spring water.

If Strauss displays an undeniable daring in orchestral invention and contrapuntal management, Sibelius dares an altogether feat, stripping away all inessentials to show us a naked spirit in agonised concentration. The Fourth Symphony achieves a mysterious and elliptical expression which never fails to haunt the mind and heart. Beside its spiritual bravery and its heroic attainment, Strauss's victory, for all the hard work and expertise involved, seems too easily won.

Sir Colin Davis and the LSO presented Sibelius's vision with dedication and understanding, generating sonorities that were granitic, awesome and poignant by turns. Earlier, the haunting Rakastava, for strings and percussion, had been touchingly characterised, but the concert ended with an uneven account of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. The soloist, Radu Lupu, never quite settled to his task and alternated between the boldly imaginative and the impatient.

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