Martinů: Frescoes; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Strauss: Symphonia Domestica

Anne-Sophie Mutter; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder

Royal Festival Hall, 25 January 2009 3.5 stars

Sir Mark Elder (Photo: Laurie Lewis)Sir Mark Elder has long been an advocate of Strauss's Symphonia Domestica, joining a distinguished line of conductors – Karajan was another – willing to acknowledge its considerable musical merits. It remains a work by a composer at the height of his technical powers that is too seldom performed, here it was the undoubted highlight of the programme given by a London Philharmonic Orchestra on often excellent form. 

The first half was devoted to two composers celebrating anniversaries: Martinů (who died in 1959) and Mendelssohn (who died a century earlier).

Martinů's 1955 suite, The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, shows the composer's mastery of colour and orchestration and although the divisi strings at the start of the Andante poco moderato were a little unsure, Elder and the LPO revelled in the challenges of Martinů's evocative score, the massed strings, in particular, managing to find an impressive a depth and richness of sound.

Mendelssohn was represented by his evergreen Violin Concerto in E minor and anyone fearing his early romantic language might be drowned out by the large, twentieth-century scores either side, wasn't counting on Anne-Sophie Mutter's forceful performance. In her hands, this was not the work of the 'gentle genius' nor, to quote Anthony Burton's programme note, one defined by a 'combination of classical grace and Romantic warmth'.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, copyright Deutsche GrammophonMutter, who releases a new recording of the concerto this year and performs it again at the Barbican in May, seemed to set out to persuade us of the work's gravity and significance in a performance that was imperious in its technical command but worryingly over-burdened with expressive and rhetorical tricks. Not only was a strident vibrato employed with wearing insistence – often to the detriment of intonation – but the work's simple melodiousness was undermined by being pushed and pulled inappropriately, and embellished with ill-judged portamenti. The opening Allegro molto appassionato got off to a shaky start and the tempo fluctuations often led to ensemble problems between soloist and orchestra, especially in the breakneck faster passages; the Andante was marred by Mutter's unwillingness to spin a straightforward melodic line; the Finale was pushed too hard, devoid of sparkle and humour.

There was no shortage of humour, though, in Elder's brief introductory speech to the Symphonia Domestica. It's a work that is for many paradigmatic of the discrepancy between form and content, skill and inspiration that makes Strauss such an enigma. It's an attitude that displays a reactionary view of musical aesthetics, based on that Romantic belief of music's transcendent power which reached its apogee in Wagner's operas of redemption. There's no denying Strauss was ill-advised to give away the details of his domestic programme, but critics of the work – including Barbara Tuchman who went so far as suggesting that the boisterous German home-life represented in the score gave a clue as to the origins of the two World Wars – are too quick to emphasise its undeniable excesses at the expense of its technical brilliance and, as Elder pointed out, the genuine emotional warmth at its heart.

The conductor's advocacy extended into a performance that emphasised those very qualities whilst procuring playing from the LPO that was technically polished and committed: the wind were excellent in their varied characterisations, the massed strings lustrous and the brass warm and powerful. The opening themes were all laid out with clarity and humour before being woven into a texture which Elder managed to keep clear, without losing any of the music's power. In the moments of lyricism, as performed here, there was little evidence of the 'hole in the heart' Hans Keller complained of in Strauss. The lullaby – based on Mendelssohn – was beautifully done and the whole central Adagio, including the notorious Liebesszene, was performed with an unapologetic ardour.

While the LPO were on outstanding form throughout, they came into their own in the hugely virtuosic finale, taken at a cracking pace. There were a few split notes from the brass initially but once things settled down the audience were treated to a thrilling ride; few would argue that the movement's false endings are not excessive but here, with the horns in particular rising to the composer's challenges magnificently, it was difficult not to enjoy the sheer exuberance of it all. Symphonia Domestica does not show Strauss at his most judicious or tasteful, but it is a work of a composer exercising his considerable powers with evident joy. With advocacy such as Elder's, there's no doubting the fact that it should be heard more often.

By Hugo Shirley

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