Where to start? Faced with the entire 20th century in music, the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival The Rest is Noise, based on Alex Ross’s book of the same name, could easily become an amorphous mass of events. The obvious place to begin was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which marked the explosive arrival of a new era. But Ross’s book starts with Strauss’s Salome, so Strauss it was.
The main player in the festival is the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and its music director, Vladimir Jurowski, had come up with a long and typically adventurous opening concert – all Strauss, with several rarities, much perfectly detailed orchestral playing (also typical) and one of the soloists quite a scene-stealer.
Courtesy of Stanley Kubrick, the opening sunrise of Also sprach Zarathustra has come to symbolise the dawning of a new century. It made a suitably blazing start to the festival, even in Jurowski’s unsensational reading. Hardly a detail in Strauss’s extravagant orchestration seemed to pass him by, though this grandiose tone poem surely invites everybody to indulge themselves just a bit. Cool-headed as ever, Jurowski is not one to let himself go.
On either side of the interval Karita Mattila and Thomas Hampson joined the orchestra for rarely heard vocal works. The Four Songs, Op.33, are early Strauss, feeling their way into luxurious Romantic textures and occasionally (but not often) finding a tune. With his full, warm baritone, Hampson made as much of his two songs as he could, but Mattila’s singing was too chopped up, and her words were not clear. The longer Notturno, a stand-alone setting of a poem by Richard Dehmel with solo violin, uses its time to build up a potent atmosphere and Hampson was again eloquent in it.
Then on to Salome itself. Jurowski and the LPO set the scene with an outstandingly delicate performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” before Mattila returned for the final scene. Bathed in a lurid, pink spotlight (think Marlene Dietrich meets John the Baptist), she threw herself into the role as a woman possessed, her singing strong at the top, wobbly in the middle, forced at the bottom, everywhere hair-raisingly unbuttoned – a wild start to what is going to be a long musical journey.