It was happy coincidence that the Philharmonia had programmed a first half of Richard Strauss for the first of its two concerts with Andris Nelsons at the end of last week. Tod und Verklärung and a group of six orchestral songs made a fitting tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch, the German conductor and peerless Strauss interpreter, who died on February 22 aged 89. Sawallisch made his name internationally in the late 1950s when he recorded Capriccio with the Philharmonia – a version that has never been surpassed. His subsequent visits to London were rare – he last conducted this orchestra in 2000 – but anyone lucky enough to hear his theatre performances in Munich in the 1980s and 1990s will never forget them. Belying his Kapellmeister image, he brought fire and long lines to The Ring, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Cardillac and much else. He conducted Rossini with style – a legacy of his war service south of the Alps – and, as a pianist, proved a fabulous partner in Lieder. Courteous in interview, he was a musician to his fingertips. I revered him.
And so, when Angela Denoke sang “Ruhe, meine Seele”, “Allerseelen” and “Zueignung”, with their autumnal shades and soaring heights, the music took on a special resonance, helped by the poise of soloist and orchestra. As for the tone poem, an apt example of what Sawallisch used to cite as Strauss’s “baroque” orchestration, Nelsons shaped and balanced it immaculately, so that its successive crescendos hit home as they should, without needing extra help.
After the interval came the symphony that, more than any in the repertoire, is in danger of becoming the cliché of classical music – Beethoven’s Fifth. The challenge facing today’s interpreters is to prove the opposite, that this music is as vital and blisteringly fresh as it ever was. It’s not an easy task for a traditional symphony orchestra, for the lean, mean period instrument movement has virtually cornered the market. Nelsons and the Philharmonia made no concessions to period style, yet somehow managed to create an atmosphere of spontaneous combustion, relishing the central movements’ contrapuntal vigour and crowning the finale with élan vital.