One of the advantages for orchestras and opera-houses marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss is that there are plenty of big works to go round. Following in the wake of Wagner’s epic romantic visions, Strauss upped the ante, composing for even more extravagant orchestral forces than his hardly frugal forebear.
For this instalment of its Strauss anniversary programme the Philharmonia Orchestra did not hold back. Lorin Maazel, who returned to the orchestra to celebrate Mahler’s centenary with a cycle of the symphonies in 2011, conducted two of the most lavish of Strauss’s tone poems, Eine Alpensymphonie and Also sprach Zarathustra.
This was a big, brash, heavyweight concert. The most highly regarded Strauss conductors have always tended to be those who underplay orchestral spectacle in favour of giving the music a natural flow and Germanic warmth, like von Karajan and Kempe in the postwar years. Maazel is not one of those, preferring to underline any moment of importance with grandiose over-emphasis and encouraging a lot of hard and brassy playing. The ascent of the mountain in Eine Alpensymphonie was dogged, the view from the top almost blinding, the storm on the way down truly thunderous.
These were also exceedingly slow performances, for much of the time positively laborious. It was only to be expected that Maazel would want the famed opening of Also sprach Zarathustra to be as bombastic as possible (hugely thumping timpani, so different from von Karajan 40 years ago in this hall) and the slowness also meant that the fugue, “Of Science”, limped along and the waltzes in the second half struggled to get off the ground. In the circumstances the Philharmonia Orchestra did well to keep the momentum going and provide some sporadically virtuoso playing.
The concert coincided with two other ongoing celebrations. A live relay formed part of BBC Radio 3’s Live at Southbank Centre all-day programming – there seemed to be almost as many microphones on the platform as there were musicians – and the Royal Festival Hall’s newly refurbished organ, played by Richard Pearce, was also on display. Both the Strauss works feature the organ and it made an impressive noise.