CONCERT REVIEW: Schwanewilms saves the day in Strauss

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra/Nikolaj Znaider

Barbican Centre, London, 11 November 2015


Cognitive dissonance is stilled by Nikolai Znaider’s stance at the podium. Erect, authoritative, conducting from memory, he retains just a fraction of bend to the left that might betray the ghost of a chin rest. To begin this Barbican concert he led the London Symphony in an enjoyable thrash through Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. The signal motif of classical music it may be, but the opening of the first movement opening is a conducting minefield. Znaider picked the right path. No inserted rests, a slight accent on the second note to articulate the group, played close to the composer’s metronome mark, letting loose the second phrase with the energy generated from the first, it harnessed the considerable collective might of the LSO at full strength and struck forth with assurance.


Anne Schwanewilms. Photo: Javier de Real

A gauntlet was laid down, and picked up with less success as the symphony went on. The Andante began well in an urgent march tempo and voice leading from strings to winds and back again that hinted at Znaider thinking about the music as though leading a quartet. Before long, however, the pulse slackened off and descended into a generic swing and easy shaping of eight-bar sentences, riding over the movement’s points of harmonic tension in the process. And it was all too loud. A quartet leader’s projected pianissimo in a Beethoven quartet is a different animal from an entire string section playing under their breath.

The likes of Karl Böhm and Sir Colin Davis would have had sharp words to say in rehearsal if the LSO tried to play like this. Instead, Znaider gave the orchestra its head in a blurry Scherzo and lumbering Trio. The finale was an awful din at times, and tuning suffered with everyone playing out. The first really quiet playing of the evening came after the interval to begin a curiously stiff and prosaic account of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Znaider followed the composer’s own business-like tempi but could or would not cultivate in his musicians the tiny tugs of rubato, the hesitancy before the beat and then hurry through it, that give this music expressive necessity and evoke more than the notes.

For the final scene of Capriccio they were joined by Anne Schwanewilms. She was a late replacement for Soile Isokoski. She sang from the score. She wasn’t even in best voice. All the same she conveyed in one phrase more subtlety, more ambiguity and that quintessentially Straussian quality of regret, than the orchestra managed all evening. Broadcast live, the BBC recording discreetly recesses the strings and places her on the pedestal she deserves: work which should have been done by conductor and orchestra. Schwanewilms presented a Countess who could hardly be more different from Renée Fleming in the role. Concerned less with the dubious appeals of her two suitors, poet and musician, than what making the choice will mean to her, she sang herself into a bind of intense loneliness and vulnerability, and the orchestra’s last word was hardly conclusive, even when it arrived with the callous thump of the LSO on the night. Four stars for Schwanewilms, two to the rest.

Listen here to the concert on BBC Radio 3 until 11 December 2015

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