Music review: BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow

Sir Mark Elder’s natural command of Romantic creations was on full display in Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, says Ken Walton

Sir Mark Elder
Sir Mark Elder

BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow ****

If anything confirmed Sir Mark Elder’s natural command of music’s most gargantuan Romantic creations it was Thursday’s performance, with a significantly augmented BBC SSO, of Richard Strauss’ seething, fundamentally autobiographical, tone poem Ein Heldenleben.

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Even more impressive was the veteran Hallé conductor’s wisdom in tempering its wildest and most thunderous extremes to fit the limited acoustical scale of the City Halls, as if to send a message to Strauss himself that the world will tolerate self-indulgence, but only to a critical limit.

That took nothing away from the mastery and voluptuousness of a glorious performance and Strauss’ unquestionable masterpiece. At its most dizzying heights – the delirious, obsessive cacophony of The Hero at Battle – Elder’s visible composure sent a message of caution to his players, harnessing a focused concentration that intensified the quality of sound and emotional impact.

The sweep of colour and sentiment was exhilarating, coursing through the purposeful gait of the opening, the waspish caricature of “the critics”, the ensuing prominence of the solo violin (an enthralling performance by leader Laura Samuel that reflected each vying mood swing), and that swirling battle with its ensuing acceptance and calm. This was a triumph of individual virtuosity and collective vision.

Previously, we had heard two extracts from Wagner’s Parsifal – the opening Prelude and, appropriately for Holy Week, the Good Friday Music from Act III of the opera – and Mozart’s concert aria Ah, lo previdi. In the latter, a fully-absorbed Sophie Bevan (soprano) imbued Mozart’s dramatic setting of Andromeda’s rage and misery with a fiery passion, joined by the weaving eloquence of Stella McCracken’s solo oboe in the closing Cavatina.

It took time for Elder’s Wagner to ripen and intensify, the wholesome religiosity of the Good Friday Music helpfully redressing an opening Prelude uncommonly spooked by faulty woodwind intonation.

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