Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano, VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: Music of Richard Strauss, Orpheum, January 21, 2017.

Bramwell Tovey has always loved conducting Richard Strauss and, over the years, he has worked through Death and Transfiguration, Don Juan, and Also Sprach Zarathustra with some success. As he approaches the end of his tenure with the VSO, it is understandable that he might gravitate towards Ein Heldenleben, one of the supreme valedictory works.  Indeed, the work has stood as the last recorded testament of a variety of conductors, notably Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir John Barbirolli. Befitting the occasion, this turned out to be Tovey’s finest and most committed Strauss conducting to date: full of feeling, glow and amplitude, a genuine tenderness, and paced with enviable cohesion.  Adding to the somber glow were the composer’s Four Last Songs, lovingly negotiated by acclaimed Canadian soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka.

The Heldenleben took a little while to find its stride: the opening might have been slightly too controlled (even if it achieved a somewhat Reineresque discipline and drive) while the winds of the critics’ protestations might have been pointed with more accuracy. Nonetheless, the entry of the solo violin in the love music – played wonderfully by Acting Concertmaster Nicholas Wright – settled everything down and created exactly the right sentient fabric and expressive flow to move the work forward. Here was deeply-felt music making and the orchestra seemed to pick up the feelings immediately, taking all the music’s undulations to heart with a natural sense of involvement and facility. The strings consistently found fine bloom and lyrical shape, always cultivating the right seamless arc in their phrasing. The winds found their expressive ardour too. The ‘battle’ was not overly dramatic but was executed with fine purpose, and the line of the music was sufficiently well established that even Strauss’ quotations from his earlier works seemed to have a galvanizing role. It was the sense of nobility in the procession (almost Elgarian here) and the tenderness and repose in the hero’s ultimate ‘retreat’ – the final solo violin extremely moving – that made the closing sections so special and, yes, touchingly bittersweet. The feeling was so genuine, and everything moved to the close so naturally. I have rarely witnessed Maestro Tovey more involved.

Adrianne Pieczonka has a marvelous voice, rich, flexible and full of character, and she dug into the Four Last Songs with evident feeling.  Perhaps this was singing of greater weight than sometimes encountered, but the degree of expression and the emotional absorption into the text was beguiling. The orchestral contribution was admirably attentive but, even from the opening ‘Frühling’, it also seemed on the ‘loud’ side, and possibly not expansive enough. I am used to the orchestra providing a particularly ethereal and wondrous underpinning, serene with a sensuous angst underneath, but here everything seemed more in the light of day.  ‘September’ might have used more undulating flow and mystery yet the singing had striking character and firmly cut the orchestral texture when it had to. Nicholas Wright’s poignant violin solo convincingly complemented the enticing vocal expanses of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. The closing ‘Im Abendrot’ again might have fostered a greater orchestral flow and suspension, but Pieczonka was fully involving if less bittersweet than one sometimes encounters.  I enjoyed this traversal, and its small limitations did not diminish the joy of this concert one iota. 

The warm up was the ‘Travel Fever and Waltz Scene’ from Intermezzo – indeed, brazen and energetic enough to get the show rolling. I thought this was one of Maestro Tovey’s most endearing concerts.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017