It's a little while since I've been so enthralled and moved in one concert as I was at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. The appeal of the programme had been difficult to resist, with three of Richard Strauss's best-known and best-loved works (Don Juan, The Four Last Songs and Till Eulenspiegel) in one programme. The Mozart symphony we got at the beginning of the second half, the 'Little' G-minor K.183, had seemed a strange choice on paper, particularly in a programme of such un-Mozartian Strauss. And so it proved in practice; efficiently performed, and with no lack of charm in parts, it seemed condemned to remain a little palate-cleanser.
Tim Ashley's review of the concert also picked up on this, and he is right, too, to have found the opening Don Juan touch underwhelming; you really have to hit the ground running with this piece, with every piston and gear of the orchestral machine fully greased up. The Songs and Till were much better. In fact, that's an understatement. I was left a great deal more moved and affected by Melanie Diener's singing than I'd expected. Diener's not a singer I've heard live many times, and my last encounter with her in recordings was in a Fidelio from Zurich on DVD, where she -- like most before her -- was taxed as Leonore. The sound was always gleaming and noble, but intonation could be unreliable. There were a couple of problems with intonation on this occasion, too, hints of which can be heard on this account of 'September' (excuse the naff accompanying picture) with the Tonhalle Zurich and David Zinman, part of their excellent complete-ish set of the orchestral works (a great complement to that other Straussian bargain, Kempe's 9-cd Dresden set on EMI).
But I was unprepared for the wonderful, understated artistry -- a hopelessly airy-fairy term, I know, but the only one that will do -- Diener brought to Thursday's performance. The texts came across with easy clarity, as did the almost unbearable sense of resignation, melancholy, autumnal wisdom (you can take your pick of adjectives from the Lexicon of Lateness) that pervades these great songs. I must have fifteen or so recordings on disc, many of which have greater purely sensual appeal, but it was lovely to be reminded of the emotional force these pieces can have live. It'll be interesting to hear if Renee Fleming, for all the creamy beauty of her voice, will be as moving as Diener when she brings the songs to the RFH later in December -- unfortunately I can't go, but I will be intrigued to hear reports. Nor, can I imagine, will that concert's conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, find the same marvellous balance between sensuality, clarity and momentum Dohnanyi found on Thursday. (Anyone familiar with Fleming's recording with Eschenbach will know that forward momentum was pretty low down the list of priorities on that occasion, as it is in this live 'Im Abendrot' from the Proms).
Finally a few words about this concert's scintillating performance of Till Eulenspiegel -- a work written by Strauss, it's always worth remembering, some 55 years before the Four Last Songs. I'd much admired Dohnanyi's live account of the work with the Philharmonia on Signum (coupled with Ein Heldenleben), and in this riotously enjoyable account everything seemed right. It's easy enough, I'd imagine, to get a quality orchestra to give their all in Strauss's brilliant surface details, but to have it all hold together so naturally as a structure (musicologists have long tussled with Strauss's formal description of the work as 'in Rondeauform') was a measure of Dohnanyi's skill. Great stuff.