Founded with the mission of introducing the widest possible audience to classical music, the BBC Proms long faced a difficult question: how serious is too serious? But with a public that is now, at least apart from its more casual dress, barely distinguishable from that of any other elite London arts institution, there is plenty of room for the heavy earnestness of the late–German Romantic repertoire. This concert of works by Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Anton Bruckner by the splendid Philharmonia Orchestra, itself a revered London institution, offered a fine sampling of their oeuvre under the direction of the esteemed Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
This very German concert opened with the piece most familiar to Proms audiences, Brahms’s Variations of the St. Anthony Chorale, which used to be billed as Variations on a Theme of Haydn due to a longstanding misperception of the original work’s provenance (it is not believed to be Haydn’s work at all and is instead attributed to his star student Ignaz Pleyel). Brahms’s reworking of the original chorale was a novelty at the time of its premiere in 1873. At that time Haydn, his circle, and the Bach pieces on which they had in turn relied were rarely performed. In a world without recorded sound, music students and the tiny interested public were forced to hear the music in their heads as they read aging scores. Nevertheless, the infusion of Brahms’s sweeping Romantic idiom danced so divinely on the bones of the antiquated chorale form and breathed such luster into its academism that its simpler structures proved accessible and even highly popular. After their first appearance at the Proms in 1910, the Variations appeared in almost every festival season until the 1970s, and have been programmed periodically since then. Salonen developed this intriguing work with a discipline that balanced the Brahmsian sweep and the discernible older forms in fair amount.
Brahms’s musical heir, Richard Strauss, adopted his own Romantic idiom for an important part of his oeuvre, the art song. Originally conceived as intimate home entertainment, the German Lied tradition had already begun to morph into a public performance genre that transferred private intimacy into the populated concert halls of middle Europe. Its style and sophistication always had a rarified appeal, and, likely for that reason, the Proms did not include them on any regular basis until the 1980s.
In addition to Strauss’s well-known operas and tone poems, he wrote some two hundred songs, perhaps fifteen of which are still performed with any regularity. For this concert, the young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen took a break from her Bayreuth debut performances as Elisabeth in a new production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser to sing an eclectic selection of four songs by Strauss. He composed the program’s first song, “Ruhe, meine Seele!,” in 1894 as a present for his demanding soprano wife, but neglected to orchestrate it until 1948, the year before his death. Chronologically following the famous “Four Last Songs,” it demands heavy introspection. Davidsen, with her appealing low and middle registers, handled the piece beautifully, in a fine preview of her Wagner role. “Cäcilie” and “Morgen!,” which Strauss composed and orchestrated in the same year (1894), allowed her to show off a dazzling youthful exuberance in exploring how nature interacts with love’s longing. “Heimliche Aufforderung,” from 1929, captured a middle-aged memory of the passions of youth, but seemed a bit out of place between the two previous selections. Regardless of the order, Davidsen’s voice proved well suited to Straussian intimacy. Her encore, however—Elisabeth’s aria “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser—suggested that Wagnerian majesty might be something that she has room to grow into. The soaring heights, which express an ecstatic expectation of the character’s reunion with Tannhäuser, could have used more power.
The second part of the concert was dominated by Bruckner’s lengthy Fourth Symphony, a work that he redundantly named “the Romantic.” Bruckner, who stood at the apex of German musical art as Wagner’s era began to wane, wrote nothing but romantic symphonies, but the Fourth stands out for the coherence of its supposed plot, which may have been invented by the composer to increase the work’s popular appeal. Given his poverty, reception was always a consideration of some importance. Opening with solo horns and glassy tremolandos, the symphony is said to follow the course of a hunt. Its lively first movement proceeds to suggest preparation for the chase, while the somewhat plodding Andante second movement evokes the depths of a Central European forest, with timpani rhythms indicating the hunt party’s intrusion. The symphony’s scherzo brings the hunt itself to life—a mixture of thrills and rushes painted in celestial harmonies that the next generation of composers (especially Strauss) would explore enthusiastically. The hunt narrative fades in the finale, later revised by Bruckner, which ends in an effulgently triumphant major key.
Salonen led the Philharmonia players with utter concentration and a strong technical reading that captured Bruckner’s subtleties as well as his bombast. He even handled an external incident with panache. As the first solo horns delicately sounded, a disputatious young man in the gallery was removed from the hall over his loudly and vulgarly proclaimed resistance. Salonen prudently stopped the music, faced the audience, and asked “Is he gone?” before unflappably returning to conduct the remaining hour and ten minutes of Bruckner’s symphony, erasing all memory of the troubled youth, whose mind might have been set at ease by a symphonic depiction of a glorious hunt in welcoming nature.