It comes as no surprise that Richard Strauss’s tone poems continue to be popular with major symphony orchestras around the world; they are excellent vehicles for displaying an orchestra’s capabilities. For “Death and Desire”, an augmented Melbourne Symphony Orchestra successfully met the virtuosic demands of two of Strauss’s early tone poems: Don Juan (1888) and Tod und Verkärung (Death and Transfiguration) (1889) – works that trace the events and emotional trajectories of two lives and deaths.
The licentious character of Don Juan is notorious, and the work begins with an appropriately ebullient outburst of full-throated orchestral energy, the brass heraldic, strings sweeping and winds animated. The dramatisation of the Don’s life gives ample opportunity for all sections of the orchestra and several soloists to shine. There is never a dull moment as the music surges between mighty orchestral crescendos and quieter, sometimes ominous, moments until the dramatically abrupt depiction of his death. Although from my position in the Circle Concertmaster Sophie Rowell’s violin solos sounded sweet but faint, passages featuring the horn, oboe and Prudence Davis’s flute were very well projected. The identity of the oboe player, who played a very prominent role in the Strauss items, was a mystery since he was not listed in the inadequate and misleading program – one that many were unable to download at the venue anyway.
Unlike Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung begins very quietly, with strings pulsing as a beating heart beneath harp and the pure notes of a flute. Again, we heard some impressive solo playing by various members of the orchestra, particularly by the solo trumpet. In addition to the thrill of the tremendous crescendos, with all five horns in glorious cry, Strauss provides arresting orchestral effects such as the doom strokes of imminent death. Conductor Fabian Gabel carefully guided the orchestra through the dying man’s life and his “transfiguration” in a passionate, colourful account.
Concert programs are usually constructed so that a concerto appears before interval. In this case, the necessity for much larger orchestral forces for the tone poems resulted in the concert ending with Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. And what an ending it was – with enthusiastic applause, cheering and many leaping to their feet to give Daniel Müller-Schott’s performance a standing ovation. Of the relatively small number of cello concertos that are performed regularly, Dvořák’s would probably be at the top of the list. It is wonderfully tuneful and imbued with passion and a sense of nostalgia that speaks to the heart. It is also one of those pieces that music lovers often feel compelled to listen to obsessively, having a favourite interpretation. Müller-Schott’s interpretation had individuality but was immensely appealing and never jarred. Apart from the fact that this renowned cellist is technically a master of his instrument, his whole demeanour drew in the audience, making us listen more attentively. Even during the extended orchestral introduction his involvement was apparent. There was nothing mannered or contrived in this – just concentrated absorption as he readied himself for the high tensile vigour of the cello’s opening bars. His constant forward momentum and architectural shaping of phrases were part of his deep connection with the music. This sense of connection was especially apparent in the pleasure he showed when playing the little violin and cello duet with a splendid Sophie Rowell in the third movement – a moment of shared delight between the two and with the audience. It is not uncommon for an audience to clap at the end of a first movement of a concerto, but it was the second movement instead that had people clapping and somebody shouting “Bravo!” Doubtless the passages of unaccompanied or sparsely accompanied passages, where Müller-Schott’s assured dexterity, caressing tone and musicality became the focus, were major factors in the irrepressible excitement generated.
Having both heard this concerto countless times, my companion and I were struck by the new things we found in the work to admire, including the way Dvořák used various combinations of instruments, such as the wind quintet played so beautifully by the MSO musicians in the second movement. For both of us, it was a surprisingly rich and rewarding journey of discovery, and confirmed the importance of live music. There is nothing like sharing the experience of music played by a fine orchestra and a compelling soloist in situ.
A further opportunity to appreciate Daniel Müller-Schott’s artistry was recorded by the MSO the day before this concert. His master class with three talented cellists from the Australian National Academy of Music is now available on YouTube. It is well worth watching as it provides an insight into his approach to music in addition to displaying the talents of our budding professional musicians.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Death and Desire”, performed by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on June 25, 2022.