Sarah Bryan Miller
The last time Christine Brewer sang Richard Strauss' "Vier letze Lieder (Four Last Songs)" with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, it was January of 2003 and the conductor was the bombastic, unsubtle Michael Stern. Brewer's artistry and the orchestra's abilities still shone through, no thanks to Stern, leaving listeners a sense of wistfulness for how much more it might have been.
It took almost exactly nine years, but this weekend at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louisans finally got another chance to hear Brewer with her hometown orchestra in repertoire that she does better than any other soprano now singing. This time the conductor was music director David Robertson. On Friday night, the partnership was clearly worth the wait, and a reminder of just how irreplaceable is the live performance experience.
Robertson's pairing of Strauss' final masterpiece with George Crumb's 1984 "A Haunted Landscape" was at first glance puzzling. It proved inspired. If "Four Last Songs" reflects a peaceful acceptance of life's end, "Landscape" sounds like a struggle with Death personified, experienced from within.
It begins with rough low notes on the piano, then progresses to drones, Stravinskian moments in the brass, tons of percussion and seemingly random squeaks. Moments of lyrical stillness don't last long in this constantly shifting musical landscape, which closes in a sense of uncertainty.
Visually, it was almost as interesting it was musically, with Peter Henderson striking the strings of a lidless, defenseless grand piano with mallets and his bare hands. Principal percussion William James was in perpetual motion on Henderson's left, producing a seemingly infinite variety of sticks, mallets and bows to play everything from a hammered dulcimer to a bass drum, assorted members of the marimba family and more.
After that deathly combat, Robertson followed with the beautiful resignation of the Strauss, written in 1948 when the composer was 84. Filled with achingly lovely harmonies in the most rapturous Romanticism, the poetry and music of the cycle move from youthful memories to intimations of mortality, acceptance and, finally, resolution.
Brewer was in outstanding voice on Friday night, floating her high passages effortlessly with clarity and a sound like molten gold. With that devastating vocal beauty came a powerful stage presence; Brewer exuded a sense of peace to match the music.
Concertmaster David Halen partnered Brewer with matching beauty and expressivity in their duet passages. Robertson and the orchestra were in splendid form, for an eminently cherishable artistic whole.
The audience responded wholeheartedly. After multiple bows, Brewer closed the second half with the ideal encore, one bearing the hope of resurrection and rejoicing: Strauss' song "Morgen (Tomorrow):" "And tomorrow the sun will shine again, and on the way... we, the happy ones, will again unite..."
The concert began with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor. It was given a nicely balanced, spirited reading, albeit with a few messy moments; it paled beside the marvels of the second half.
Reviewer: Sarah Bryan Miller
Review Date: January 14th, 2012
Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra