Alessandra the Great
National Gallery of Art
Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture
Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 in e minor, opus 64
Alessandra Marc (soprano)
The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, Kim Allen Kluge (conductor)
Alessandra Marc (© Opera now)
The West Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art is one of Washington’s most splendid concert venues. The Greco-Roman architecture and the marble walls produce and ambience and acoustic that have attracted artists and audiences alike for decades. It has been the home of the National Gallery Orchestra for half a century. This past Sunday evening I witnessed there one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard within my lifetime. The collaboration of soprano Alessandra Marc with Maestro Kim Allen Kluge in the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss was a “once in a lifetime” event. The experience was overwhelming.
Richard Strauss was eighty-four years old when he composed these songs. The first three are by the German poet Hermann Hesse: Frühling (Spring), September and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). The fourth song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), is by Joseph Von Eichendorff. Although the songs deal with death they are infused with an acceptance and peaceful tranquility. Strauss himself would not live to hear the premiere, which was given in London on May 22, 1950 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwängler with the legendary Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. A high and soaring vocal line superimposed above a full orchestra punctuated with prominent horn solos distinguishes the songs.
Alessandra Marc, the world’s preeminent Strauss soprano, is perhaps the greatest dramatic soprano voice of our time. Her recording of Elektra for Deutsche Grammophone won the prestigious Orfée d’Or award for excellence in recording.
Ms. Marc was completely triumphant and transcendent in her delivery of this divine music. Hers is a voice of enormous size, resonance, and freedom. To hear it soar so effortlessly in high piano phrases was breathtaking and hypnotic. Her attention to the details of the text made the poetry come alive in a most tender and moving fashion. She also has the breath control to sustain the extremely long phrases at adagio tempi. The horn solos by Amy Horn could not have been more beautifully played, and Maestro Kluge’s sincere and stylish approach to this music brought the emotional depth of the performance to a level seldom achieved in a live concert. The spell they cast over the audience was an hypnotic experience I will never forget.
Many great sopranos, including lyric voices like Eleanor Steber, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, have sung these songs with great success. It is no exaggeration however to state that Alessandra Marc is the first soprano since Kirsten Flagstad to possess the true voice that Richard Strauss calls for in this music. Ms. Marc has made a specialty of the Four Last Songs and has sung them around the world with such notable maestri as Daniel Barenboim, Christian Thielemann, and her mentor Giuseppe Sinopoli with whom she recorded Elektra. In fact she was summoned to the Deutsche Opera Berlin to sing Im Abendrot as a memorial in Maestro Sinopoli’s honor after he passed away backstage during a performance of Aida given there in 2001.
Maestro Kim Allen Kluge is also an extremely accomplished musician (concert pianist, organist, wind player, composer, and arranger) and one of the finest conductors in the United States. He has been a frequent guest conductor with such noted musical organizations as the Sinfonietta de Paris, the Mannheim Chamber Orchestra, the Boston Pops Orchestra, and the Baltimore Lyric Opera. His work at the helm of the Alexandria Symphony has made the orchestra the pride of the great city of Alexandria, Virginia.
Authority and control over the orchestra distinguish Maestro Kluge’s conducting. His baton technique is impeccable. He has an enormous understanding of a broad range of musical styles, and he possesses the ability to super-charge a performance with “high voltage” emotional output. The Tannhäuser Overture was a model of Wagnerian style and played for all its worth. The presentation of the Tschaikovsky Fifth Symphony was “white hot”. The strings were quite lush, especially against the marble walls of the National Gallery. The winds were appropriately lyrical and the bombast from the brass section was truly unsettling! Once again Amy Horn was poignant and sonorous in her famous solos of the second movement. If Maestro Kluge’s interpretation of the Tschaikovsky was somewhat “over the top”, this was certainly the symphony for that type of approach. The audience was thrilled and called him back to the stage numerous times.
Kim Allen Kluge’s collaboration with Alessandra Marc was what really made this concert special. They have a mutual understanding that creates magic in a concert hall.
I hope they will have a chance to record together in the future and I certainly hope it will not be long before they once again combine forces.