Since La Fenice’s reconstruction after a devastating fire in 1996, Venice’s main theater has steadily reclaimed its place as the city’s preeminent musical destination. La Fenice’s house orchestra is so splendid that it is among only a handful of opera ensembles also offering a steady season of symphonic concerts with guest conductors of high international repute. Markus Stenz, who has held a number of impressive posts around the world, was in town on this early summer occasion to lead a pairing of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (“Surprise”) and what is arguably Richard Strauss’s most sophisticated tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40.
The only obvious connection between the works is that they fed the legends of their composers. Haydn, who wrote over a hundred symphonies alongside a prolific output in other forms, was beginning to explore new terrain by the time he got to the ninety-fourth. With the death of his patron Prince Esterhazy in 1790, Haydn’s appointment as the family’s court composer was downgraded to a nominal post, allowing him to travel. At the invitation of his colleague Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn greeted the new year in London, where he was commissioned to present a series of twelve new symphonies. The second installment of these London works was No. 94. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes, it feels more like a diversion compared to the major symphonies of the nineteenth century, but one can already hear the structures and tonalities that eventually defined the genre.
The symphony’s “surprise” element complemented that impression. After the splendid string and brass confections of the first movement (Adagio cantabile and Vivace assai), the second movement, Andante, opens with subtle undulations of the violin. Sixteen measures into this movement, a percussionist blasts a loud, discordant Paukenschlag (drumbeat) which momentarily breaks the mood. At the time, people thought Haydn inserted this unusual intervention to rouse an audience that had just been treated to a sumptuous dinner. Late in life, he denied this to a biographer, claiming instead that he was afraid of his London programs being overshadowed by those of his student Ignaz Pleyel, who was on tour there at the same time, and felt he needed to add some innovation to keep attention on himself. In this, he was successful: the musical press praised the work and its odd interruption. Even Pleyel complimented his old teacher on this ingenuity.
Stenz conducted an exemplary performance in surroundings that were originally designed for music like Haydn’s—La Fenice’s first incarnation opened in 1792, the same year Haydn’s symphony premiered. The conductor’s light touch developed the early ascent to the explosive drumbeat and also eased through the third movement’s up-tempo minuet and the driving music that yields to elegant comedy in the finale, Allegro molto.
As lightheartedly as Stenz approached Haydn, his treatment of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in the program’s second half was the stuff of stormy conflict and transcendent resolution. As its title suggests, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), composed in six movements in the latter half of 1898, depicts the major episodes of a hero’s life. Heavy horn motifs announce the hero and his supreme promise. Cacophonous strings and woodwinds noisily mimic the chattering of his critics before a unifying fanfare silences them. The gushing third movement sketches both the sweetness and the ardor of the hero’s female companion. The horns come back at full strength in the fourth movement to recount the climactic battle in which the hero is tested. A fifth movement scales down the tension as the hero makes peace before the finale paints his graceful goodbye to the world and the completion of a fulfilled existence.
Most observers agree that Strauss, then in his mid-thirties, conceived of himself as the tone poem’s hero. He denied it, but much circumstantial evidence contradicts him. In addition to his mentioning to the French writer Romain Rolland that his life was as interesting as Napoleon’s, his dismissive musical rendering of the hero’s critics touched a nerve in the German musical press. These critics felt so personally slighted that they denounced Strauss as a “lunatic . . . rapidly approaching idiocy.” Strauss also claimed that the hero’s female companion was based on his wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna, leaving one to wonder who the hero was if not Strauss. The score is replete with musical references to Strauss’s seven previous tone poems and to his early opera Guntram (1894), filling the depiction of the hero with elements of Strauss’s creative idiom. Finally, Strauss was in those days a keen devotee of Friedrich Nietzsche and the philosopher’s ideal of the superman, suggesting that Strauss identified his own struggles and challenges with those of a mighty hero.
Regardless, Maestro Stenz led a blisteringly strong performance when the heavy brass was called in to depict the hero and to portray his battle. Stenz just as capably reduced the orchestra to a piano calm to capture the female companion and the late-life moments of renunciation and peace. Roberto Baraldi’s solo violin delicately aided him in this task, capturing the kindness and generosity of spirit underlying the loud, confident strains. The effect on the audience—a mix of tourists and Venetian cognoscenti—was palpable. Although many within the sold-out theater ignored etiquette to applaud after the individual movements of the Haydn symphony, the entire crowd maintained an absolute and reverential silence for Strauss’s tone poem.