Brahms & Wagner

Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Tannhäuser – Overture
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Fliedermonolog
Die Walküre – Ride of the Valkyries; Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music

John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Edward Downes

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 29 October, 2004
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

This concert was largely valedictory in character, not because either Ted Downes or John Tomlinson have plans to disappear from the concert platform, but that all the items in the programme seemed either to be, or to deal with, farewells of sorts. Which gave us the secondary theme of the night, the first being the contrast between tradition and innovation, represented respectively by Brahms’s First Symphony and a selection from Wagner’s stage works.

Brahms’s First is a farewell to any lingering self-doubts, as well as both a stepping-out from under the shadow of Beethoven and a continuance of the inheritance of the Viennese School. Downes’s reading was expansive without drawing attention to itself, the rich sonorities and broad tempos of the first movement clarifying Brahms’s architecture and rippling inexorably through the relatively prosaic (though still exquisite – the oboe solo in the Andante sostenuto was particularly fine) inner movements towards a more differentiated and very exciting finale – the climactic brass chorale was an absolute knockout. Throughout, the BBC Philharmonic played with its customary full-bodied warmth and vigour.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture opened the second half of the programme in a performance of vivid sensuousness, strings and brass blending effortlessly despite their conflicting burdens. Its own ‘chorale’ (the famous pilgrims’ chant) and the transitional nature of the opera as a whole (another farewell, this time to traditional compositional procedures) made this a perfect bridge between the Brahms and Wagner’s more iconoclastic works to follow. But to further smooth the way was the “Fliedermonolog” from “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, an opera which deals with, among other things, the competing demands of tradition and innovation. John Tomlinson was most persuasive as Hans Sachs, his rich, earthy bass projecting effortlessly even when expressing the most-tender thoughts. The final section (“Lenzes Gebot”) was sublime, with Downes’s undemonstrative accompaniment lending a quiet dignity to Sachs’s musing and hinting at his renunciation of Eva’s love – another farewell.

The ubiquitous Ride of the Valkyries followed, waking us rudely from Sachs’s reverie and providing the necessary contrast for the final extract, Wotan’s Farewell. This was a very fine performance indeed, as you’d expect from two veteran Wagnerians: the singing was so subtle, the conducting so sympathetic to the vocal line and the way the orchestration colours the meaning of the words, even though the music itself dictated the mood and movement, that Wagner’s alchemy was palpable, leaving us all on a bittersweet high. Thus ended what could easily have been just another ‘lollipops’ concert, were it not for Downes’s ability to lead the BBC Philharmonic with straightforward conviction and honest musicianship, aided on this occasion by the elemental vocal artistry of John Tomlinson.

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