GSMD Colin Davis Wagner Evening

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act One; Elsa’s Dream; Prelude to Act Three
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude und Liebestod
Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funeral Music; Brünnhilde’s Immolation

Susan Bullock (soprano)

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Wagner concerts such as this are rare these days and are most likely to be associated with the Proms of yesteryear. The ever-youthful Sir Colin Davis galvanised the Guildhall students into confident and vital performances, the concert being on behalf of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Fund supporting the provision of Alexander Technique lessons, a means of relating head, neck and back movements, improving stamina and combating nervousness. At the behest of Sir Adrian Boult, Colin Davis received Alexander Technique lessons forty years ago. A fine advert for this method, Sir Colin gave his services for this concert.

As he has proven many times before, Colin Davis has a knack of inspiring young musicians to focussed and spontaneous renditions. Here nothing was forced, the players gladly expressing themselves within Sir Colin’s benevolent conducting in a splendid showcase for the talents of the GSMD’s Symphony Orchestra – 70-plus strings (the 10 double basses in a line across the back of the platform), six harps (as required for Götterdämmerung) and horns a plenty – in some of the most convincing realisations of Wagner’s music heard for quite a while.

Leaving aside the unfortunate extra-musical associations that Wagner has attracted, his music can be presented as bombastic, pompous, egocentric and arrogant. With Davis it was deemed organic and less calculated than can be the case. The radiant Lohengrin prelude found the strings as a transcendent beam of light, and that to Act Three was exuberant rather than trivial. The Tristan prelude was neither heavyweight nor treacly but rather a stream of consciousness (lava-flow would be the better word), flowing and flexible in the way that seems to have been Wagner’s preference. Given Sir Colin is no stranger to ’heavenly lengths’ these days (and wonderfully so) it was intriguing to find him as an non-wallowing Wagnerian, which certainly didn’t prevent Siegfried’s Funeral Music being aflame with eloquence.

Susan Bullock may have been a little too knowing as Elsa (the woodwind introduction seemed indebted to Berlioz, hardly surprising given the conductor), her voice not quite settled, but her (German) word-pointing was rather special in the Liebestod and touchingly human in the Immolation Scene, the text caressed rather than belted out. Anyone who doesn’t shriek Wagner gets my vote.

Enjoyable, absorbing, illuminating … altogether an inspiring evening.

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