Tannhäuser – Overture
Symphony No.6 in A
Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 4 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Bruckner’s underestimated Sixth Symphony was given a performance that emphasised the classicism of the first movement, Christoph Eschenbach pushing the music along just slightly too much but without sacrificing the ‘agony and ecstasy’ that is omnipresent in this composer’s output. The LPO strings (violins ideally disposed antiphonally, with double basses on the left) were wonderfully warm and deep-sounding throughout the performance.
A shame, then, about the too loud, edgy-sounding brass-playing (a constant complaint these days, irrespective of the orchestra); here, with four each of trumpets and trombones (Bruckner asks for three each of instruments that in his day would not have had the volume capacity of their modern counterparts), the ears were assaulted; and while one appreciates that the load can be shared when a ‘bumper’ player is employed, when all eight consorted (as they did here quite regularly) the effect was horribly stinging and also distorting of good balance (an unexpected lapse from the discriminating Eschenbach). Quite seriously, one worries for the hearing of those musicians sitting in close proximity to such an unnecessary and avoidable onslaught, the pity being that this was a really fine performance. Eschenbach pushed the scherzo along a little too much, but the playing had the poise to bring it off, and the finale was far too sectional – plenty of lovely moments that didn’t really add up – but the sublime Adagio (as wonderful as anything Bruckner composed) was given an eloquent and spacious account, hypnotically slow, and sacred in effect.
The golden-toned brass timbres that would have been welcome in the Bruckner had been more in evidence in the Overture to “Tannhäuser”, given a noble account with an abundance of tension, full of fire and contrasting exquisiteness.
In between was a priceless rendition of “Wesendonck-Lieder”, Wagner’s musical testimony to his (illicit) love for Mathilde (the first four settings orchestrated by Felix Mottl, the last by the composer – there is also a version scored by Hans Werner Henze), Petra Lang outstanding in balancing operatic declamation and Lieder intimacy, her care for Mathilde’s poems exemplary, her identification with the music palpable, the music smouldering, agitated, wondering and melting (not least “when eye drinks blissfully from eye”), the anticipations of “Tristan und Isolde” explicit but integrated. Throughout, Eschenbach and the LPO were model partners, the whole an exceptional experience.