Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude; ‘Was duftet doch der Flieder’
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act III
Die Walküre – Wotan’s Farewell; Magic Fire Music
Symphony No.6 in A
Sir Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 26 March, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Oxford-born Alexander Soddy’s career has been predominantly in German opera houses – until last year he was music director of the Mannheim Nationaltheater (since 2016) – and he has a particular affinity with German repertoire, as he has proved recently at the Royal Opera House in Wagner and Strauss. This was his Philharmonia debut, replacing the Covid-struck Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Wagner is in Soddy’s blood, and he launched into a thrilling account of the Meistersinger Prelude, brimming with optimism, humour and incisive characterisation. The Philharmonia strings shone in all the contrapuntal dovetailing, delivered with insouciant ease in response to Soddy’s mobile expressive baton, and even the nit-picking Beckmesser was affectionately indulged. It had you begging for the whole opera.
And then we got Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs in a state of transcendental bewilderment in his Act I monologue about the impact Walter’s song has had on him. Terfel can convey Sachs’s wisdom and generous spirit with the merest vocal and completely word-friendly inflection – he wears the role like a glove. His bass-baritone bloom may be a familiar benchmark, but its colours and sudden depths still surprise, as in Wotan’s impassioned farewell to his beloved daughter. When Soddy let the orchestra rip, Terfel had moments of total immersion, but here was the compromised god in all his authority brought to life by a great singer, with Soddy lighting the blue-touch-paper to a luminous Magic Fire Music that brings the curtain down on the sleeping, now-mortal Walküre.
Soddy has also brought Bruckner into his repertoire, here the Sixth Symphony. Perhaps the Majestoso marking for the first movement proposes more a state of mind than a speed limit, but Soddy was positively fleet, three minutes shorter than the average seventeen, rather at the expense of the big tune draped over the pervasive morse-like rhythm. It took a while for focus and perspective to get a hold, but the big structural points – the return to the opening and the wonderful coda – made their points with welcome, elemental weight. Similarly, the Adagio came in at a sleek fifteen minutes, but the heavenly opening oboe solo (Tom Blomfield) and the coda quietly asserted Bruckner’s time-suspending genius. I did wonder why Soddy, with his acute ear for colour and detail, allowed those weird violin pizzicatos in the Scherzo to get buried, but he was masterly in setting up the Finale’s polarities, keeping the tension biting and building to the end. There were one or two uncharacteristic fluffs, but the playing was full of drama, the brass especially lithe. And Bruckner responds well to a bit of theatre.