Tannhäuser – Overture and Venusberg Music
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Götterdämmerung [selections: Dawn and Sunrise – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey – Siegfried’s Funeral Music – Brünnhilde’s Immolation]
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 December, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Wagner programmes, ‘bleeding chunks’ and otherwise, have become a rarity at the present time – so depriving audiences of some of the most audacious and impressive orchestral music from the mid- Romantic era. Having given fine accounts of “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg” in recent years, Sir Charles Mackerras is self-evidently a Wagnerian of stature and this concert played to his strengths in this repertoire, besides giving a plausible overview of Wagner’s evolution in largely orchestral terms.
The “Tannhäuser” music set off at a relatively impulsive pace (no undue solemnity in this pilgrimage), though the ensuing evocation of Venus’s domain had all the requisite lightness and sense of fantasy – with Mackerras bringing trenchancy to the hero’s own theme then generating real momentum in the bacchanal. Orchestral ensemble was not beyond reproach (a reminder of how this music must have defeated the unsuspecting musicians at its Paris premiere almost 150 years ago), but the lengthy postlude (woodwind here taking the place of the wordless voices) had a suitably blissful ambience.
Following this with music from “Tristan und Isolde” had the effect of one’s hearing Wagner’s harmonic innovations, as it were, from the wrong side of the lens. Yet the impact of the ‘Prelude’ was hardly less because of it, not least when its cumulative intensity and final ebbing into nothingness were so powerfully conveyed. The ‘Liebestod’ brought Christine Brewer into the limelight: a Wagner exponent to reckon with, her voice seems to be taking on a distinctly mezzo timbre – aspects of the tessitura now being approached a little more circumspectly. Yet the burnished eloquence of her rendition remains, not least when the performance was guided by Mackerras through to a conclusion of radiant calm.
Even better was to come, however, with the second half. Familiar in themselves, the excerpts from “Götterdämmerung” take on an almost symphonic cohesion when linked as here. Thus the full-length ‘Dawn and Sunrise’ (not the truncated version as prepared by Humperdinck), majestically rendered, led into an alternately surging and incisive ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ – itself taking on an ominous import before the orchestral music underpinning Siegfried’s stricken final monologue was heard as an entrée into ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’. Probing but not portentous, with a climax which urgency prevented from being overbearing, it made way for ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation’ – shot-through with a martial impetus that fairly exploded in the closing pages. Brewer was at her best, endowing the music with a mingled anger and regret, while Mackerras ensured that the orchestral aftermath had a sense of apotheosis hardly less than had the whole opera been given.
Any doubts as to the Philharmonia Orchestra’s prowess in this music were themselves swept away after the interval – the power and precision of the playing a reminder of one of the finest recorded surveys of Wagner ‘excerpts’ under Otto Klemperer. More the pity that there seemed to have been no provision to record this concert for commercial release (ostensibly as part of the ongoing Philharmonia series on the Signum label): at around 80 minutes, it would just have fitted on a single disc and served as testament to the orchestra’s fine music-making with its Principal Guest Conductor.