Wagner 200 – The Gift – Siegfried Idyll with Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter [Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place]

Siegfried Idyll
Septet in E flat, Op.20

Richard Wagner – Henry Goodman
Cosima Wagner – Dame Harriet Walter

Members of Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon [Wagner]

Barry Millington – Dialogue

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 28 June, 2013
Venue: Hall One, Kings Place, London

Nicholas Collon. Photograph: © Simon WeirHearing the voice of Richard Wagner is a timely reminder that, of all the great composers, he remains one of the least likeable. In this bicentenary year, we’ll have many opportunities to consider the music, rather than the man, but Barry Millington’s imagined dialogue between Wagner and second wife Cosima allowed us to compare both. Millington (a prolific writer on the composer and a leading light of Wagner 200) laid out the context of one of the great musical gifts – the Idyll that Wagner composed for his wife, based on material from his recently completed opera, Siegfried (part three of The Ring). It also let us peer into the relationship of one of music-history’s more dubious power couples.

The occasion of the Siegfried Idyll’s first performance has gone down in legend: on Christmas Day 1870, Cosima awoke to the sound of fifteen musicians, arranged on the staircase outside her room, performing the piece. Millington’s text leads up to this happy moment with an account of the couple’s meeting and marriage, including the famous cuckolding of Cosima’s husband, Hans von Bülow. Millington’s Cosima expresses remorse and unworthiness in the face of her infidelity and later marriage to the great genius Wagner; Millington’s Wagner sees the relationship as just reward for his towering accomplishments.

Henry Goodman captured the dangerous mixture of charm and megalomania bound up in Wagner’s character. If Wagner was indeed as suave and imposing as Goodman portrayed him, the attraction that he exerted over his admirers would certainly be understandable. Goodman hinted at his character’s demanding and selfish traits, though, leaving little doubt at the man’s egotistical centre. Harriet Walter’s Cosima was convincingly overawed by her husband’s greatness and pitifully convinced of her own inadequacy. Millington’s text was at its best when probing his characters’ frailties. It is, perhaps, rather long though and too reliant on anachronistic colloquialisms, but the dialogue framed the music effectively and brought its protagonists convincingly to life.

The pieces flowed naturally from the spoken drama. Thirteen musicians of the Aurora Orchestra (as is now customary, two fewer than graced the original performance) gave a refined and relatively restrained rendition of Siegfried Idyll, under the direction of Nicholas Collon. In holding back from overt romanticism for the most part, the ensemble made a greater point of the rapturous central climax. Beethoven’s early Septet had also featured on that Christmas Day in 1870; Goodman’s Wagner professed his admiration for it, and its unusual instrumentation revealed the incisiveness of Beethoven’s musical imagination. The masterstroke is the inclusion of the double bass, adding weight and depth to a piece predominantly sunny in character. Its six movements do seem to cram every musical form yet conceived into the work’s span, but the finale brilliantly contrasts solemnity and irreverent energy, without negating the value of either. The delicate phrasing of clarinettist Timothy Orpen was just one of many highlights of this beautifully proportioned performance.

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