Prom 23: Liverpool Triumph

Sinfonia sacra (Symphony No.3)
Die Frau ohne Schatten – Symphonic Fantasia
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Death / Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene

Jane Eaglen (soprano)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Gerard Schwarz

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 6 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gerard Schwarz began his appointment as Music Director of the RLPO just under a year ago. If this, their first Proms appearance together, is anything to go by, then great things are happening in Liverpool. The rapport between conductor and orchestra was obvious; the playing, especially from the strings, as good as anything heard at this year’s Proms so far.

Schwarz has done much to champion the music of Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91) both in the concert hall and recording studio. As Richard Steinitz noted in the programme, Panufnik’s music seems to have suffered from an unofficial ban as far as the British musical establishment is concerned – despite the fact that he lived here for almost forty years. He had a close relationship with the LSO but, that apart, his individual, direct and uncluttered music has rarely seen the light of day, not least at the Proms – three performances in twenty years, this one being the second of Sinfonia sacra. One can only hope that notice will be taken of Schwarz’s strong performance and the enthusiastic reception; I am sure that Mr Schwarz would be pleased to play more.

From the opening ringing fanfares from trumpets placed around the orchestra it was clear that this was a carefully prepared performance. The magical transformation into the slow, very quiet second ’Vision’ was beautifully done, Schwarz expertly shading Panufnik’s very personal harmonic language before the percussion outburst that heralds ’Vision 3’, a demonic scherzo and a test of any orchestra’s rhythmic precision – finely negotiated here. The concluding ’Hymn’ was paced in a way that can only be done by someone with an in-depth knowledge of Panufnik’s compositional approach – the slow organic growth of the magnificent Polish hymn “Bogurodzica” growing to its rich climax combined with the opening fanfares. A magnificent performance and one that I know would have delighted the composer.

The remainder of the evening was an equal success, at least from the playing point of view. When I agreed to review this concert I was so carried away with the prospect of hearing a work by my friend and mentor that I perhaps forgot that I would not wish to put my worst enemy on a desert-island with the rest of the programme! Chunks of Wagner and Strauss are not my idea of a good night. Still – every man must do his duty! If I submitted my desert-island victim to the Prelude and Liebestod, I would certainly not wish on them the additional disadvantage of Jane Eaglen. Her voice is colourless, uninteresting, unfocused, has no real dynamic variety and is certainly not up to the effort of singing this music anymore. That and the fact that pretty much everything in the lower register was under the note made for an unfortunate contrast to some pretty wonderful orchestral playing, especially in the ’Prelude’.

Thankfully things improved a little with the Götterdämmerung excerpts – Eaglen seemed rather more in control but still didn’t bring the music to life in the way that the orchestra and its conductor were intent on doing. Some excellent brass playing here, especially from the four Wagner Tubas.

Better the through-composed Symphonic Fantasia than the complete Strauss opera! In just twenty minutes the fairy-tale, exotic and massive aspects are all present. Schwarz is a noted Straussian and offered a persuasive performance that once again attested to the RLPO’s qualities and its closeness with him – this fascinating partnership’s future looks very bright indeed.

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