Prom 50 – Spirit Survives The Slips

Tannhäuser – Overture and Venusberg Music
Seven Early Songs
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Christine Brewer (soprano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mark Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Coming from the dizzy heights of four of the most spectacular Proms of the season (Saul, the two-part Trojans, and Haitink’s Mahler 6), there was always a danger that the immediately ensuing concert may be diminished by such close proximity.In one sense, with the LPO not playing to the very best of its form, this Prom was already hampered by comparison, but I was not as worried by the instrumental indiscretions as some were.

The fact that the LPO had only at the weekend finished its gruelling summer schedule as resident orchestra at Glyndebourne no doubt explained the absence of a number of principals.Indeed, I didn’t recognise any of the horn players!In the Brahms, particularly, there was a litany of instrumental infelicities.At least the third horn in his first echoing duet with the flute in the first movement was able to prove he could play the passage in the exposition repeat! Yet despite these fluffs, and perhaps a lack of rehearsal that hadn’t allowed Mark Wigglesworth to totally convey his vision of the piece, there was much to enjoy. The wonder is that, apparently, this was the first time Wigglesworth had conducted Brahms’s First Symphony.

Certainly he was not tied to tradition.In the portentous – even fateful – opening, usually taken in a slow, deliberate six beats, Wigglesworth attempted to keep the music moving in two beats per bar, which I have never seen before, but have always thought would be truer to the music. Wigglesworth’s is a propulsive view of the work, which might settle in future, but hopefully not slow to a romantic stodge that others find themselves trapped within. I was caught by surprise at how quick the finale seemed, as we powered towards the final, exhilarating coda. There is no doubt that Wigglesworth has the measure of the piece.

Wigglesworth has a smooth, even balletic conducting style, with seamless phrasing that transmits to the orchestra. He conducted Glyndebourne’s performances of La Bohème and Figaro with the LPO; hopefully this relationship will continue. He is thoughtful, detailed and unfussy in his music-making.

Annoying me earlier was the lumbering invention of Wagner in not only his first but second thoughts of Tannhäuser (the Venusberg Music added some 15 years later). Compared to Berlioz, I find Wagner lacking more and more: a cloying sequence of dense orchestration, which even Wigglesworth’s light touch couldn’t redeem, and a general paucity in melodic material. Those who read my review of The Trojans will know of my growing annoyance with Wagner, and even a short orchestral excerpt from one of the operas (without all the dubious self-penned scenario and libretto) is becoming difficult to take. The extraordinary fact that the overture is the most-played piece at the Proms (with this, 266 performances) is incredible. Perhaps, though, I should take heart that Wagner’s market-share in the Proms repertoire is much less than it formerly was!

The highlight was Christine Brewer, in sumptuous voice, in Berg’s Seven Early Songs. I would have expected nothing less, and here she invested Berg’s seven separate texts (the first four with a nocturnal feel and the last three with a sunnier disposition) with lustrous tone.Berg, in minutes-less than the Wagner excerpts, creates greater musical vistas, more poignant human emotions and a sensuously more-lasting effect. Perhaps Berg scared a larger potential audience off. But these songs are not difficult on the ear – more Mahler than Pierrot Lunaire. Orchestra and conductor revelled in Berg’s miraculous orchestrations.

Perverse as orchestral programming is, the LPO returns to Brahms’s First Symphony with Kurt Masur on 1 October.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 29 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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