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Wagner ohne Worte. Leider.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on October 1, 2012 at 7:28 am

Overture to Tannhäuser; Wesendonck Lieder; Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March & Immolation Scene (Götterdämmerung). Bridgewater Hall, Saturday 29 September 2012.

Brigitte Hahn (Soprano)
BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena (Conductor)

I was at Bridgewater Hall last year when Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic bravely opened their 2011/2012 Season with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. It was a gamble but it paid off superbly. The high quality of the music making and the intelligence of Mena’s interpretation made for an incredibly memorable evening.

This year, Mena and his orchestra gambled on an all Wagner concert. I cannot say whether this was a deliberate – yet smaller scale – foil to Covent Garden’s current Ring cycle, but as far as taking another gamble, it paid off. For the most part.

The concert opened with the overture from Tannhäuser and from the opening notes of the chorale it was clear that the BBC Philharmonic was on fantastic form. It wasn’t just the warmth and sonority of the playing but the way that each and every note was so precisely – almost reverently – placed without interrupting the seamless legato required for that opening section. And similarly the string figurations were beautifully articulated and a keen attention to rhythmic detail was evident throughout. And it was evident that Mena – as he had demonstrated a year ago in the Mahler – had a firm grasp of the broader architecture of the overture – not only in terms of the ensuing allegro section but in the nothing less than majestic return of the chorale in the closing bars. The playing from the brass section was superlative – both bold and bright; there was a pleasant earthy hue to the wind playing and strings were wonderfully burnished. And throughout Mena drew the widest dynamic contrasts from the players but – as in the Mahler – ensured there was sufficient added volume at the end.

Similarly the orchestral excerpts from The Ring continued the highest standard of music making from the first half. I am not always a fan of ‘bleeding chunks’ extracted from the Ring – or other large scale pieces come to that – but here Mena managed a continuous flow from Dawn to Funeral March and coaxed some incredible playing from the orchestra. The brass were, for example, suitably percussive in the Funeral March and the strings produced the depth of tone and vibrancy required particularly in the closing bars.

But while orchestrally the evening was nothing less than superb, I was not totally convinced by Mena’s handling of the vocal parts of the concert. Neither the evening’s Wesendonck Lieder or Immolation scene with Brigitte Hahn were as polished or created the same excitement

Don’t get me wrong, Brigitte Hahn possesses a lovely voice – both bright and clear with a firm even tone throughout bar potentially a few problems at the very bottom of her range. I say potentially as this was more evident in the Wesendonck Lieder and may in part be attributed to Mena’s approach to the songs themselves. And it is fair to say that Ms Hahn was clearly saving herself for the second half of the concert.

But for me in the Wesendonck Lieder there was almost a lack of the ‘Romantic’ in Mena’s interpretation. While the playing of the BBC Philharmonic was for the most part beautifully poised – although pace at times the flute did sound over exposed – under Mena’s baton it seemed almost distant and remote. Additionally at times Mena’s tempi were just a hair-breadth rushed. The opening song for example seemed ever so fractionally hurried which I think was the root cause of Hahn’s wobbly start.

Similarly Brunnhilde’s Immolation scene, while overall a solid performance, it did leave me wanting perhaps a greater sense of shade and colour. It is clearly a role that Hahn knows well and for the most part she acquitted herself with aplomb and delivered a conscientious performance. I would imagine that when singing the role in its totality – giving her an opportunity to develop and progress not only her characterisation but also the light and darkness needed vocally – she is formidable. But there were more than a few moments when I felt that Mena could have given her a little more time and – if truth be told – pulled back on the orchestra a little more. It’s inevitable in a concert performance of this scene that any soprano will run the risk of being drowned out but at times it did seem that Mena’s neglect overwhelmed Hahn. A shame as ultimately it made for a performance that was flawed – however small that flaw was.

These parts of the concert did make me think back the the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder with Anne Schwanewilms at the Proms. At the time I remarked that I didn’t think that Mena and the orchestra were particularly supportive but I am hoping that it is just an unhappy coincidence rather than something that needs to be addressed.

But as I said the combination of the BBC Philharmonic at the top of its game and a soprano wit a gleaming and rich soprano overall meant that this was an opening concert of the standard for which the BBC Philharmonic is known.

The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on October 7 and in spite of the few distractions I will definitely listen to it again. As I said the BBC Philharmonic were simply glorious.

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  1. […] only bled of the lush romanticism normally associated with the cycle as most recently heard under Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, but of the very air that surrounds the songs […]

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