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PROMS 2002

PROM 23: Panufnik, Sinfonia sacra; Wagner, Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Liebestod; Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten - symphonic fantasia; Wagner, Götterdämmerung – excerpts, Jane Eaglen (sop), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conductor, RAH, 6th August 2002 (AR)


Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) sketched-out his Sinfonia sacra in 1961 and completed it in 1963. Composed in England and Spain, Panufnik stated that his symphony was an expression of his: "religious and patriotic feelings...I wanted this composition to be very much Polish in character and also to emphasise the Catholic tradition so deeply rooted in the country of my birth." This symphony far exceeds the composer’s stated intentions, having a universality which transcends narrow religious and national boundaries.

The thirty minute symphony is in two parts, Vision and Hymn. Vision 1 - Maestoso -opened with a haunting fanfare of four trumpets which recalled Janacek‚s Sinfonietta. The very well-rehearsed Royal Liverpool Philharmonic trumpeters played standing and spaced far apart, resulting in a poignancy which transfixed the audience.

By contrast Vision 2 - Larghetto - is scored for strings only. The RLPO strings played with precision and nervous tension, resulting in a razor sharp sound evoking both anxiety and melancholia. Vision 3 - Allegro assai - opens with drums and percussion and the RLPO percussionists had a field day, filling the hall with martial sounds, until the din of war is suddenly silenced by the soft strings of the Hymn - Andante sostenuto. The orchestral textures and colours of Hymn are richer and warmer than the Visions of part one, but the mood remains forlorn until the entry of the full brass which lifts the music into a more optimistic mood, culminating in a jubilant celebration, reprising the martial fanfares of Vision 1. Gerard Schwarz conducted the score with total commitment and profound sensitivity, producing miraculous sounds from this first rate orchestra. Sinfonia sacra is a work of inspired genius and Panufnik is an underrated and still much neglected composer. The audience received the symphony warmly and were clearly moved by this rarely performed work.

From the sacred to the sensual, Schwarz turned to Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The Prelude was well played and well paced with some exquisitely phrased and pointed woodwind playing. However, Jane Eaglen, in a performance which was received politely rather than enthusiastically, was a cold and colourless Isolde, totally lacking in sensuality; she left me totally unmoved. There was none of the lightness of touch and lyricism that Rita Gorr and Regine Crespin brought to the role.

This was the first Prom performance of Richard Strauss’s rarely played Symphonic Fantasia from his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. Later in his life when Strauss was living in post-war exile in Switzerland, he produced this twenty-minute Reader’s Digest concert version to counter the opera’s flagging popularity. However, today, the opera is given more frequently than the orchestral highlights version. Again, the RLPO played with great gusto, especially the trombones and horns.

The evening ended with Siegfried’s Death and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. Schwarz conducted Siegfried’s Death music far too fast, resulting in a lack of tension and a loss of drama; the percussion and timpani lacked bite. Eaglen was in better form for the Immolation Scene, her singing was controlled and incisive, slicing through Wagner’s dense orchestral textures. However, this big voice is largely hollow, lacking in weight, colour and style. It is also curiously unbeautiful, lacking the finesse of a Kirsten Flagstad. Normally the singer in Wagner has to fight to be heard above the orchestra; in the case of Ms. Eaglen it was quite the reverse and one’s sympathies were with the orchestra. Although Eaglen’s performance apparently overwhelmed both the audience and orchestra, rousing them to rapturous applause, I found myself scarcely whelmed at all. It was the wonderful Scouse RLPO which was the real voice of the evening.

Alex Russell

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