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S & H Concert Review

Wagner: Lohengrin, Tristan & Isolde, Götterdämmerung, Susan Bullock (sop), Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Barbican 31st October 2003 (MB)


All-Wagner concerts are a rarity nowadays, and in retrospect this one might not have been the ideal vehicle to showcase the talents of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. Wagner – especially the chunks we had here – needs first class ensemble playing and that, regrettably, was too often not the case in this concert. Wagner’s writing remains formidably taxing and I have heard many great orchestras have difficulties with it; for a student orchestra it must be doubly so.

The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin exposed problems of dynamic range – and lacked mystery, even the ‘mistiness’ the score calls for – and the Prelude to Act I of Tristan & Isolde displayed not just problems of intonation in the ‘cellos but meagre string tone, which given the sheer size of the string section on stage was a surprise. Götterdämmerung excerpts proved too often to be a struggle for the brass, especially some austere sounding trombones, although horns acquitted themselves well. Yet, this is a student orchestra and allowances for the playing need to be made (but it would be remiss of any critic not to comment on the flaws as well as the triumphs).

There was no doubting the passion of the playing or the commitment of the players, almost in spite of their conductor (the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin really was rather dashingly done). Sir Colin Davis has recorded relatively little Wagner (a complete Lohengrin, Wesendonk- Lieder and the Prelude and Transfiguration to Tristan) so it would be very difficult to call him a natural Wagnerian – and he isn’t. Too often that single line of thought that separates the great Wagner conductors from the not so great wasn’t there. This was Wagner in fits and starts (though he should be commended for giving us the full bar’s rest after the first ‘cello melody of the Tristan, even if the second was curtailed too early, and for ensuring that the central section remained near to Wagner’s tempi). Yet it was a disappointment not to hear that soaring ‘cello line rise so powerfully as it should nor to hear the bass line before the climax emerge from beneath the rest of the orchestra. The Liebestod, sung by Susan Bullock, a triumphant Isolde at ENO and Opera North, added the only element of greatness to the performance (though I still find her voice too sharp in the upper register and it can have an edge to it that could cut glass at times). It was also a little unfortunate that Davis allowed her voice (powerful though it is) to be drowned out by the brass. But she floats her top notes without the slightest ripple to disturb the pace.

There were no such problems in her singing of Elsa’s Dream. Here the creamy contours of her voice emerged with subdued power. Impeccable German, delivered with the kind of cathartic phrasing so rarely heard today, gives the impression of singer ready for the role. Most impressive of all – in both vocal and playing terms – was an incandescent performance of the Immmolation Scene that produced rapturous singing and phrasing, this time effortlessly riding above the ominously loud orchestra. Where there may be problems of warmth with her Isolde there are no such problems with her Brünnhilde, which is iron-like in its wilfulness and resolve (indeed, I would hazard a guess that within the next two years she will be the reigning Brünnhilde on the great opera stages). A formidable intellect lies behind her singing of this role, and like Nilsson before her she has enormous range, effortlessly driven, with plenty of power in reserve. Dynamically she meets every demand Wagner piles on the singer and every top C she sang was nailed with absolute precision. Both Davis and the orchestra were at their best for her, the undoubted highlight of the evening.

If neither Siegfried’s Rhine Journey nor his Funeral Music quite equalled the passion given to the Immolation Scene both had their moments. The Funeral Music was ultimately underpowered, even allowing for the relative broadness of Davis’ tempo, and problems of orchestral clarity again emerged with the sheathing of the six harps under a torrent of over zealous playing elsewhere. Yet an orchestra is only as good as its conductor and Davis’ failure to give this music the granitic weight it requires only accentuated problems with the musical line. Asahina, so radiantly powerful in this music in his own Indian Summer, leaves most conductors today trailing in the wake of an after-quake. Davis, I’m afraid, only rumbled occasionally.

A mixed concert then, memorable largely for some rather special singing.

Marc Bridle



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