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S & H Concert Review

Liszt & Wagner Soloists, Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer. Barbican Hall, January 30th and 31st, 2004 (CC)

 

A curious couple of concerts. First, the original tenor cancelled and Jan Kyhle was called in. Kyhle’s biography includes citations for The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, although it did promise us that he had sung Siegmund with Scottish Opera in 2001. Then, despite the fact the audience was present and correct for a 7.30pm start on Friday, the concert did not get going until 7.40. The way to elongate a concert with an estimated finish time of 9.05pm is not to have the audience sitting around.

The good news. Conductor and orchestra are completely and utterly at home in the music of Franz Liszt, whose music provided the first half of both concerts.

For the twenty-minute first half of Friday’s concert, Liszt’s Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo was given a sensitive performance. The placing of eight double basses at the very back of the platform helped the depth of sound. There was some notable wind playing, and an incredibly expressive cello solo. Above all, Fischer injected to the music a sense of rightness that is not easy to achieve in a work that can at times so easily seem bombastic. The momentum that led to up the climax was achieved by superb unanimity of accents - yet even Fischer could not really save the end.

More Liszt opened the second concert: the Hungarian March No. 1 (arr. Doppler) and the Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust. The Hungarian March was marked by a sequence of amazing cadenzas and flourishes by the cimbalomist Oszkár Okrós. The swagger the orchestra imparted to some of the music brought to mind the ‘authenticity’ of the VPO in Strauss on New Year’s Day, so close was the identification between performers and composer. Alongside that was an infectious humour and lightness.

The episodes from Faust are the Night-time Procession and The Dance at the Village Inn (better known in its solo piano guise as Mephisto Waltz No. 1). The Procession was superb. Chords were balanced perfectly, with the bias towards the lower frequencies. There is one particularly Wagnerian moment along the way and some unsurprising kinship also with Liszt’s own Faust Symphony, except that here the themes did not have time to stretch and develop. The Dance seemed in comparison something of a miscalculation. The opening superimposing of fifths lost the visceral effect of the more monochrome piano, instead having its edges softened. Despite many admirable moments, the tension one feels when ten fingers wrestle with the music was dissipated, leaving an altogether more comfortable, rather than diabolical, experience.

So to the Wagnerian meat. Things seemed not altogether right from the very beginning of Act 1. An off-stage wind machine intended to conjure up the prescribed storm was more of a breeze-machine and Fischer’s tempo was almost laughably swift. And this latter facet of the performance was indicative of what was to come, for throughout Fischer conducted as if he had a bus to catch and nothing and no-one (certainly not a singer) was going to stop him from getting it. The singers, too, started very much as they went on. Kyhle’s first entrance was as narcissistic as they come, concerned with shape but not meaning. Petra Lang from her very first syllable was in a different league. Impetuous, with a warm sound (there is a contralto-ish aspect there) and with excellent diction, all of the emotions came from the voice.

Perhaps the star of this evening was the brass section, who announced Hunding with real emotive power. Alfred Reiter’s Hunding was large of voice and explicitly menacing. This was a very commanding assumption of the role (although he also revealed a tendency to swoop up to notes). In comparison, Siegmund bleated his way through the part, and by Scene 3 the edge to Kyhle’s voice was getting distinctly wearing. By the line ‘der Lenz lacht in der Saal’ there was the impression that his voice was leaving the stage before he did. The climactic repetitions of ‘Nothung’ counted for exactly zero. The list just goes on and on...

At least Lang gave a convincing portrayal of Sieglinde, tender and ardent by turns. Just occasionally she was swamped by the orchestra, but her ability to hit notes straight in the middle, to project each word and to live the part will be the element of that first evening that will long remain with this reviewer.

So to Act Three, Scene Three the next night (from ‘War er so schmählich’, and not the whole act as originally billed). And here Lang was in good company, for it was the great John Tomlinson who took the role of Wotan. Here is a Wotan with real authority and a wealth of experience behind him. His anger at his daughter came through every single syllable, balanced later by the utmost tenderness at ‘Des Augen leuchtendes Paar’ as he prepared to leave Brünnhilde surrounded by flames. His pitching was excellent (particularly at the difficult ‘So küsst er die Gottheit von dir’). Lang’s rich and concentrated sound fitted in well, although her identification with the part of Brünnhilde was less obvious than Tomlinson’s for Wotan and she was less than passionate in her self-defence. Her best moment came when she was decidedly wheedling (‘Du zeugtest ein edles Geschlecht’). At ‘Diess Eine musst du erhören’ she was seven-eighths of the part, and how obvious that missing eighth was when Tomlinson tore into his farewell at ‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’.

Without question, the evening belonged to John Tomlinson. If towards the end of the act there was some evidence of strain in his voice (surprising, perhaps, given the relative brevity of the excerpt), there was never a shadow of a doubt about his supreme interpretative abilities.

Colin Clarke

 

 

 


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