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Brahms & Wagner, John Tomlinson (bass), BBC Philharmonic, Sir Edward Downes, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Friday October 29th 2004 (RJF)

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897).
Symphony No. 1.
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883).
Tannhäuser, Overture.
Die Meistersinger, Fliedermonolog.
Die Walkure, Ride of the Valkyries. Wotans Farewell and Magic Fire Music


The juxtaposition of Brahms and Wagner in a concert programme might at first sight seem strange. If not having mutual antipathy there was a certain wariness between them. Wagner had pronounced the symphony dead after Beethoven’s ninth whilst Brahms saw himself as the successor of that symphonic tradition. Wagner’s one symphony, in C major, was not a success, and recognising his limitations he lost the score and moved on to opera. Brahms on the other hand mastered every form of composition except opera. Despite seeking, but never finding, a suitable libretto, Brahms did consider setting Norma before accepting that Bellini had done it better than he ever could.

In an informal and informative preview, Professor John Deathridge of the University of London, and a renowned Wagner scholar, suggested a key link between the two composers was the year 1876. In August that year Wagner presented the long heralded first complete Ring at Bayreuth. Did this stimulate Brahms to complete his first symphony that had been 14 years in gestation? Certainly there are indications of haste in the short and rather shallow third movement. The symphony as a whole re-enforces Brahms reputation as a conservative. It is somewhat academically architectural in structure and lacking in significant melodic invention. What the work does not need is spacious conducting, particularly of the outer movements. Sir Edward Downes, returning to the orchestra where he was a distinguished and fondly remembered Principal Conductor, from 1980-1991, was never likely to go down that path. Conducting without a score, his reading was taut and yet dynamic. Whilst maintaining a vigorous beat his left hand was used sparingly. His control of the first movement was masterly and the orchestra responded with playing of the highest quality. The flute chords of the opening and succeeding wind duets were particularly fine as was the sonority and tonal depth of the strings. In the second movement the leader Yuri Torchinsky set a fine example of involved vitality. The pizzicato of the fourth movement was absolutely exact whilst the haunting horn melody and lightening of the texture brought by the flutes were welcome. This was orchestral playing of the highest order with Downes avoiding any feeling of heaviness that can be a burden in some interpretations.

The second half of the programme opened with the Overture to Tannhäuser. In the UK we have long known Downes as one of the world’s foremost Verdians, both as scholar and conductor. In his 52nd season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the last 13 as Associate Musical Director, he has conducted 49 different operas in 950 performances with the company; a feat that may never be equalled. If many of his Royal Opera appearances have been conducting Verdi, it owes as much to the choices of the Musical Directors in that time preferring the German repertoire to Downes’ own strengths. Indeed, he has conducted Wagner all over the world as well as at Covent Garden and on record. This vast experience was in evidence in this second half of the concert and played a vital role in making it a veritable tour de force. With the orchestra augmented by timpani and brass, Wagner’s rich orchestration can soon loose definition. Not with this conductor. Again without a score we were allowed to hear the detail as well as luxuriate in the rich textures and Wagner’s gift for melodic invention. Downes’ experience in the opera house pit was to be all-important as the bass John Tomlinson joined the orchestra to sing Hans Sach’s ‘Fliedermonolog’ from Die Meistersinger. This was followed by the orchestral arrangement of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ from Die Walküre and Tomlinson singing Wotan’s long ‘Farewell’ to his daughter Brünnhilde, and including ‘The Magic Fire Music’ from the same opera.

John Tomlinson is, I believe, the only singer to have sung the role of Wotan/Wanderer in two different cycles of productions of The Ring at Bayreuth, certainly in the post Second World War era. Although I have seen and heard him as King Philip, Czar Boris, Oberto and Atilla this was my first opportunity to hear him sing Wagner with full Wagnerian orchestra to contend with. For the Walküre this involved nine horns, three trombones and four trumpets. Downes’ conducting and Tomlinson’s extensive stage experience were vital components in making their joint contributions particularly memorable. In the Meistersinger, Tomlinson sang with full, rounded and sappy tone. His declamations were clear and his phrasing and vocal expression fully reflecting Sach’s character and feelings.

Wotan’s long farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde poses far greater vocal and histrionic demands on the singer. There were brief moments of unevenness at the top of Tomlinson’s voice when at full stretch. Similarly, he was not always smooth and even of tone as the voice moved up and down the vocal range. But that is to cavil. Tomlinson’s Wotan was a man or God of tenderness, regret, and then of authority as he summoned Loge to light the fire around Brünnhilde. He didn’t need an eye patch or a spear. His stance, face, hands and body added to the vocal interpretation and made a formidable impression.

Nights in the concert hall don’t often come as good as this and even more rarely in the opera house. I shall look out for the broadcast and recommend readers to do the same. Even without the visual images I suggest it will constitute an outstanding listen.

Robert J Farr

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