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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Wagner, Siegfried Idyll; Wesendonck-Lieder; Brahms, Symphony No.2:
Eva Johansson, soprano / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Michalakis, conductor, Cadogan Hall, 29.3.2006 (ED)

To be honest, it was the programme that attracted me to this concert, rather than the orchestra, soloist (whom I knew about from other reviews) or the conductor (whom I did not know anything about). What a joy to have three works so consumed in the expression of emotions; what a pity that it was exactly this quality that was more often than not found lacking.

Conducting the programme from memory, Michalakis launched the full orchestral version of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in a state of stasis, through the choice of an unreasonably slow tempo, and from this the music proved unwilling to move. Where there should have been momentum and feeling for the inflection of instrumental lines, there was precious little to be had. That said, the orchestral sound was nicely homogenized, though the violins dominated somewhat. At forte the sound acquired a brusqueness that was somewhat unwelcome, and it might have been avoided with more careful orchestral control. Woodwind and brass textures were atmospherically given, where they were allowed sufficient space to emerge through the full orchestral body, but this in no way compensated for the lacking ebb and flow in the interpretation itself.

Similar afflictions plagued the reading of the Wesendonck-Lieder. Far from being fruits borne of Wagner’s love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, and conveying the passions contained in her curiously amateurish poems, they were given too literally. Slowness of tempo dragged out Der Engel and Träume, which in itself might have been more acceptable had Eva Johansson’s soprano conveyed any feeling for, or much meaning in, the text. Her biography makes something of her singing Strauss’ Elektra, and it sounded as if she had just completed the arduous role before walking on stage to deliver this Wagner performance. The voice had size (somewhat intermittently) and was placed very much in the throat, which impeded her clarity of diction and ability to float the line when required. Stehe still! was over-snatched vocally and also displayed a hardness of edge in the voice when under pressure. Im Treibhaus was given far from in a hothouse atmosphere, with over-carefulness being the dominant feature, resulting in broken phrases and inaccurate emphasis of the text so as to destroy the meaning. Given that soloist and conductor have worked together before little sense of musical understanding or unity of vision was apparent.

Brahms’ second symphony at least opened with a greater sense of drama, displaying excellent heft and hue in the lower strings, with some pleasing integration of brass and woodwind lines too. This did not prevent an occasional brashness making itself felt. The second movement’s seething emotion was left ill-realized by Michalakis through an inexplicable slackening of tempo during key passages after which little could be done to recover the situation. The third movement showed some element of grazioso in the playing with well-phrased woodwinds over pizzicato cellos, but there was little feeling in the playing. The closing movement was given somewhat indistinctly, with sonorities often not well-focussed and instrumental lines cut about through poor judgement of transitional tempi. With tension in the music lacking by being held back too much at the movement’s start, when the orchestra broke forth en masse their surges proved too late to register their full impact, impressive in themselves though they were.

For the third time in under a month I found myself at a concert in which Wagner or Brahms were poorly served by the presiding conductor. Given that the two previous concerts featured conductors of greater name and reputation than Nicholas Michalakis you can read into it what you will about the state of conducting today, and with it why I am not alone in worrying about the dying art of musical interpretation amongst many who occupy podiums today.

As an afterthought, I read that singer, conductor and orchestra might soon record Elektra together. We have had in recent years several fine recordings, is another really needed? This concert does not make me look forward to it, should the recording take place.

Evan Dickerson




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