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Founder - Len Mullenger
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AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW
Wagner and Bruckner: Petra Lang (mezzo soprano) London Philharmonic Orchestra,: Christoph Eschenbach (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, 4.11.2009 (GD)
Wagner: Overture, Tannhäuser, Wesendonck Lieder
Bruckner: Symphony No, 6 in A
Eschenbach opened tonight's concert with a rather light-weight. even perfunctory reading of the Tannhäuser overture - the concert edition used in the 1845 Dresden premiere. The essentials were all in place, but the performance lacked any sense of dramatic contrast. There was no real evocation of grandeur in the opening Pilgrims' Chorus theme, and the reading lacked all mystery and exultation in Venus's siren song and the ensuing Bachanalian revelry. The final peroration of the Pilgrims' Chorus was a rather bland affair having none of the dramatic frisson usually characterising this overture and the whole opera.
Eschenbach used the standard Mottl orchestration for the first four 'Wesendonck' songs; Wagner himself having orchestrated the last song 'Träume'. Although Miss Lang imbued the cycle with a degree of brio and even charm, I found her vocal range somewhat restricted. At the start of the second song 'Stehe still' it was quite apparent that she had some difficulty in reaching the top As in her opening upward flourish intoning the 'gleaming spheres in the wide universe'. Miss Lang has a large and generous vocality, but tonight she was rather short on vocal diversity and contrast. In the 'Tristanesque' atmosphere of 'Im Triebhaus', and 'Träume' she lacked the essential degree of sustained sotto voce; and in 'Stehe still' and 'Shmerzen' she seemed uncomfortable in differentiating the middle and top vocal registers; when reaching the top line she tended towards vocal stridency. Eschenbach accompanied adequately, although here and there he opted for some rather unidiomatic rubato at the opening of 'Im Triebhaus and in 'Schmerzen', which needs a greater sense of forward movement and flow. Throughout there were slight tuning problems in the woodwinds, and a seeming inability to sustain a real pianissimo.
Eschenbach's reading of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony (the composer's most 'complete' symphony in terms of editorial complications; completed as composed) was something of a mixed bag. The first movement opened with a well articulated initial rhythmic motive in the strings; Eschenbach wisely divided first and second violins. And the ominous bass theme which stirs in a modulated A major (what Tovey aptly called the 'Leviathan' theme) had a dark glow thanks to the generally excellently resonant intonation of the LPO's double-basses. One detail; Eschenbach did not quite manage the off beat, unevenly divided inflection in the first half of the initial rhythmic unit, but then only very few conductors do. Throughout the tonal, rhythmic shifts/transitions of the splendidly affirmative first movement, Eschenbach maintained a quite steady and resilient tempo structure. But by the time we reached the E major constellations of the second subject and its various crescendos and diminuendos, I noticed a certain bland quality in the overall phrasing of themes: the strings (violins and violas in particular) were not always together either and the intonation problems in the woodwind, mentioned earlier, continued throughout the symphony. In particular, I thought Eschenbach would have registered the tonal contrast of the splendidly 'gauche' horn modulations just before the beginning of the main development section, with more surprised inflection, but the passage passed rather blandly, almost as if Eschenbach had not noticed their ominous bucolic resonance. The great A major build up of the magnificent brass led chorale just before the coda, was mostly well balanced and contoured but at its ff climax it had a note of stridency:although this could have been just as much to do with the rather restricted acoustic of the Festival Hall. The subtending harmonic/tonal modulations here were well handled; even if they didn't quite have the 'sparkle' of Tovey's 'Homeric seas'. The magnificent repeated rhythmic fanfares which end the movement were driven home impressively.
The wonderful adagio, marked 'very solemn', started off well, with Eschenbach coaxing an impressive and rich sonority in the A minor modulated basses. But as the movement progressed the initial solemn 'adagio' tended too get slower, to drag. And by the time we reached the C major climax, Eschenbach had to make an awkward accelerating gear shift which didn't quite come off. The C minor funeral march section, combined with A flat, lacked the essential gravitas heard in conductors like Klemperer and Wand. By the time we reached the poignant coda the pace had become too cloying and slow to register the nuances of the mood of stoical pathos.
Against Bruckner's explicit instruction 'Nicht schnell' ('not fast') Eschenbach raced through the A minor/A major scherzo. At this speed all sense of what Tovey referred to as the movement's mood of 'Walpurgisnacht' was lost. And the wonderfully naive, rustic trio section, with its 'plumpus denken' pizzicato chords and heavy horn accents, went for virtually nothing tonight.
As in many of Bruckner's symphonies, the coda of the sixth is the least convincing in structural terms. From its A minor initiation theme in the 'Phrygian' mode to its blazing A major coda, this finale needs a sympathetic and experienced Bruckner conductor to ensure that all its themes (really a splendid Brucknerian riot of thematic invention) hang together. Rather than ensuring a degree of structural coherence, Eschenbach introduced a series of totally unjustified tempo changes, so that the lyrical F major second theme was slowed down, in contrast to the initial over hasty opening section. Also, the various chorale motives that punctuate the movement, were grotesquely subjected to all manner of allargandos and other tempo distortions. The introduction of the 'non confundar' theme from the 'Te deum' at the start of the development, was curiously understated, almost smudged. And the stalking ruminations in march like rhythm, before the initiation of the coda, lost all their quirky rhythmic irony at Eschenbach's rushed tempo. The blazing A major of the coda, punctuated by the symphony's opening rhythm was blurred at too fast atempo and rather than intoning a noble symphonic resolution, it merely sounded loud and strident.