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Sibelius, Wagner/de Vlieger: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.2.2010 (SRT)

Pelléas et Melisande

Wagner arr. de Vlieger: Tristan und Isolde, an orchestral passion


Neeme Järvi conducting Tristan? Well, sort of. With the RSNO Järvi recently performed (and recorded) Henk de Vlieger’s Wagner compendium, The Ring, an orchestral adventure, and here he returned to give us a similar treatment of Tristan und Isolde. Performing Wagner in concert is a perennial problem. For the most part orchestras and audiences are limited to the overtures or the bleeding chunks, and de Vlieger has done us a service by giving us a new way of accessing this most important of Wagner’s operas. The arrangement consists of the Preludes to all three acts, the ecstatic opening of the love duet with the Liebesnacht itself, Tristan’s vision of Isolde in Act 3 and then the final Liebestod. For the most part the music is pure Wagner: it is his orchestration and his notes that we hear, though occasionally an instrumental line is added where a vocal line is essential; for example a clarinet takes Tristan’s O sink hernieder line from the love duet. However you will either buy into it or you won’t. Not everyone will be convinced by the evolutions between the movements (which run continuously, without breaks) and the transition from the Libesnacht to the Act 3 prelude was particularly arbitrary. Most of them worked well enough, but I can’t help but feel that this would only really be enjoyed by someone who knew the opera. My companion, who doesn’t, said it felt bitty, an unavoidable criticism, perhaps, but he also said it was “moody”, something de Vlieger would perhaps be more happy with as a distillation of the moods is what he set out to achieve.

The main problem for me was not so much the arrangement as Järvi’s conducting. He set off the Act 1 prelude at a pace which suggested he had a dinner engagement to get to, killing the all-important sense of growth and yearning; conversely the opening of Act 2 and the ecstatic beginning of the love duet didn’t surge with enough energy. The greatest moments, as well they should be, were the climax of the Liebesnacht and, especially, the surging climax of the Liebestod where the orchestral strings were finally let off the leash – the sheer wash of sound was wonderful when it was allowed to breathe. Altogether more successful was Järvi’s reading of Sibelius’ music for Pelléas et Melisande, a timely reminder that Maeterlinck’s influence extended well beyond Debussy. Here Järvi’s conducting exuded architectural weight, especially in the gigantic string sound of the opening movement, At the Castle Gate, so expertly used in the theme tune to the BBC’s Sky at Night and played here with incisive grandeur. Each movement in this wonderful suite was treated as a miniature tone poem with its own distinctive colour. The winds, in particular, were on outstanding form, with a gorgeous cor anglais solo for Melisande herself, and a beautiful clarinet duo for the Three Blind Sisters. My most abiding memory, however, will be the intense string playing in the Death of Melisande, a piece which perhaps owes a debt to Grieg’s Death of Åse, evoking the terrible poignancy of loss before disappearing into nothingness. In this case the silent wait between the end of the music and the start of the applause was praise enough for what this great interpreter can do with this great orchestra.


Simon Thompson


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