The WNO Orchestra plays Wagner and Bruckner’s Second Symphony

Wagner and Bruckner: Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor) St. David’s Hall Cardiff, 29.4.2011 (GPu) Wagner , Siegfried Idyll

Bruckner , Symphony No.7 in E major

Since Lothar Koenigs became Music Director of Welsh National Opera – at the beginning of the 2009/10 season – he has developed a fresh emphasis on the German repertoire, both in the opera house (Wozzek, Fidelio, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and in the concert hall (Verklärte Nacht, Brahms 1 and 2, Beethoven 7, Four Last Songs, Mahler 1, etc). I have been especially impressed by what he has made of the opera’s orchestra as a fully-fledged concert orchestra. The tightness of ensemble has improved enormously (and no doubt the work of the excellent David Adams as leader has helped in this regard), and there seems an increased confidence, an assurance in the approach to large-scale and demanding works. What was already a fine opera-orchestra has now become a symphonic-orchestra in whose performances the listener can approach with fair confidence that their work will be both of a high standard technically and emotionally committed; that the resulting performances can be relied upon to be of a kind which (to use one of my own tests) would make it persuasively clear to a neophyte that they were hearing musical works of real substance. Their performances under Koenigs exude an air of mutual respect between conductor and orchestra.

On the day of a significant wedding in London, the coupling of Wagner and Bruckner was hardly an improbable marriage (though, heaven knows, the two are in some respects unlikely bedfellows). Bruckner, after all, hero-worshipped the older composer; and Wagner at least observed of Bruckner’s Second Symphony that it was – “very nice”!

Koenigs directed a spacious performance of the Siegfried Idyll which began with exquisite delicacy and which, throughout, just about maintained clarity of texture, though using more strings than Wagner did at its private premiere. Koenig’s control of climaxes was impressive and, for the most part, there was a disciplined grace to the whole.

But, of course, the Idyll was essentially an hors d‘œuvre to the evening’s very substantial main course – Bruckner’s monumental Seventh Symphony. It has always seemed to me, I should confess, a work which (by the highest standards of comparison) suffers from a degree of structural instability, even of disproportion. Its long first movement is full of conflicted possibilities, of undecided potential, expressed in part by the contested sense of key. The – even longer – second movement is an elegiac creation of the highest order, a ‘monument’ to Wagner, a lived experience of the processes of loss and the strategies of tribute of remarkable power and beauty. These two movements are, surely, amongst the finest that Bruckner wrote, musically complex and yet directly communicative, grand and somehow intimate, emotionally profound, in pain and in serenity. They are succeeded by two shorter movements (the two together barely longer than the adagio alone) which are slighter in more than matters of mere length. They seem, indeed, to be incapable of fully bearing the weight they need to sustain if they are to complete the symphonic resolution the work’s emotional design seems to require. Perhaps because of this, there is a ‘forced’ quality to some of the music, a straining after affirmation, even jubilation, that the musical materials and their deployment don’t make entirely convincing. The building struggles for stability and cannot avoid a certain lopsidedness.

There was no sense that Koenigs had such doubts about the work. This was a performance of blazing conviction and every section of the orchestra played just about as well as one could really hope for. The strings played with a pleasing unity of tone, the brass with enormous declamatory passion and the woodwinds with great subtlety. With the brass split either side of the stage, the cellos in front of the conductor and the violas to his right, there was a healthy and appropriate volume of sound and of directional shape, as it were. The opening bars and the initial theme were played with attractive clarity of texture and the whole first movement was full of drama. the adagio was dignified, quite without any traces of the maudlin and its close was articulated very beautifully.

There was little to complain of in the playing in the last two movements either, but even so I found it hard not to feel that to an extent this was a music of avoidance, a skirting around the profound apprehension of human mortality and its significance which had been embodied in the adagio, rather than an incorporation of it into a coherent emotional whole, a fully persuasive symphonic resolution of ‘opposites’. But the fact that the performance was such as to make one think hard about the ‘wholeness’, or otherwise, of this remarkable work is evidence, it seems to me, of the success rather than the failure of Koenigs and his orchestra.

Glyn Pursglove