BBC Philharmonic in All Wagner Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner: BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Brigitte Hahn (soprano), Bridgewater hall, Manchester, 29.09.12 (MC)


Tannhäuser Overture
Wesendonck Lieder, orchestral song cycle
From Götterdämmerung:
Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey
Siegfried’s Funeral March
Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene

The concert was being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast in Sunday Concert on 7th October.


Juanjo Mena © photo Sussie Ahlburg

One-composer programmes can be a risk for concert promoters but not so much with this all-Wagner programme of excerpts from his music drama Götterdämmerung plus the orchestral song cycle Wesendonck Lieder. A confident looking Juanjo Mena the orchestra’s chief conductor opened with the overture from Tannhäuser. It was an agreeable performance although rather lacking the searing level of excitement that can be achieved from Wagner’s superb writing. The Götterdämmerung excerpts can feel so intoxicatingly dramatic yet Mena’s beautifully played interpretation felt underpowered at times; lacking potency together with a few untidy passages. From what I could see I was pleased that the orchestra employed most if not all of the special Wagner instruments. Gloriously impressive was the distinctive sound of the four Wagner tubas.

The orchestral song cycle Wesendonck Lieder and Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung featured German soprano Brigitte Hahn a regular at the Hamburg opera singing a number of Wagner roles. The Wesendonck song cycle is the sumptuous fruit of Wagner’s short lived relationship with his muse Mathilde Wesendonck, who provided that text, the wife of a wealthy Swiss merchant. Some of the finest accounts of Wesendonck particularly the songs Im Treibhaus and Träume can send a shiver down the spine but with Hahn it soon became clear that this was a vain prospect. After an unsteady start Hahn never seemed comfortable and it sometimes felt as if the soloist was pulling in a different direction to the orchestra. Displaying moderate projection and diction it was no surprise that Hahn was swamped by the orchestra in the forte passages most noticeable in Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene.

It is evident that the brass dominated BBC Philharmonic that I heard regularly in Manchester’s BBC Studio 7 some years ago has now became less bottom heavy under Noseda and now Mena producing a more transparent sound. This transition reminds me of what Claudio Abbado successfully achieved with the Berlin Philharmonic during his tenure. At their best the BBC Philharmonic strings can now produce a beautiful silky smooth sound and the astute brass section play considerably more sympathetically to the overall orchestral sound.

With less than eighty minutes of music (sadly all too common these days) the rather brief concert could easily have been lengthened with another Wagner score say the Rienzi overture. It was an enjoyable Wagner programme enthusiastically played by the BBC Philharmonic but the performance never really caught fire.

Michael Cookson