Intriguing ‘Compressed Wagner’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tippett and Wagner: Leopold String Trio, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 19.10.2012. (JPr)

Tippett: Triple Concerto
(arr. Henk de Vlieger): The Ring – an orchestral adventure

I saw this concert halfway through a Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House and am writing this with only Götterdämmerung left. Nothing I have heard from that orchestra during those many hours matched the musical frisson Mark Wigglesworth brought to the 73 minutes of Wagner’s music that Dutch percussionist, Henk de Vlieger, leaves us with in his 1991 ‘orchestral adventure’. Occasionally in the opera theatre the thought of hearing something without the voices appeals and this should be the case at Covent Garden because of the uneven casting (especially a Wotan lacking authority and an under-powered Brünnhilde) – and also for Antonio Pappano’s often unidiomatic conducting.

I am not going to comment further on these Ring Cycles because that amounts to blogging that I do not get involved in – but I can comment on the audience they seem to have attracted. Firstly de Vlieger’s arrangement would have appealed to one of them who I overheard saying ‘If you have good concentration skills Wagner is pretty amazing, though it would even better if they could shorten the longer operas by an hour or so.’ There have been other ‘classics’ that made me wonder what some people are doing there, such as (when contemplating a 90 minute final act) ‘Shame we haven’t got any sweets to eat to pass the time away.’ Also considering that most tickets were booked about a year ago, one confused viewer announced ‘I should have read the plot but I didn’t have time.’ Finally – and probably the most mind-boggling – ‘People probably share the tickets around as not everyone has the time to waste to see all four’!

De Vlieger wastes no time at all on Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; they last about 20 minutes in total and with 12 minutes allotted to Siegfried the bulk of his dawn to dusk ‘orchestral adventure’ concentrates on Götterdämmerung. As Michael Tanner write in his programme note, de Vlieger ‘has concentrated … on the mood or scene-setting passages in The Ring and the stretches of highly dramatic music, so the result is like the musical soundtrack of an action movie.’ Wagner associates small snatches of melody – or even merely just a few notes – with a certain character, a particular place, object or thought. These are often called ‘leitmotifs’ (leading motifs) and have been analysed in detail by many commentators on Wagner’s music and been given names, including as Michael Tanner mentions: ‘the Sword, Wotan’s Spear, Valhalla, the Work of Annihilation, the Ring of course, and the Rhine’.

What this cogent symphonic approach achieves is to avoid some of those clunky endings a more typical evening of Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’ would contain. He leaves the most familiar of these intact such as the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, Siegfried’s ‘Rhine Journey’ and ‘Funeral Music’, as well as the conclusion of Götterdämmerung as Valhalla is consumed by flames and the banks of the Rhine overflow. De Vlieger leaves us with lots of the grandiose drama even if more intimate moments of human emotion and reflections on nature are not adequately represented. We hear many powerful passages, often of great beauty, emerging but his choices will not please everyone and in fact will probably only work best for those who know their Wagner … rather than for those who do not.

In fact, very quickly it becomes apparent that Henk de Vlieger’s background has influenced his selections, as four valiant fellow percussionists are seen striking their anvils to take us down to Das Rheingold’s Nibelheim. Some of them were involved again in the tinkling ‘Magic Fire’ music from the end of Die Walküre that returns in subtly altered guises in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. So those who did not appreciate their significance would have thought ‘Haven’t we heard this all somewhere before?’ Giving himself – as a percussionist – a little less to do and perhaps allowing the entry of a human voice for Brünnhilde’s Immolation would add more variety to this already engrossing symphonic compilation.

Mark Wigglesworth is one who could surely be considered a possible contender for the Royal Opera’s music directorship when it eventually comes up-for-grabs and here his Wagner was everything Pappano’s currently isn’t. His tempos were generally very well-judged and his virtuoso orchestra provided excellent support with their exciting playing. He seemed to judge each Wagnerian moment perfectly whether it was playful, threatening, heroic, funereal or rapturous. At Covent Garden as the E flat in the double basses at the start of Rheingold morphs into the arpeggio of E flat in other instruments we seem to be sloshing around in a muddy puddle but here we were – for those with ears to listen – at the bottom of the Rhine that was in full flow and that is where Wigglesworth clearly returned us over an hour later with, in Michael Tanner’s words, ‘the Rhine overflowing its banks and washing away the vile mess that men and gods have made of the world.’

The first half of this concert saw the swansong of the Leopold String Trio (violinist Isabelle van Keulen, viola-player Lawrence Power and cellist Kate Gould) before they concentrate on their individual careers. The work was Michael Tippett’s Triple Concerto that was premièred during the 1980 Proms by the London Symphony Orchestra. Apparently it complemented the Wagner by representing a particular span of time, but here considerably shorter and just one single day to the next. A major influence in this work, where Tippett is believed to have regained some of his earlier lyricism, is the music of the gamelan, an instrument the composer had first encountered in Java and Bali. This performance was part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s season-long celebration of Tippett’s music.

The Triple Concerto consists of three movements (with two interludes) and is played without a break. There is a disturbing opening when all three instruments fight for prominence and drift in and out of the orchestral confusion. The marimba joins them prominently for the first interlude (that has been considered ‘twilight’) before a wistfully exotic gamelan-inspired central slow movement (‘night’). Oliver Soden’s programme note explains ‘In Shakespeare’s Tempest, a play that stands behind much of Tippett’s work, the characters are separated until the island works its magic upon them. In the concerto’s central movement it is as if the solo protagonists are brought together by the “noises, sounds and sweet airs” of the first interlude.’ Some brief syncopated jazzy brass is the quirky second interlude (‘dawn’) before the finale when the trio do battle again. Although everything seems more life-affirming to start with, doubts soon creep in and all concerned seem to lose the will to live – as represented by the gamelan-like sounds from the percussion petering out as the end of the music approaches.

Wigglesworth and his valiant orchestra, including eight percussionists, could not be faulted in what was probably unfamiliar music for all of them and the accomplished Leopold String Trio were intriguing to watch. However, until their ‘farewell’ hugs at the end there seemed no real chemistry between them, the violinist was counting bars and unsure of her entries, the charismatic viola player performed with extravagant showmanship applicable to more romantic music and the cellist seemed in a world of her own.


Jim Pritchard

For more details of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming concerts click here

To read my 2011 interview with Mark Wigglesworth click here.