Birthday Chunks of Wagner (Gatti, Boston Symphony Orchestra, DeYoung)

United StatesUnited States Wagner: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (conductor), Carnegie HallNew York 5.4. 2013 (DA)

 Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Death, and Funeral March
Tannhäuser: Overture
Parsifal: Kundry’s Narrative (“Parsifal! Weile!… Ich sah das Kind”)
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod

Ironies abound when we talk about ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner’s music. The quotation is excised from a programme note by Sir Donald Tovey all the way back in 1935 – one on Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. Tovey was attacking people who criticised Bruckner’s formal inconsistencies by drawing attention to their preference for Wagner ripped out of context:

Defects of form are not a justifiable ground for criticism from listeners who profess to enjoy the bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat chopped from Wagner’s operas and served upon on Wagner nights as Waldweben and Walkürenritt.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall contributed to the Wagner bicentennial with a programme put together by Daniele Gatti, previously heard in subscription in Boston.* Gatti didn’t take the easy way out – no Walkürenritthere, Donald – but instead put together a thoughtful programme, linked loosely by Wagner’s obsession with the idea of redemption through love.**

Götterdämmerung took up the first half. Gatti formed a suite, taken without a break, by tracing the story of Siegfried’s death, from the triumphant dawn on Valkyrie rock to his journey to the Gibichung palace, the revelation of his betrayal, and finally his funeral procession. Despite its great difference in terms of texture and mood, these excerpts had all the signs of Gatti’s Parsifal: a flexible tempo with a tendency to delay the downbeat; motifs audible, layered and transforming, but never things in and of themselves; attention to balancing and what chords mean; and pacing that is deliberate even as the excitement builds.

There were excellent moments in these chunks, but there was a generally unsettled feel. TheTagesgrauen opened with the stillness of a contented night, building a vista of reds and oranges as day broke, and through the Rheinfahrt and the Trauermarsch the BSO’s brass players stunned with a massive, rounded, and controlled sound that gobbled up the air and pushed you back in your seat. Gatti took a rather Mahlerian approach to this music, particularly for Siegfried’s death, but he couldn’t quite find the precision of control that makes his Wagner special.

He certainly did in the second half. Despite some peculiarly lackadaisical violin work in the final return of the Pilgrims’ March, the Tannhäuser overture was exhilarating, kept in a constant state of transition and played with far greater freedom than the Götterdämmerung. A devout nobility in the first section contrasted with the detailed but floating fairy dust of the Venusberg music, surging erotically into Tannhäuser’s hymn of love. Assistant concertmasters Elita Kang and Julianne Lee provided sensuous playing from the front desk of violins in the central paean to Venus. The madcap return to the Venusberg felt suitably dangerous, the final triumph of the Pilgrims impossibly grand.

With Kundry’s greeting to Parsifal, we were instantly back in the typically individual soundworld Gatti has etched out for his Parsifal. His deep experience with the Bühnenweihfestspiel was quickly recognisable in this music’s ineffable internal drive, and in his ever greater attention to dusky colourings and harmonies on the verge of breakdown. Even so, the sonorities were less modernistic than Gatti’s usual approach to the second act, surely the result of the recent lack of music from the Second Viennese School on the BSO’s programmes. Michelle DeYoung, to whom Gatti gave far more attention than the orchestra, could have given more distinctive emphasis to Wagner’s text.

Lohengrin is of course Parsifal’s son, and it was the world of the Grail that was heard next. The Lohengrin prelude’s shimmer could almost come from Wagner’s last work, but its glimmer is too pure, too sinless for that. Gatti’s beautifully fluid tempo garnered playing of liquid mercury from the BSO’s strings, and reedy winds could not detract from the tiered manner in which things built. Wagner never again wrote a span of music so purely beautiful as this, and so it seemed here.

The most common and least satisfactory of Wagnerian chunks finished things off. Gatti drove theTristan prelude with an intensity more commonly reserved for act three, as ever underscoring the necessity of suffering for any redemption, if at the expense of the abandonment that the greatest interpreters of this music find. It was slow, as if that mattered, but relentlessly questioning, answering only with further questions, spiralling upwards, broadening in tone and quickening naturally in pace. Details stood out, of course, and they usually mattered. The first wind intonation of the Tristan chord after the aborted climax, for instance, was violently piercing, almost nauseating: of course this can’t work, a single chord seemed to say. TheLiebestod, however, was a disappointment, leaving the impression that Gatti could have brought so much more to the orchestral part if he hadn’t chosen to focus on DeYoung’s pressured vocal line.

David Allen

* I can’t really believe I’m saying this, but the bicentennial has been remarkably under-celebrated here in New York. Perhaps it feels that way because lauding Wagner through the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring is worse than not lauding it at all.

** Gatti talked through the programme with WGBH here.