Wagner and Beethoven: Imaginatively Played and Presented

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner and Beethoven: Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 28.6.2013 (MB)

Beethoven – Septet in E-flat major, op.20

Henry Goodman (Wagner)
Dame Harriet Walter (Cosima)

In typically imaginative style, the Aurora Orchestra prefaced its performances of Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll and Beethoven’s Septet with introductory monologues, sometimes shading into dialogue, sometimes tellingly at cross-purposes, between Richard and Cosima Wagner. Barry Millington ensured their historical accuracy, though I could not help wondering whether the one preceding the Siegfried-Idyll was a little on the lengthy side. There was, of course, a great deal of information to impart: how they met, the progress of their relationship, and the events of that first, Tribschen staircase performance. Moreover, I suspect that those less well-versed in Wagner biography would have welcomed the opportunity to set the work in context. One theme that certainly shone through, as it does from even the most cursory glance at Cosima’s Diaries, was the crucial aspect of nineteenth-century gender relations, taken, as it were, to the extreme by Cosima’s extraordinary marriage of self-abnegation and sheer stubbornness. Henry Goodman summoned up a degree of Wagner’s protean nature, though the assumption too often shaded into mere arrogance; as so often, the charisma to which Wagner’s friends and acquaintances attested was less apparent. Harriet Walter penetrated more deeply – perhaps, ultimately, it is a more achievable task? – into the strengths and, in modern terms, ‘passive-aggressive’ contradictions of Cosima.

Nicholas Collon conducted the excellent Aurora players in the Siegfried-Idyll. Their soloistic skill combined with the Hall One acoustic to permit an uncommon degree of clarity, so much so that the birdsong seemed to point to Mahler, and even beyond, to Webern’s pointillism. Earlier on, there were a few occasions when I thought Collon might have yielded more, but the performance grew more flexible through its course. If anything, there was perhaps a little indulgence at the end, though it was readily forgivable. If it seems invidious to single any player out, I shall still do so, mentioning Oliver Coates’s especially sensitive turning of the crucial cello line; one might almost have listened to it in itself. Taken as a whole, this fine performance granted us the opportunity to hear that in one far from negligible sense, Cosima was right to view herself as the most fortunate of women, for who else has received a birthday present such as this?

Beethoven’s glorious Septet was played as true chamber music, Collon wisely leaving the players to themselves. In every movement the very particular marriage – not only Richard and Cosima deserve that epithet – of Mozartian serenade style with thematic working born of Haydn shone through, as sunny as the music itself. (Mozart’s wont was always to impart greater sadness, implied or otherwise.) Whatever tempi were settled on were made to work, and never, even when swift, to turn brittle, such was the sense of life in performance. The quiet dignity of the Adagio, for instance, contrasted tellingly with the swing of the following Minuet: so tricky to capture, yet effortlessly, or seemingly effortlessly, achieved on this occasion. Haydn’s influence certainly pervaded the fourth movement variations; I thought in particular of his late F minor/major set for piano. Above all, there was joy, which was just as it should have been.

Mark Berry