Wagner and Schubert: Strange Bedfellows?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert and Wagner: Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 28.11.2013. (JPr)

Schubert: Symphony No.8 in B minor (‘Unfinished’)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde Act II
Iréne Theorin – Isolde
Peter Seiffert – Tristan
Christianne Stotijn – Brangäne
Matti Salminen – King Marke
Mark Stone – Melot/Kurwenal

In Daniel Harding’s previous London concert with the London Symphony Orchestra (review) had some Schubert with Mahler that I would suggest is a more natural combination than Schubert and Wagner. I understand Harding is undertaking an ‘exploration’ of his symphonies but who plans these concerts? It is the Master’s 200th, yet 2013 is also anniversaries for Britten and Verdi and there could have been some more imaginative music programming if an all-Wagner concert needed to be avoided. I believe Wagner liked Schubert’s songs but may have not been so enamoured by his non-vocal compositions.

In my early concert-going days Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony seemed to recur more often than I see it does now and I suspect most of the audience  – the Barbican was not entirely full – was there for the middle act from Tristan und Isolde in the second half. Why the symphony was not completed we will never know now – usually it is because the composer does not have the musical ammunition, even though they live – like Schubert – long enough to do so. It is very familiar from the insistent opening theme on the cellos and double basses to the final sounds of resignation from the strings and woodwinds – this was an ‘Unfinished’ with a lot of potent drama to it. I wonder whether Mahler ever conducted this symphony but I am sure he was very familiar with it. The quixotic nature of the first of its two movements is something he would have appreciated as it veers from sounding like a spooky Weber overture to something lighter and more fantastical and reminiscent of Mendelssohn (who was active as a child prodigy whilst Schubert was alive). The second slow movement has been described as ‘a certain premonition of death and vision of heaven’ and we are back with our thoughts that this is more proto-Mahlerian music: here, once again, ‘night-terrors’ (as Lindsay Kemp’s programme note described them) are never too far away.

There was no concession to trying to perform this as it would have been heard in the early part of the nineteenth century, a very full orchestra was employed and it was beautifully played – with significant contributions from flautists Gareth Davies and Patricia Moynihan. Daniel Harding conducted fervently and even though I wasn’t engaged emotionally by all its Romanticism, I suspect others may have been.

After the interval there was the dispiriting sight of music stands on the platform for the Wagner excerpt. Perhaps I have just got too cosy about seeing concert performances of operas performed in a semi-staged way without any scores but this – for some reason – felt like a return to a bygone era. I could only but wonder by two vastly experience singers – who have sung Tristan and Isolde throughout the world – needed the music in front of them?

I began to muse on the role of the prompter used widely on the continent and in America but frowned on in the UK. Often because of a delay in the music from the pit of an opera house it is up to them to connect the singers to the orchestra – or to the conductor’s beat which may not be the same thing. Often the conductor has other things to focus on and without a prompter singers could be left to their own devices, even though some orchestras can follow the singer regardless of how the baton is wielded. A prompter will also provide the singers with cues for when to sing and it will depend on the individual whether they are completely reliant – or a mere glance will suffice. Unfortunately, anecdotally I have heard of singers so uncertain that they need to be fed all the words: I believe for a performance of a Wagner opera in a major house not long ago a tenor could not remember much at all and he was cued by the prompter and also given the words by someone else through one of the earpieces that are used by some opera houses these days.

Anyway veteran singers Peter Seiffert (Tristan), Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Matti Salminen (King Marke) who have sung their roles numerous times glanced at their music too often for my liking (sorry!). Christianne Stotijn (Brangäne) and Mark Stone (Melot/Kurwenal) were less familiar with what they were singing but surely still had long enough to learn what relatively little they needed to do? Anyway the same concert had been performed only a few days before in Madrid.

Act II of Tristan und Isolde is the ‘beating heart’ of the opera and its anxious beats can be clearly heard in its opening music. The following 70-or-so minutes have almost continuously melodious music, often with unresolved, aching, harmonies. Tristan and Isolde are infatuated with each other after their true feelings are unleashed by a potion and their illicit passion can only be consummated through the blessed oblivion of eternal night. Wagner’s intoxicating music draws the listener uniquely into the powerful trajectory of the characters’ abandoned emotions – or at least it should.

As is to be expected, the LSO played superbly for Daniel Harding who seems to have a keen ear for orchestral detail and kept a propulsive control on the sweeping arcs of Wagner’s incandescent music. More importantly from where I sat, the singers were never drowned by the climactic outbursts and there was a palpable frisson to the moments of ecstasy and great portent. However, the emotional temperature of the entire performance was a little colder than I would ideally hope for – and that might have been due to the singers with those music stands rather than anything Harding might have done differently.

Neither Seiffert nor Theorin at this stage of their careers have particularly beautiful voices but both threw themselves fearlessly at the challenges of their roles. Iréne Theorin – who I saw as Isolde several times in Bayreuth – replaced Katharina Dalayman who no longer sings the role. Although there was a little unsteadiness to begin with, she soon showed the lung power to ride Wagner’s rich orchestration and there were many moments of more tender, softer singing. Seiffert is a very rare visitor to the UK – and indeed dropped out of last season’s Tristan at the Proms – and nearing 60 his voice cannot be what it once was. Fortunately he retains just enough tenorial heft to get through it without shouting too much. He ran out of breath occasionally and pitch sagged, however I appreciated his attempts at eloquent phrasing in the less stressful passages. Unfortunately his reliance on the music in front of him – and occasional uncertain entries – divorced him from any real connection with the text he was singing and there appeared zero chemistry between him and his more confident Isolde on the other side of the conductor.

It was actually left to the even-more-veteran Matti Salminen, at 68, to dominate the performance with his authoritative, deeply despairing, King Marke. There is plenty of gravel now in his bass voice but his was a noble and compelling vignette. Unfortunately Brangäne did not suit Christianne Stotijn with her quavery dark sound and exaggerated facial expressions – she was much more impressive in her recent Mahler with the LSO. Mark Stone, whose baritone was the best projected voice of all the singers, doubled up promisingly as both Kurwenal and Melot.

Jim Pritchard

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