Distinguished Wagner – and Much Else – from Edward Gardner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Webern, Berg, Strauss: Christine Brewer (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 20.10.2013. (JPr)

Wagner – A Faust Overture
Tristan and Isolde – Prelude Act I
Webern – Passacaglia, Op. 1
Berg – Seven Early Songs
Strauss – Death and Transfiguration


Over very many years I have had an occasional ‘pop’ at some of the printed programme notes provided at the BBC Proms and for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concerts because they mostly need a music degree to understand them … and that I do not have. Even the ‘Introduction’ in tonight’s programme ended ‘In Webern’s Passacaglia and Berg’s Seven Early Songs the traditional boundaries of harmony and melody were stretched to apparent breaking point – ahead of their experiments with serialism, the 12-tone composing system that enabled them to obliterate conventional harmony altogether.’ This was the Introduction! Naturally, I have some idea what this means – as would many others in the Barbican – but many will not have had a clue what this means.

Probably after reading this, Edward Gardner apparently felt the need to use a microphone to speak – rather too briefly – after Wagner’s A Faust Overture to explain that the music we would hear was devised around the Tristan ‘theme’ that we had clearly heard in that early overture that the composer revised in 1855 on the cusp of the première of Tristan und Isolde. Gardner told us that there is a musical connection between the end of the Tristan Prelude Act I and the opening of Berg’s Seven Early Songs that meant the orchestra would segue from one straight into the other – despite a fine exponent of the Liebestod, Christine Brewer, already sitting on stage. Generally, what we would hear in addition to Wagner was planned to illuminate what ‘classical music became after’ Tristan. I am sure the BBC Radio 3 broadcast on Monday 27 January 2014 will tell us all about this but why print elaborate programmes with none of this in it?

This concert virtually concludes the London-based Wagner 200 series of events that celebrated the bicentenary of the composer’s birth. Please feel free to ignore my moaning about the importance of educating people because this concert still goes straight into being one of my favourite orchestra ones for 2013. Having experienced Antonio Pappano’s stop-go, low-key Wagner both in the theatre and via a recent cinema transmission of Parsifal, it is wonderful that London can boast an opera music director who seems genuinely to understand that Wagner’s music has a constant inner rhythm and pretensions to an aural transcendence … and he is British! Pappano does not seem to always ‘get’ this, the English National Opera’s Gardner – on the basis of his Wagner here – clearly does.

It all began with that A Faust Overture’ which apart from the Siegfried Idyll is probably the best of Wagner’s symphonic works – though it doesn’t have much competition. It was begun in 1839, revised during the 1840s and reached its final form in 1855. As Barry Millington explains ‘the sinuous theme that opens the work’ embodies the ‘questioning spirit’ of Goethe’s Faust. In 1839 Wagner was living unhappily in Paris trying to make a name for himself and like any other good salesman he used this composition to ‘sell his wares’. What we heard was a musical ‘trailer’ for Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser … and, of course, Tristan.  The BBC SO’s performance was wonderfully intense and viscerally compelling – and made a case for this musically interesting and virtuosic piece of music to be much better known,

Next were Wagner’s small and perfectly formed masterpieces, his Wesendonck-Lieder song cycle. As is well known, the songs were composed in 1857 and 1858 when he was ‘involved’ with Mathilde Wesendonck in what may only have been an affair of the mind but at least it left us these five poems of hers set to music. In Barry Millington’s rehashed programme note (redolent today of all the media attention to the Saatchis) he entertainingly begins: ‘Had Wagner’s relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck been conducted in our own age, we would doubtless know a great deal more about it. Mathilde would have sold her torrid story for an undisclosed sum to a tabloid newspaper, her husband Otto would have used the same medium to call for Wagner to be horsewhipped, and phalanxes of TV pundits and pop-psychologists would have been marshalled to pore over the sordid details. When and why, had Wagner’s own marriage to Minna begun to deteriorate? Did Mathilde lead him on? Most intriguing of all: did they actually do it?’ Probably Wagner was indeed ‘sponging off’ Otto Wesendonck’s generosity, possibly in more ways than one; however, that led to the creation of Tristan und Isolde as he was working on this at that time and the Prelude to Act III and the Act II duet are heard in the songs, Im Treibhaus and Träume. Wagner originally wrote the music for piano only and they were later orchestrated by his friend Felix Mottl.

Christine Brewer’s voice was something of a revelation for me as I have not always appreciated her performances as much as some commentators have. There was plenty of volume yet it was always very lyrical throughout the Wesendonck-Lieder; with impressive artistry she sustained almost perfectly the momentum of each of the songs, keeping a taut control of the phrasing and allowing their meaning to flow naturally from the musical line and the texts: only at the very top of her voice did it lack breath and lustre.

Anton Webern completed his Passacaglia, Op. 1 in May 1908 and conducted the work in a Vienna concert at the beginning of November that year with the Tonkünstlerverein Orchester – it marked the composer’s independence after studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg for four years. The passacaglia theme is followed by a set of 23 connected variations and a coda and his music bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Webern wrote this work as a kind of ‘graduation exercise’ but the influences of other composers – apart from Schoenberg – is very blatant, especially Mahler. The cumulative effect of the BBC SO’s performance was mightily impressive and I appreciated particularly Gardner highlighting the classicism of the 13th variation and the vehemence of the 16th.

After the interval there was the Prelude to Act I of Tristan and Gardner cast a rapt spell with the opening notes hovering on the edge of audibility, the long lyrical passages unfolding with a natural flow, and throughout he drew refined, nuanced playing from his impeccable orchestra. (Although I longed for the Liebestod that we were not given – I am even keener to hear him conduct the entire opera soon.) Between composing his operas Wozzeck (first performed in 1925) and Lulu (1937), Berg selected seven of his early songs to arrange into a cycle. The songs he chose were written from 1905 to 1908, again during the final years of some studies with Schoenberg, and although they reveal the influence of the late-Romantic German Lieder tradition they eschew traditional harmony. Christine  Brewer beautifully conveyed the expressive depth of what is conceived as a symmetrical cycle; the first and final songs are composed for full orchestra, the second and sixth for smaller forces, and the third and fifth for, respectively, strings and wind only, with the fourth anchoring the cycle. Ms Brewer sang with a warm, luminous voice once again; however her voice was under more stress on occasions, such as when she had to soar above the ensemble in ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The Nightingale) and I am not certain she totally embodied all their myriad moods. However, they are musically very difficult songs and it was a very committed performance that matched Gardner’s near-perfect accompaniment in which the orchestra sensitively illuminated the intricacies of Berg’s alluring score.

Strauss’s tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) was written when he was only 25 yet it depicts the death of an artist. A sick man is dying and there is a battle between life and death that offers no respite to the man whose life passes before him – after he dies there is a longed-for transfiguration. The music critic Ernest Newman described this as music to which one would neither want to die nor to awaken: ‘It is too spectacular, too brilliantly lit, too full of pageantry of a crowd; whereas this is a journey one must make very quietly, and alone’. In one of Strauss’s last compositions, Im Abendrot from the Four Last Songs, he quotes the  ‘transfiguration’ theme that he had written 60 years earlier during and after the soprano’s final line, ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (‘Could this then be death?’). On his own deathbed Strauss was reported to have said ‘Dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung’. There is more than just an echo of Tristan to be heard and it was a perfect end to a near-perfect evening. The BBC SO had been an excellent ensemble throughout the evening and once again during this tone poem responded sensitively to the music’s many differing moods. The transitions between the different episodes were clean and precise and the tension never slackened from the suitably dark beginning through to the shattering climax with its blazing brass peroration. Gardner seems as adept in Strauss as in Wagner and the performance had some beautiful detail, long lines and a splendid cohesiveness: the leader of the orchestra, Natalie Chee, had some particularly impressive solo moments.

As I was leaving I heard the strains of ‘Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and – having earlier bemoaned having to celebrate Christmas with Webern – Gardner and his orchestra sent those who had stayed away full of seasonal goodwill!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the BBC SO’s forthcoming concerts visit www.bbc.co.uk/symphonyorchestra.

For more about music on BBC Radio 3 visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3.