A Dramatic Symphonie Fantastique from Koenigs and WNO Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg, Wagner, Berlioz: Emma Bell* (soprano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra/Lothar Koenigs, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.1.2014 (PCG)

Berg:  Lyric Suite (1926)
Wagner orch Möttl:  Wesendonck Lieder* (1859)
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (1830)


The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique is often – and quite correctly – cited as one of the ground-breaking works of the nineteenth century romantic movement, written only a couple of years after Beethoven’s death but exploring new territory on the grandest scale. But of course Berlioz himself revised the work considerably in later years, and his original composition included in its turn reworkings of earlier material – the central idée fixe from his Prix de Rome cantata Herminie, sections of the Scene in the country from his Messe solenelle, and the March to the scaffold from his abortive opera Les francs-juges. There has been a tendency in some quarters, taking a cue from Berlioz’s admiration for Gluck, to emphasise the classical traditions in the work; but the fact remains that its form is very far from classical, and many of the ‘special effects’ in the score look back not to the eighteenth century but to the music of the French Revolutionary pageants which Berlioz had absorbed from his teacher Leseur. Lothar Koenigs in this performance rightly recognised the dramatic potential in the score, and the results were every bit as startling as Berlioz clearly intended.

In the opening Dreams and passions, with its totally free approach to musical form, Koenigs allowed himself to extend and contract the tempi with considerable licence, even justifying the extensive repeat of the middle section by treating the music quite differently the second time around. The results were totally convincing and fully in the tradition of romantic conducting outlined in the writings of Berlioz himself. In the second movement Koenigs removed the solo cornet part that Berlioz subsequently added to the score, but the waltz retained its character and the delivery of the idée fixe in the final bars had pungency as well as repose. The offstage oboe in the Scene in the country could have been further distanced to advantage, and the pedal trombone notes in the March to the scaffold could have been emphasised more; but the woodwind glissandi at the beginning of the Witch’s Sabbath, so often underplayed or simply ignored in performance, were delivered with real relish. The only point at which the performance fell short of being close to the romantic ideal was in the employment of the bells during that final movement. Here the two large tubular bells were a couple of octaves too high (Berlioz clearly shows in his suggested substitution of piano chords that the notes are intended to sound below the plainchant Dies irae declaimed by the two tubas – ophicleides in his original scoring) and their resonant overtones were allowed to overhang the following orchestral passages in a way that blurred Berlioz’s clear harmonies. Welsh National Opera had access to some synthesised bells for their production of Wagner’s Parsifal forty years ago (they were also used on their recording of the score under Reginald Goodall) and the use of these admittedly modern equivalents would have surely been closer to Berlioz’s clear intentions.

The programme as a whole, cleverly constructed around the theme of ‘fallen women’, opened with the three movements of Berg’s Lyric suite which the composer extracted from his original version for string quartet. As in the Berlioz, Koenigs split his violins antiphonally across the stage; but there is less justification for this in the Berg score, where Berg probably intended the orchestral layout to mirror that for a string quartet. The expansion of the scoring for a larger body of strings (including a solo double-bass) helped to consolidate the tone to good effect, but the delicate high-lying pianissimo filigree of the second movement could perhaps have done with a bit more definition.

Between these two items we were given the five songs which Wagner wrote to words by his patroness and muse Mathilde Wesendonck  (Was she really a ‘fallen woman’?) of which Wagner himself orchestrated the final Träume and Felix Möttl the earlier four including the Im Triebhaus which drew in considerable measure on the music Wagner had sketched for the Prelude to Act Three in Tristan und Isolde. Emma Bell sounded slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra in the first two songs (with Möttl’s sometimes unsubtle use of the brass), but she rose to the challenge of the depiction of the hothouse in the third song with a beautiful sense of control, and her shading of the final Träume was also very fine indeed. Bell seems to be currently moving from her original Handelian and Mozartian roots into heavier repertory, but on the basis of this performance one would hope that she would not venture too far into more heroic territory at the expense of her superb control in quiet singing.

However much of the eloquence of her performance was vitiated by the quite inexplicable failure of the programme to provide texts or translations of the Wesendonck poems. I have had occasion in the past to complain of the failure of recording companies to provide the essential information which is required for listeners to fully appreciate the artistry of the delivery of words by singers, and have been advised by the producers of such issues that problems arise either because (a) the texts are copyright, (b) the booklet size would be prohibitively costly, (c) the texts and translations are available online anyway, (d) there simply isn’t room, or (e) people don’t care about the dramatic context anyway. None of these considerations could possibly be held to apply here, except possibly the last; and it beggars belief that any opera company could possibly subscribe to that perfidious notion – certainly not WNO director David Pountney, who has gone on record on many occasions to emphasise the importance of engaging audiences with the words they are hearing. As it was the programme notes by Sophie Rashbrook, who is described as a ‘trainee dramaturg’ and therefore presumably should know better, didn’t even seek to explain to the listeners what the poems were actually about. Under the circumstances Bell was fighting an uphill struggle to engage with her audience.

Paul Corfield Godfrey