United Kingdom Wagner, Richard Strauss: Renée Fleming (soprano), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 8.4.2016. (CR)
Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Strauss, Four Last Songs
A sense of expectation was contrived in this concert by reserving Renée Fleming’s appearance until its second half, and given the availability of a soprano it was even more odd that the account of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde in the first part was only performed in a purely orchestral version which undoubtedly lacked something in impact as a result. When Fleming did arrive to sing the Four Last Songs, the performance was a little anti-climactic, not on account of the quality of her singing, but the fact that she was positioned at the back of the orchestra on the raised platform next to the brass, the idea being, presumably, that she would project better her vocal lines over the Oxford Philharmonic. Except for a few soaring passages, however, her sound was rather submerged by the orchestral sonority around it, and the subtleties of her agile, fluid singing was lost. Marios Papadopoulos’ conducting tended to be remorseless and so did not aid Fleming’s cause – the pace of September, for example, could well have slackened somewhat to enable the music to speak more luminously. But a more finely integrated orchestral texture did cohere for the serene vision of death articulated in Im Abendrot and so, together with Fleming, the orchestra achieved something of a rightful sense of catharsis by the end of the cycle. Fleming certainly charted a more consistent line of development from the easeful lustre of Frühling, through to a richer timbre for September, and a transfigured radiance for the last two songs.
On coming to the front to sing two encores, both Fleming and the Oxford Philharmonic sounded at much greater ease in a further pair of Strauss lieder – first a relaxed and charming account of Zueignung, and then a poised sense of reconciliation in Morgen. In the latter, Carmine Lauri gave a more controlled, sonorous performance of the violin solo than he had with his more tense, brittle interpretation of the violin’s contribution to Beim Schlafengehen in the Four Last Songs.
In the concert’s first half, Papadopoulos led the Oxford Philharmonic in extracts from two of Wagner’s operas exploring the nature and dynamics of romantic and sexual love. He secured a due sense of contrast in the Overture to Tannhäuser between the chaste and the sensual, with the long-breathed and controlled sections of its opening on the one hand, and the ecstatic sections depicting the Venusberg later on. Although the brass sounded muddy and obscured in the first section, they redeemed themselves at the climax with some resplendent playing, particularly from the trombones, and the orchestral playing throughout the Venusberg sequence was suitably dazzling.
A problem which was more latent in the Overture, but became pronounced in the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, was the rigid pace with which Papadopoulos steered through each piece. Particularly in the sighing, inconclusive phrases of these extracts from Tristan, the music needs to be moulded far more organically and expressively, and so what should be the overwhelming effect of the Liebestod at its climax was rather held in check. Tension and momentum in these performances came about not really through sculpting the music’s blocks into a cogent structure, but through weight of sound instead. Admittedly, this was often impressive when all was put together, though the layering of successive ranks of orchestral sonority to reach that point was sometimes crudely imposed and mis-matched – the yearning, searching timbre of the cellos in the Prelude was not equalled by the rest of the strings in the exposition of its material for example, and the oboist produced a slight buzzing sound which was out of tune. Fortunately textural coherence amongst the orchestra played out better during the climax of both extracts from Tristan.
It was a relatively brief, but heady selection of pieces for this programme then, with a creditable attempt to match their emotional temperature on the part of the performers.