Fine Wagner and Bruckner from Marek Janowski and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner and Bruckner: Egils Siliņš (bass-baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Marek Janowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.4.2017. (JPr)

Wagner – Overture, Der fliegende Holländer; Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music (Die Walküre Act III)

Bruckner – Symphony No.7 in E major (Nowak edition)

This was another concert in London Philharmonic Opera’s ongoing Belief and Beyond Belief 2017 ‘festival’. The music played was a strange choice because although Bruckner was – as in the programme introduction – ‘an unshakeably devout composer’; by contrast Wagner probably only really believed in Wagner. However, it does get my musical triumvirate thesis public for the first time: I myself believe that Wagner begat Bruckner who begat Mahler. Never was this clearer than when listening to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony live for only the second time; and now after ten years since I heard it played at the Proms by the same London Philharmonic Orchestra under the late Kurt Masur.

Wagner was Bruckner’s idol and as he was composing the Adagio of the Seventh Symphony he knew Wagner was ill and would not be alive much longer. On 14 February 1883 Bruckner received the news that the ‘Master’ had died the day before. This movement, which already seems to have had an elegiac tone now turned into a kind of funeral oration. Hearing the Adagio in the context of this history makes it undoubtedly a plaintive elegy; yet as performed by Janowski and the LPO it did not wallow in grief, despite the mournful intrusions of the four ‘Wagner tubas’ and the cymbal crash which – it is suggested – was written into the score when Bruckner received the news of Wagner’s death.

I will not win about the problem of some programme notes; though yet again they were inadequate for a concert with such musical connections between composers. Too little was made of all the homage paid to Wagner in this symphony and the influence of the work on Mahler’s subsequent music (Mahler studied under Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory). Another legend has it that the eloquent opening melody came to Bruckner in a dream and it must be remembered Wagner is supposed to have ‘dreamt’ the opening music to Das Rheingold. In Bruckner’s first movement (Allegro moderato) Rheingold looms large through the brass chorale at the end which – not for the last time – reminds the listener of the ‘Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’. After this resplendent opening the still very spritely Janowski (conducting without a score) and the exceptional LPO brought a formal dignity, sincerity and poignancy to the Adagio which is the emotional turning point of the work …and wasn’t that a hint of Parsifal I heard?

Much of this Seventh Symphony clearly ‘helped’ Mahler when he was composing especially his Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, and he also seems to have found Bruckner’s use of Ländler in the Scherzo a fruitful source of ‘inspiration’. In Janowski’s rollicking account of this movement there was much wit, power and excitement, not least from the blazing brass and timpani which takes us on Bruckner’s version of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The finale sounded surprisingly quick and this removed all trace of pompousness from the two brass pronouncements of its main theme. The symphony ends in that rarest of things – a Brucknerian ‘happy ending’.

This joyous Rondo brings the most spiritually elevating symphony I have heard by Bruckner – similar in spirit to Mahler’s own Seventh Symphony which also pays homage to Wagner –  to a thunderous close. The great onrush of tutti orchestral sound which soars to the concluding – very uplifting – series of chords once more evokes the end of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. His expert musicians provided Janowski with an extraordinary stream of heroic brass tone to augment splendid woodwind and string playing. One minor criticism of the performance was that the LPO’s brass – who undoubtedly played marvellously throughout the whole evening – were slightly too loud for those like me sitting towards the front of the stalls.

Hindsight being a wonderful thing, how much better it would have been to perform something from Das Rheingold rather than Die Walküre or Der fliegende Holländer before the Bruckner. In a little over ten minutes the Overture to The Flying Dutchman introduces some important themes; including those for the doomed Dutchman, the gale-tossed icy seas, Senta’s love and that of ‘Redemption’. Since he is such an experienced Wagner conductor, Janowski conjured up all the dramatic sweep you could expect from this music.

I have only heard Latvian bass-baritone, Egils Siliņš, once before as the Dutchman at Covent Garden in 2011 (review here) and here he sang Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walküre Act III. This is one of the most moving sections in the whole Ring cycle. A father bids farewell (‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’) to his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, who he must punish for her disobedience, yet is now resolved to protect somehow. Egils Siliņš sang very nobly and quite tenderly at the moment of farewell (‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar) and this was echoed in the orchestral response. However well Siliņš’s impressively dark-hued bass-baritone sounded, Wagner’s great orchestral climaxes registered Wotan’s passionate feelings more tellingly than his vocal line. Here they were played by Janowski and the LPO with visceral intensity and the entry of the brass as Wotan summons Loge to provide a sea of fire to protect Brünnhilde ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!’ had further gripping, dramatic bite, underlined with a deep sonority. Wagner specified six harps and these paid dividends here as they sounded almost piano-like during the musically-incandescent rendition of flickering flames.

Jim Pritchard

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