Plenty of Interesting Music but Little Drama at the Proms from Salonen and the Philharmonia


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 36 – Webern, Mahler and Wagner: Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa‐Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London., 9.8.2018. (JPr)

Webern – Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op.10

Mahler – Adagio from Symphony No.10

WagnerDie Walküre, Act I

Anja Kampe – Sieglinde
Robert Dean Smith – Siegmund
Franz-Josef Selig – Hunding

On the first day of a break in the 2018 UK heatwave; at the BBC Proms there was this interesting illustrated ‘lecture’ on the history of music from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra which showed – in reverse order – how Wagner begat (via Bruckner) Mahler who begat Webern.

Webern’s Five Pieces were described in the programme as ‘composed for a small orchestra which includes that favourite instrument of Viennese bourgeoise households, the harmonium, as well as a mandolin – whose sound may have reached Webern’s ears via the Seventh Symphony of his hero Gustav Mahler.’ Webern’s Five Pieces are basically microcosmic musical ephemera lasting barely five minutes and were over before they began: played from amongst the full Philharmonia Orchestra crowded on the platform they got lost in the vast Royal Albert Hall.

It was difficult to ascertain – even revisiting the Five Pieces on BBC iPlayer – exactly where they ended, and Mahler’s Adagio began – which I suspect is as Salonen planned it. This is, of course, from his Tenth Symphony that was left in various stages of completion on the early death of the composer in 1911. However, the opening Adagio was virtually finished – albeit without any of the revisions Mahler would have made had he heard it performed – and reoccurs in concert programming as a standalone work. The other four movements were left at various stages in the composition process and there have been several attempts to complete it.

Alma, Mahler’s wife, had been having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and the composer’s turbulent emotional state – when he was working on his Tenth Symphony – is clear for all to see from graffiti throughout the manuscript he left us: for the short B flat minor third movement – which he called at first ‘Purgatorio oder Inferno’ – there is ‘Erbarmen!’ (‘Have mercy!’ is Amfortas’s cry in Wagner’s Parsifal); for the muffled drum strokes of the fifth movement Mahler writes to Alma, ‘Du allein weisst was es bedeutet’ (‘Only you understand what it means’). (This refers to a moment shared with Alma as a fireman’s funeral procession passed below their apartment in New York.) The last movement culminates where the violins soar up to the ‘sigh’ of a high G sharp and Mahler scrawls ‘Almschi’ (his pet name for his wife).

After a hushed opening from the violas, there follows a deeply consoling theme in strings and trombones which brings some hope for the future before the Adagio settles to becomes a danse macabre (for Gustav and Alma?) that does not seem to allow them much redemption. A nine-note dissonance – a great cry of anguish – seems to be Mahler discovering his wife’s affair and is crowned by a long note from a solo trumpet. This leads to a coda bringing some resolution and greater solace. Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra seemed to be searching for something during the Adagio and I am not sure what that was – possibly the rest of the symphony? The orchestral playing was superbly committed throughout, but there was still something missing: it was all too respectful, elegant and eloquent and much like the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at times. This manic-depressive Adagio from Mahler’s unquiet mind needs a far more psychoanalytical approach and consequently was somewhat underplayed by Salonen and his orchestra.

Not every conductor can be a Wagner conductor and the jury remains out after his Act I from Die Walküre as to whether Salonen will be. He is yet to conduct the Ring cycle in the opera house, though he has plans to do so; I even wondered how much Wagner he had actually heard in the theatre. The packed Royal Albert Hall acclaimed the performance to once again underline that – generally in the UK – audiences have lost the ability to recognise what Wagner should really sound like.

Having longed for the Mahler to be given some psychoanalysis there was now too much forensic analysis with Salonen’s Wagner. It seemed like all the musical phrases had been dissected before being stitched back together again. The Philharmonia Orchestra were superb throughout but – just like at times in the Mahler – they needed to be let of the leash more often and not be kept under such tight rhythmic control. This was Wagner’s music without much of his vaunted drama. In the programme the incomparable Michael Tanner explained how Wagner – having ‘denied himself large-scale musical development’ for Das Rheingold because it was not appropriate – with his Act I of Die Walküre he ‘at last had his chance to put his principals into practice while engaging in a huge quasi-symphonic structure, so that the whole act (if adequately conducted) constitutes a single sustained movement towards the moment when Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree.’ Salonen’s conducting was precise and unhurried and failed Tanner’s ‘test’ and there was no overall arc. Most disappointingly the Philharmonia Orchestra’s muted – though otherwise exemplary – brass section failed throughout the entire act to emphasis the significance of their critical leitmotifs.

Singing from memory the soloists gave solid performances which intermittently rose to considerable heights. Since they all remained standing and indulged in some minimal interaction during the performance, why oh why did they have to be dressed so formally? This imposed a ‘starchiness’ – to the two men particularly – that was incongruous. Robert Dean Smith’s stoic Siegmund still had all the vocal stamina and heft required to get through the act and his baritonal voice – despite not having the ease of former times – had sufficient lyricism to make his careful performance quite engaging. He can still hit his high notes and sustained the famous ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ cries with strength although he was somewhat indulged here as if he was singing ‘Vincerò!’ at the end of ‘Nessun dorma’. Strangely Franz-Josef Selig was to prove the best of the soloists as a fearsome Hunding and displayed his perfect diction alongside a roaring and chilling bass voice. Anja Kampe is a refugee from three performances of Die Walküre being conducted currently at Bayreuth by Plácido Domingo that have had a mixed reception, to say the least. She impressed with some insightful acting through use of words, body language and some minimal hand gestures. Kampe’s rather dark toned voice was impassioned – as befitting a woman in an abusive marriage. She was always reaching for some of her highest notes, though – to her credit – she got them in the end through the force of will that underpinned her interesting performance.

Jim Pritchard

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