United Kingdom Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s School of the Romantic Heart: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Robin Ticciati (conductor). Filmed 26.8.2021 in the Glyndebourne Opera House (by Maestro Broadcasting and directed by Dominic Best) and available on Marquee TV from 10.9.2021. (JPr)
Wagner – Wesendonck-Lieder
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
This is the last of the four programmes in Glyndebourne’s 2021 concert series and once again – for some reason – we only got a shortened version with just Wagner and Brahms but no Berlioz or Weber which those in the live audience saw and heard. But what Wagner and Brahms it was! Given that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s listed numbers were only just over 50 and because of their traditional use of period instruments, Robin Ticciati and his accomplished musicians were always likely to draw us into a slightly different soundworld than sometimes we expect for these two composers.
Ticciati’s introduction exclaimed: ‘What a huge rite of passage Brahms’s First Symphony is. He started it off as a serenade, then turned it into a First Piano Concerto but then we have the First Symphony that goes from C minor to C major [and] comes out in a blazing light at the end, an almost adolescent chorale that signals “I’m here, this is my symphony, this is my music”.’ However, because Brahms was burdened by being perceived as the heir to Beethoven there were fourteen years between the composition of the first and last movements. As Ticciati hints at, this is another symphonic journey from darkness to light, or night to day.
There was an uncommon warmth to what we heard from the OAE though there was no lack of drama in Brahms’s opening Un poco sostenuto — Allegro. At one point the spectral quality of certain passages seemed to look back to Weber and the Wolf’s Glen scene in his Der Freischütz (perhaps that was why an extract from this opera was in the original programme?). The first movement ended with more portentous music and a timpani-led culmination. The slow second movement contained much that was quietly reflective and featured Daniel Bates’s oboe, Katherine Spencer’s clarinet, and ended with a sustained final note from Leader Kati Debretzeni after her high-lying violin solo. Another lyrical clarinet melody was the highlight of the third movement where the emphasis emphasis – with Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute also to the fore – was on the graceful in Un poco allegretto e grazioso and the music built and built before gently subsiding. Ticciati seemed to keep Brahms’s finale – the longest part of the entire symphony – under tight control and I suspect it could be rather more helter-skelter with some other conductors. From the pizzicato strings and ominous timpani onwards there were more excellent solo contributions. The music seemed to successively gain and lose momentum but clearly was heading to a blazing conclusion underpinned by Adrian Bending’s timpani (which foreshadows its use by Bruckner); the end all the more empathic because of five tutti chords. A sense of triumphalism was palpable from Ticciati and his willing OAE accomplices.
For ‘starters’ there had been Wagner’s perfect in miniature masterpieces, the Wesendonck-Lieder song cycle. As oft told, the songs were composed in the late 1850s when he was ‘involved’ with Mathilde Wesendonck in what may have just been an affair of the mind, though it did inspire the five poems of hers he set to music. I remember a thought-provoking programme note by Barry Millington once beginning: ‘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?’.
Clearly Wagner did abuse Otto Wesendonck’s generosity, probably in more ways than one; however, it led to the creation of Tristan und Isolde and the Prelude to Act III and the Act II duet are heard in the songs, Im Treibhaus and Träume. The songs were originally written for piano accompaniment but were later orchestrated by Wagner’s friend Felix Mottl. Ticciati praised the Wesendonck-Lieder by saying how Wagner ‘always plays with our emotions and the emotions of the singer.’ Admittedly I was only hearing this concert through loudspeakers, but I have rarely heard them better sung than by Karen Cargill (who was so good as Brangäne in Glyndebourne’s recent performance of Tristan at the BBC Proms, review click here).
Cargill’s highish mezzo voice had plenty of volume yet always was very lyrical throughout her rendition of the Wesendonck-Lieder; her superb technique enabled the floating of ‘Luft’ and ‘Duft’ in Im Treibhaus and the descent of ‘sinken’ nearer the end of Träume as just two examples of her vocal perfection. (How much better it was to hear Cargill sing Im Treibhaus after Stuart Skelton misfired with it at The Last Night of the Proms recently.) Cargill made an effort to dramatise each song and with impressive artistry she faultlessly sustained the momentum of each song. Every word of the texts was heard clearly, and Cargill kept taut control on phrasing to allow their meaning to flow naturally from the musical line. Did one of the five stand out more than the others? In such overall excellence it is hard to choose but Cargill’s Schmerzen had particular radiance and she was at her most dramatically expressive in this song about how ‘death gives birth to life’. Ticciati and the OAE’s understated, non-indulgent accompaniment – there were a couple of exquisite postludes – was almost as perfect as the singing.