The bicentenary celebrations of Wagner’s birth were nicely rounded off with this full and inventively planned concert by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In a spoken introduction, Gardner explained that the locus of the programme was the Prelude to Act I of Tristan und Isolde, the other works either anticipating or having been influenced by this seminal piece.
Wagner’s early Faust Overture made for an ideal opening, not only reflecting the influence of Berlioz and Mendelssohn but hinting at ideas to come in the later operas, especially Lohengrin. The work was given a vigorous performance under Gardner’s direction.
Wagner’s five Wesendonck Lieder were completed while the composer was preoccupied with the composition of Tristan und Isolde, and indeed two of the songs were written as studies for the opera. Christine Brewer brought imaginative phrasing and clear diction to her performance, but her clarion projection was sometimes at odds with the gently rarefied atmosphere of Wagner’s writing, especially Im Treibhaus. Nevertheless, Gardner’s accompaniment, using the familiar orchestration by Felix Mottl, was refined and sensitive, with notable contributions from guest leader Natalie Chee and principal oboe David Powell.
Few composers have produced an Opus 1 as accomplished and powerful as Webern’s Passacaglia, even if builds on the experience of earlier works that the composer chose not to publish. Gardner delivered an urgent performance with eruptive climaxes and an undertow of menace, the links to Pelleas und Melisande by Webern’s teacher, Schoenberg readily apparent.
The second half of the concert began with a performance of the Tristan prelude itself, which was sensitively shaped and brought to a passionate climax. Gardner had earlier explained his intention for Berg’s Seven Early Songs to follow without a break, but the transition was lost to the barrage of throat clearing that some people think is a prerequisite between pieces of music. However, the late romantic style of the songs, selected and orchestrated by Berg in 1928 from among those he wrote as a young man two decades before, was a surprisingly effective follow-on from the prelude. Brewer’s interpretation of the texts was rich and detailed, her vocal style more at home here than in the Wagner songs earlier.
The sixth and final item on the programme was Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. Gardner’s performance was notable for its romantic ardour and dramatic contrasts. If some less than smooth transitions and occasional roughness of ensemble suggested a lack of rehearsal time, the performance was otherwise well shaped and the climax of the transfiguration section was electrifying. The epilogue was beautifully rendered.
At the end, the orchestra’s brass section piped up with seasonal encores of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and We Wish You a Merry Christmas to see everyone on their way.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.