Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia review: Bryn Terfel proves he’s still a master of his art when it comes to Wagner

26 March 2023

Conductor Alexander Soddy jumps in at short notice and creates a stir at the Royal Festival Hall.


Bryn Terfel, Alexander Soddy & Philharmonia (Photo: Robert Piwko)

Bryn Terfel and Esa-Pekka Salonen had been talking about a musical collaboration for some time, but in the end it was not to be. At the eleventh hour Salonen had to pull out after testing positive for Covid –  a shame as this was to be his first appearance in front of his old orchestra after relinquishing the post of music director in 2019. Luckily, British conductor Alexander Soddy was free, and agreed to jump in at short notice. An experienced Wagnerian, having conducted The Ring Cycle at Mannheim – where he was until recently the music director, he was the perfect choice to replace the Finnish maestro. It also helped that he’d conducted all the Bruckner symphonies in the not too distant past as well, so there was no reason to facilitate a change in the programme.

Soddy, who has been garnering extremely positive notices wherever he’s appeared – including prestigious engagements at The Met, New York, the Vienna Staatsoper, and at Berlin’s opera houses – is one of the most talented conductors of his generation. He made a sensational Royal Opera debut in September, conducting an incandescent performance of Salome, and word on the street was that his appearance in the pit there for the final performance in the latest Tannhäuser revival revitalised the performance and rescued it from the pervading torpor that had blighted the first night and subsequent performances. In the process he knocked over 10 minutes off the running time – and boy did it need it!

With such an affinity with Wagner, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the Wagner excerpts in the first half were conducted and played with warmth, intelligence and scrupulous attention to detail, beginning with an exuberant performance on the Overture to Die Meistersinger. Soddy teased out the musical themes, balance was faultless, and it was clear from the joy on their faces, that the Philharmonia players were having a whale of a time as well.

“Soddy… is one of the most talented conductors of his generation”


Alexander Soddy (Photo: Robert Piwko)

Staying with Wagner’s hymn to German art, one of the leading exponents of the role of Hans Sachs, Bryn Terfel then delivered an eloquent, moving account of the ‘Flieder’ monologue from the second act, where the cobbler muses on life, and the passing of time. Terfel quite simply became the character – you could see the motivation behind his eyes – and with minimal gestures embodied Sachs’ humanity to perfection. His sonorously rich bass-baritone was in fine fettle, and as ever he relished the text in a way many singers can’t.

Similarly he caught all the conflicting emotions in an impassioned rendition of Wotan’s Farewell from the last act of Die Walküre. It has to be said that some of the notes are now a bit of a stretch for him, but the occasional effortful phrase didn’t detract from what was a powerful and moving interpretation. Soddy drew magical playing from the orchestra, his tempi were spot on, and the magic fire music at the close flickered and glistened to perfection.

After the interval, we were treated to a rip-roaring performance of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony – which the composer labelled his ‘cheekiest’. Maybe taking his cue from this, Soddy certainly didn’t linger – the momentum was headlong, yet it never seemed rushed. Musical lines, themes and phrases were given due weight, and the orchestral textures were clear. The Adagio had real sonority, while the Scherzo had colossal guts and drive. The finale almost ran away with itself, and there were a couple of wobbles in the ensemble here and there, but for the most part this was as thrilling an account of this symphony as I’ve heard live in the concert hall. Soddy can’t have had that much rehearsal time with his players, so given the palpable rapport between them, one hopes that he’s invited back soon.

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Philharmonia review: Bryn Terfel proves he’s still a master of his art when it comes to Wagner
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