BBC Proms reviews

Prom 55: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink – Wagner and Debussy @ Royal Albert Hall, London

25 August 2007

“The musical beauty is incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong. Parsifal is one of the loveliest monuments to sound ever raised to the serene glory of music.”

Such unreserved laudation for Wagners final music drama is not to be discounted or ridiculed, particularly when it comes from the venerable likes of Claude Debussy.

It was, therefore, something of a disappointment when the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under conductor laureate Bernard Haitink, opened their second Proms concert in as many days with a performance of the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal that failed to approach the otherworldly nature of both the music and the ensuing libretto. Much of the frustration stemmed from Haitink, whose restrained, stolid tempo led to a loss of focus on more than one occasion. The brass, though in possession of a rich, full-bodied tone, were dogged by a tentativeness which yielded some rather unwieldy entries. The strings did their utmost to negate these predicaments, engendering a tremendous wall of sound in passages of all dynamics. In the end, however, the overall effect was somewhat pedestrian.

Greater success was enjoyed in the Good Friday Music of the same opera. Haitink instigated a rousing build to the opening climax, followed by a pointed account of the music that represents the transfiguration of Nature. Yet, despite some lovely touches of rubato and a beautifully alluring duet between oboe and clarinet, the performance never quite ploughed the emotional depths.

When the music of Wagner made its return at the end of the second half, however, it was in stark contrast to the Concertgebouws earlier efforts. The opening moments of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde were expertly crafted, marked by the probing ‘cellos and incisive subtlety from the woodwind. There was a wonderful sense of organicism about the entire performance. Luscious phrases persistently overlapped, and all parts of the orchestra deftly exchanged thematic material with each other. The unusually swift accelerando over which Haitink presided at the works central climax evoked an intensely lustful fervour, full of a passion verging on pandemonium. Though the principal theme was partially obscured at the apex of this powerful episode, it barely caused concern in light of the furore which was taking place.

After the tense, on-edge nature of the Prelude, Haitink stepped back and allowed Wagners music to speak for itself in the Liebestod. Far from overdramatic, the conductor took a measured approach whilst still managing to coax seductive dynamic inflections from his musicians. Unfortunately, the troubles experienced by the brass in Parsifal made an unwelcome return – a clumsy trombone entry shattered the atmospheric opening cultivated by the clarinets dignified solo and the iridescent tremolo strings – as did the propensity to veer ever so slightly towards a staid, self-indulgent tempo. Nevertheless, it was a pleasurable performance, followed by a marvellously ebullient rendition of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin as an encore.

On either side of the interval were highly attractive accounts of orchestral works by Debussy. The three Nocturnes (1892-1899) are vintage examples of the composers impressionism. Nuages was characterised by the woodwinds exquisitely picturesque tone, particularly that emanating from the expressive cor anglais of Ruth Visser. Haitink was careful in allowing the orchestra only to revel in the distinctly unique soundworld, as opposed to wallowing in its exotic harmonies and sweeping gestures. The restless spirit of Ftes was expertly captured by the Concertgebouw, its jaunty dance passages subject to vibrant, bustling contributions from all four corners of the orchestra. The march situated at the movements core was simply jaw-dropping, from its lontano beginnings in the hands of the trumpets to the glorious tutti at its culmination. Sirénes was especially notable for the womens voices of the chamber choir Tenebrae. The sonority of their wordless song moulded with the ensemble as if they were an orchestral section in their own right.

Debussy never knew his Six épigraphes antique (1900/1914) in orchestral form – he had only scored them for piano duet after their unsuccessful existence as incidental music for the poetry of Pierre Lous. Rudolf Eschers arrangement from the mid-seventies is remarkable both for its faithfulness to the composer and for its idiosyncratic instrumentation (a small orchestra in which a greater emphasis is placed on the woodwind). These lesser numbers had very little effect on the ensembles fullness of sound. Conductor and musicians alike were seen to be having a thoroughly enjoyable time as they traversed the mysterious and mystical life path of the fictional Bilitis, an enjoyment which was, in turn, translated into sublime music-making.

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