Brewer/Philharmonia/Mackerras | Classical review

Royal Festival Hall, London

Bleeding chunks is what they used to call Wagner concerts of this kind back in the days before complete recordings, when such programmes provided the only way for many people to hear Wagner's music. Today, an evening of highlights ripped from the hearts of Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung is not for the purist. The lack of theatrical context and the orchestrally dominated sound balance take getting used to, even in the expert hands of Charles Mackerras.

Mackerras must be a dream to play under. His beat is clear, his gestures never wasted and always wise, and he likes to press on. The Philharmonia's string sound was sumptuous, and the augmented brass in particular revelled in the chance to play some of the most richly coloured music that Wagner ever wrote for their instruments.

And Mackerras gave no quarter. At times Christine Brewer's mighty soprano was overwhelmed by the waves of Wagner's orchestral climaxes in the Götterdämmerung scene, written for Bayreuth's more singer-friendly acoustic. Occasionally, in some of the lower-lying phrases at the start of Brünnhilde's immolation, there was a lack of the ideally resonant projection, but once she had warmed up fully Brewer was unstinting and glorious. Her sound was warm, generous and full, and her top notes were thrillingly powerful. If anything, her Liebestod was even better, though Wagner was writing for a smaller orchestra, which helps.

The chance to hear Wagner performed by fine artists is better than no chance at all. But bleeding chunks deny the sense of a musical and metaphysical journey you get in the theatre. To be drawn into the incomparable sound world of the Tristan Prelude and then catapulted into the Liebestod is an uncomfortable experience. Likewise to charge through the big orchestral moments of Götterdämmerung before emerging into the destruction of the world is disconcerting, even in this fine concert.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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