A feast of bleeding chunks

RPO / Gergiev RFH, London
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The Independent Culture
They became known as "bleeding chunks", and for the want of complete staged performances of Wagner's music dramas, these excerpts joined the staple orchestral repertory, featuring regularly, for instance, in the promenade concerts of my youth. In a more purist age, when the music was increasingly likely to be heard in its proper dramatic context, these splendid orchestral showpieces were less often programmed, and it was with a nostalgic frisson that I listened last Tuesday to an evening of some of the most familiar of them, given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Valery Gergiev at the Royal Festival Hall.

The variety of expression and musical process encompassed by these pieces is phenomenal, rendering them far more satisfactory in concert performance than the majority of operatic extracts. They may lose as much as any other dramatic music when ripped from its context, but they compensate with their sheer symphonic richness, Wagner's special contribution to the musical theatre. Indeed, by highlighting the orchestra, concert performances focus this quality, so that we return to the opera house with a greater appreciation of Wagner's achievement.

It was intriguing to hear what a Russian conductor made of this repertory. In fact, Gergiev started with a charming address from the podium in which he reminded us of Wagner's importance in Russia - the Prelude and Liebestod, for instance, was premiered by Wagner in St Petersburg - and he closed with what seemed an apology for the fact that Russians on tour seem to play nothing but Russian music.

In the event, there was much to interest us, although the orchestra was not always on best form, suffering occasional intonation problems and moments of rhythmic imprecision. Influenced, possibly, by the hard-edged textures of their native repertory, Russian conductors can often create sharply defined contrasts in music where a blended sound is normally sought, and Gergiev is no exception.

With the early orchestral style of the overtures to The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser, this approach worked well, as did Gergiev's controlled dynamism, but in the Prelude and Liebestod, instrumental lines sometimes stood out which would have functioned better in an overall colour-mix. In three mighty excerpts from Gotterdammerung - Siegfried's Rhine Journey, the Funeral March and Brunnhilde's Immolation - much the same happened, and sections of undeniable grandeur were offset by orchestral textures that could have been more tellingly integrated.

In the past, such concert performances have not always been graced by the presence of Wagner's vocal lines; here, we were lucky enough to have Anne Evans sing Isolde and Brunnhilde, a brave last-minute substitute for an indisposed Galina Gorchakova. It can be a thankless task singing Wagner without the aid of a pit to damp the orchestral sound, but Evans brought a touching humanity to these larger-than-life roles, and sang with distinction.