Philharmonia Orchestra/ Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall, London


Bleeding chunks or prime cuts? Either way, there’s something deeply dissatisfying, even pointless, about an evening of Wagner highlights.

Not even Sir Charles Mackerras could make musical sense of scenes and interludes designed to move forward and ultimately resolve a larger – much larger – narrative. Wagner was the supreme dramatist with a sense of proportion and development second to none – so it was interesting but no surprise that moments so overwhelming in the context of his operas proved merely exciting in this “greatest hits” context. No reflection on the burnished Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing or the big hearted opulence of the star soprano, Christine Brewer – it’s just that great moments need to be earned.

The exception, of course, was the Prelude and Venusberg Music of Tannhauser where the stately chorale-like procession of pilgrims is so provocatively juxtaposed with the sensual delights of Venus. And lest it be suggested that at 84-years of age Mackerras no longer has the wherewithal to whip up a mean orgy I am here to tell you that it was instructional to see the great man rise from his sitting position and unleash a trumpet-topped whirlwind of sexual naughtiness with tambourines and castanets adding so quirkily to the headiness of it all.

But no sooner had the Three Graces arrived and the Hymn to Venus shimmered to extinction when the mysteries of the “Tristan chord” had deposited in another country, another uncharted world altogether. I can no longer buy the concert format of the “Prelude and Liebestod”, the beginning and end of Tristan und Isolde. The absence of an emotional journey renders this sublime music merely cosmetic: you surrender to it without really knowing why. And beautiful though Christine Brewer’s singing of the Liebestod was, she and us need to have arrived at that state of heightened awareness from somewhere.

Actually it was interesting to watch Brewer sit out the concert evocation of daybreak from Gotterdammerung. In the opera she and Siegfried would be greeting the new day with ecstatic exchanges and you could almost see her mouthing the words, eager to be a part of the gathering excitement. Mackerras and the orchestra certainly hit all the nodal points – like Siegfried’s athletic Rhine Journey and the convulsive Funeral March - of this “selection” from the opera. But it felt like a stitch-up in more ways than one – and come Brunnhilde’s defiant Immolation, Brewer’s rolling womanly tones – so telling in the quiet middle section – were ultimately swallowed by the wall of brass that was once Valhalla.

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