double play

Wagner Overtures and Preludes New Queen's Hall Orchestra Eye of the Storm EOS 5001
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The Independent Culture
"A whole new meaning to authenticity" - yes, the booklet cover. With Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner insisting that "authenticity" in music never meant anything in the first place, perhaps what we really need is a whole new word. Anyway, the New Queen's Hall Orchestra doesn't try to re-create the musical conditions of Wagner's time, but those of an English orchestra in the early part of this century - a very different creature from today's luxuriously upholstered musical machine, as this disc well illustrates.

The novelty is the inclusion of two versions of each work (hence the two CDs) - the intention being to stress the fact that no performance is "definitive", but rather something unique and unrepeatable. I couldn't agree more, though the perpetuation of two different accounts on a very repeatable CD is hard to reconcile with that ideal. It's not as if the alternative performances even feel radically different - though the second Rienzi overture does sound more hurried, and I admit it was fascinating to compare the two versions of the Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan.

But as a representation of what the New Queen's Hall Orchestra is about this is much more successful than their previous Vaughan Williams disc. The sound of the orchestra hasn't been cleaned up: we still get the gorgeous, slightly "dirty" intonation (especially from the winds), the resinous string sound and, best of all, the feeling that the music is risky, dangerous - with none of the often complacent security of the modern star orchestra.

Those who crave luxurious super-precision will hate it: I found I warmed to it, even though Barry Wordsworth's interpretations vary in energy and dramatic power - there's at least one exceptional performance in the first account of the Rienzi overture. In the end, the spontaneity and inner intensity may not quite rival Furtwangler, but this disc does have a message and it's one that deserves to be widely heard.


The trouble with crusades is that they all too easily turn into tyrannies. "Modern instruments could never hope to give Wagner's profound orchestral understanding its proper due." The extensive documentation accompanying this release is full of such chauvinistic conceits. Our way is Wagner's way and his way was the only way. And yet, in the next breath, Matthew Boyden's liner notes are suggesting that "while there is nothing to be said for a slavish adherence to detail (his marks do not necessarily convey the same meaning to modern musicians as they did to his own), there is nothing to be gained from ignoring them."

The parenthesis is interesting. To "modern musicians" add "modern audiences". Styles change, perceptions change. Period performance is an interesting exercise, but let's keep a sense of proportion. That was then, this is now. And, in the final analysis, you can't impose style any more than you can interpretation.

These discs offer two performances of the same works from the same conductor in the same group of sessions. Sorry, I don't understand. I thought interpretation was organic: something felt, not arbitrarily applied ("Let's do it again, chaps. This time I fancy I'll try a ritardando here, an accelerando there, and let's go for a slower tempo overall").

Nobody truly believes that an artist's conception of a work "can be contained in a single performance": a recording is a snap-shot. But surely, on any given day, a conductor should have a view. So which of his accounts of the Tannhauser overture (one is over two minutes shorter than the other) does Barry Wordsworth actually believe in? Or doesn't he?

There's a further double-irony in that these performances so conspicuously lack the free spirit and temperament of the period that Eye of the Storm claims to represent. The aforementioned Tannhauser readings - both of them - are actually very staid, very un-enticing (safe sex came early to the Venusberg). The New Queen's Hall Orchestra makes a lovely noise: warm, homogeneous, characterful, the gut-string sound wonderful to behold in the Tristan Act 3 prelude, the Die Meistersinger prelude rich and benevolent, well-endowed with fat, but never overwhelming, brass. But equally, there are rather too many concessions to "spontaneity": scruffy ensemble, poor intonation.

By the way, in his illustrated talk on the orchestra, James Thomson asserts that portamento has been "banished from concert platforms for generations". Where has he been? Living in the past?