MUSIC / Clapped in cold blood: Wagner Night - The Proms

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The Independent Culture
A programme of miscellaneous Wagner excerpts is usually labelled 'bleeding chunks'. But, far from 'bleeding', such excerpts resemble packs of frozen meat: no blood, hardly anything to identify them as once-living operatic flesh. This 'bloodless chunk' approach has made Wagner the Proms' most performed composer. The programme note for Wednesday's Wagner Night cited a 1904 Prom that offered 10 items - in the first half. Nowadays we might choke on such an assortment and Tadaaki Otaka's programme for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales strove for something more organic, more whole.

At its centre was Anne Evans' performance of the Wesendonck Songs. As a kind of Wesendonck Overture, Otaka performed the Prelude to Tristan Act 3, nudging us to recognise the connections: Wagner worked on both opera and song-cycle simultaneously, while material from the Prelude appears in the third song, 'Im Treibhaus', which, like the last song 'Traume', is subtitled 'Study for Tristan und Isolde'.

Evans' melancholy timbre suits Wagner's chill eroticism and she has the rare gift of making music that can seem pompous sound as natural as folk song. She gave elegant shape to long phrases and, if not every syllable emerged with perfect clarity, she avoided the exaggerated precision that so many Anglophone singers bring to Wagner.

Evans' sure-footedness was all the more to her credit when Otaka's measured pacing stretched the voice towards parlando. Throughout the first half, relaxed tempos undermined the tension and, until Evans appeared, proceedings matched the heavy, soggy Albert Hall atmosphere. The Tannhauser overture, as electrifyingly theatrical as anything in Verdi, seems to command a curtain to rise, but here the sequence of events seemed strung out, disconnected, although the climactic pianissimo was finely judged.

A sense of drama became more evident in the second half when Otaka assembled a collage of Gotterdammerung excerpts that could fairly be said to precis the opera. The seamlessness that Otaka sought was compromised, however, by the decision to delay Evans' entry until immediately before Brunnhilde's immolation scene, whereupon a burst of applause disturbed the flow more than it should have.

Even sung in isolation, this scene is fiercely demanding, yet Evans gave the impression of having reserves of power at her disposal, and her elegant performance was enthusiastically applauded. I know Proms audiences are noted for their exuberance, but I wouldn't have minded a few moments of breathing space before the clapping, stamping and whistling began.