Music: Racing to master Wagner: Nicholas Williams enjoys an accelerated Meistersinger, a highlight of Deutsche Romantik's revelatory Wagner Day

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The Independent Culture
Not everyone can tune into the Wagnerian wavelength. As the recent debate about Romantic values has confirmed, his music remains inseparable from its bad associations. Yet the most heated opponent might have paused for thought after Saturday's QEH Wagner Day, second event of the South Bank's Deutsche Romantik series. It was not so much that politics were absent, but that musicians had a more important issue to explore: Wagnerian tempi.

Far from getting to the truth of Romanticism, it seems we have not even got to the facts about proper speeds in his music. Our present pacings are too slow. As vivid instance, the artistic director, Roger Norrington, reminded the audience that the average timing for the Meistersinger Prelude is nine minutes, that Klemperer took 11, but Wagner himself took only eight. He then conducted the London Classical Players in a performance on original instruments that came in at 10 seconds longer than the master's own duration.

The effect was electrifying: bombast and inflation were all but removed, leaving stylish comedy and vigorous counterpoint to speak for themselves. The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan (minus an indisposed Jane Eaglen) likewise responded to the authentic treatment, played in a clear pulse of two- in-a-bar rather than in the usual state of sublime fluxion. In contrast, the Parsifal Prelude could not be hurried. Yet by observing the strict rhythmic linkage between central and outer sections, Norrington focused the structure from within, in a reading that never stumbled on its own momentum.

And the secret was in the sound, discovered, as it happens, through the orchestra's revival work on Brahms. As the conductor explained, in transferring their experience of playing without vibrato to this composer's arch rival, it was clear that the reverential speeds of post-Wagnerians were only half the story. Read between the lines, Wagner's own writings said as much. And the performances themselves, on gut strings with authentic woodwind and brass, clinched the argument; in particular, the unique orchestral formulae of Tristan and Parsifal were profoundly illuminated by the clear timbres, crisp phrasing and buoyant textural blend.

Overtures by Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn added to the picture and gave force to Norrington's claim that it was the overture form, vivid and dramatic, that bore the orchestral brunt of Romanticism. If playing here was ragged in places from delayed 'speaking' of wind and brass in chords and opening measures, this was yet another aspect of authenticity. Most impressive was 'The Hebrides', heard as never heard before; surging strings and timpani, then haunting, windswept solos for clarinet and horn.

Earlier in the day the soprano Susan Bickley, light yet full-toned throughout her register, sang Schubert's 'Der Atlas' and 'Die Taubenpost'. Cyril Huve accompanied on the fortepiano, then played Liszt's transcriptions of the same songs - paradigms of burdened simplicty, their songlines drenched in the bravura of double octaves. A fervid reading of the Fantasia apres une lecture du Dante, more clearly placed the subject in context: the 19th-century orchestra refashioned in terms of the keyboard.

(Photograph omitted)