SCARPIA / There were giants in those days: From Hans Richter to Gunter Wand and Charles Mackerras - the great conductor lives on

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The Independent Culture
If the letters pages of record magazines are anything to go by, there is a widespread feeling of despair among British music-lovers. Again and again come the variations on the theme 'Where are they now?' Commercialism, hype, the demands of an international career and the sheer grind of modern concert-rehearsal programmes have triumphed. The inspired, the 'great', is not an endangered species: it is extinct - edged out by the slick, the routine and the downright meretricious.

For me, three events over the last week or so have acted as a valuable counter-pull. The first was the confirmation, on reading Christopher Fifield's new biography of Hans Richter, True Artist (Oxford), that 'Where are they now?' is one of the hoariest of all themes, like the music review that runs 'If this is the music of the future, God help the future' (there are examples of that from as early as the 16th century). It was fascinating to find bygone critics in Fifield's book grumbling that these Toscaninis and Furtwanglers are all very well, but that they're poor substitutes for past greats like Richter and Nikisch - and then to find comparable things said about those unassailable masters in their time.

The second event was Gunter Wand's interpretation of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony last Friday. Perfection? Not quite: the Festival Hall is hardly the ideal acoustic for Bruckner, and the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra strings had its rough edges (the beginning of the first movement coda and the opening of the Adagio caught the violins out momentarily). But against this was the inner intensity, the - to use Donald Tovey's favourite word - 'integrity' of the conception, and the sense that surely marks a great performance, that everything is at the same time new and familiar. My feeling after the first movement - apart from a slight trembling in the lower limbs - was amazement that anyone could ever call Bruckner's formal or, better still, dramatic thinking into question. Then at the end of the Adagio came a new understanding: the agony of that massively discordant climax and the quiet ecstasy of the coda co-exist; between them is an abyss - neither the one nor the other wins out. I don't know if that's how Wand saw it, but for me this was the revelation of the evening. So has this 'great' conductor always had the honour he deserves? Over the last decade perhaps - as he has turned 80 - people have begun to notice. As a German colleague put it: 'For years he was just there, and then one day people began to say, 'This Gunter Wand, he's rather special, isn't he?' ' And after the Welsh National Opera Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden on Monday, at least one or two people must be saying the same about Sir Charles Mackerras.

The revelations in this outstanding performance didn't all stem from Mackerras. Thanks to Peter Rose's singing and acting I now realise how different Act 2 can feel when you have a really good King Marke. There was no anticlimax after the love scene. Instead the human warmth and nobility of Rose's Marke and of the orchestra under Mackerras came as a powerful reminder that Wagner's feelings about renunciation and the night / day antithesis aren't as clear as the text sometimes makes out. Richard Paul Fink's Kurwenal was another moving illustration that the despised 'real' world of day is not so easily forgotten. No less than with the Bruckner, there are powerful irreconcilables here.

Anne Evans's Isolde and Jeffrey Lawton's Tristan grew in stature, dramatically and musically, as the performance progressed - for each the character's final moments were the culmination. With this went the pleasure and relief of following a production (by Yannis Kokkos) that discreetly and subtly enhanced music and drama, but in which there was nothing stale or over-cautious.

But it was Mackerras's evening. He steered the score expertly and with the kind of understanding that thrills - bringing out the symphonic ebb and flow but at the same time responding detail by detail to the events and utterances on the stage. As with Wand there is no suggestion that Mackerras has - as Berlioz put it - 'succumbed to the demon of personality'. If there is something in him that resists star status and star egoism, that's another thing to be thankful for - and another reason to live in the musical present, rather than pining for a mythical 'great' past.