Southbank Sinfonia/Stephen Barlow

Wagner Rarities

Royal Opera House - Linbury Theatre, 13 October 2007 4 stars

Ailish TynanAs part of the whole array of events organised around the Royal Opera House's Ring Cycle, this concert of 'Wagner Rarities' has to have been one of the most enlightening. Wagner's artistic development was by no means an easy road and the three fragmentary excerpts performed at this concert showed some of the directions he considered before finally choosing the course that would lead him to the Ring.

First on the programme was the world premiere of the Introduction, Chorus and Septet from the early opera Die Hochzeit, in a chamber orchestra version by James Francis Brown. Composed when Wagner was only nineteen, this work shows signs of talent but no real hint of the greatness to come. It's easy to hear the influences of Weber, Mozart and Beethoven in the piece, but it also seems to point towards some of the choral writing in Lohengrin, composed some fifteen years later.

The work's origins show the breadth of Wagner's ambitions. Originally conceived as a novella, he transformed it into a libretto and set some of it to music. It offers ample evidence of the fact that Wagner was no prodigy – it's generally believed, for example, that his dislike of Mendelssohn was down not only to his anti-Semitism but also down to profound jealousy regarding that composer's prodigious fluency from an early age – and much of this music, although perfectly pleasant to listen to, could have come from the pen from any gifted and ambitious youth of the time. I have to say that I even felt the final Septet didn't quite scale the heights. Barry Millington, in his brief but informative and indispensable notes, tried to convince us otherwise, writing of its 'seven real, skilfully interlocking parts, unfolding wonderfully lyrical lines that coalesce in imaginative, poignantly expressive harmonies'. To my ears, it just sounded a bit jumbled.

Robert Murray

Millington, the driving force behind this enterprising concert and many of the Royal Opera's other Ring-related events, was on hand to introduce the next number, a skilful realisation of the Introduction, Chorus and Duet from Männerlist größer als Frauenlist or Die glückliche Bärenfamilie. One can't help but be amused by the fact that Wagner, for many the very embodiment of Teutonic seriousness, should have started writing an opera subtitled The Happy Bear Family. And although I was vaguely aware of this work's existence, I had not appreciated where it stands in the chronology of Wagner's works: it was composed in 1838, immediately before Rienzi. It's intriguing, then, to think what could have happened if this work, a mixture of jolly Singspiel and frothy opera buffa, had been completed and achieved success. Music history could have turned out very differently and, one could argue, so would world history - Hitler, after all, is supposed to have said of a performance of Rienzi that 'that was where it all started'.

There's a hint of the ever so slightly sadistic Wagnerian humour that would reappear in Meistersinger and Siegfried in the plot which turns on Julius, the male lead, being tricked into marrying an extremely ugly girl. However there's very little of the Wagnerian in the charming music, though one of the chromatic melodic ideas once again brought Lohengrin to mind. Millington, in his expert and concise introduction, hinted at the fascinating autobiographical aspects of the work which probably served initially as an inspiration and then as the main obstacle to Wagner's completion of the work. (This intriguing subject, he told us, is explored at greater length in the latest edition of The Wagner Journal.)  

When the music being performed is the main point of interest, the quality of the playing and singing is perhaps of secondary importance. We were spoilt, then, to have these numbers performed with such vigour by the Southbank Sinfonia under Stephen Barlow. They were joined by members of The Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus, who sang with verve (and almost too much volume for the Linbury's modest acoustic). For Die Hochzeit, the chorus provided the soloists; for The Happy Bear Family, the soloists were Ailish Tynan and Robert Murray (former Young Artists of the Royal Opera). Tynan was wonderfully perky as the coquettish Leontine (although her German pronunciation is a little unidiomatic) and Murray suitably ardent as Julius.

Liora GrodnikaiteThe first half was completed by Hans Werner Henze's extraordinary arrangement of the Wesendonck Lieder. Publicly ambivalent if not hostile to some of Wagner's works (he writes in his autobiography of not able to abide the 'silly and self-regarding emotionalism' of Götterdämmerung, for example), these arrangements seem to show Henze trying to objectify these highly emotional miniatures, refusing to let himself be seduced by the 'old magician'. This tension results in something very beautiful indeed, and infinitely more imaginative than the orchestrations by Felix Mottl we're used to hearing. Here the Southbank Sinfonia, particularly the 'cellos and violas (often divided), played with real commitment and virtuosity. The only slight disappointment was mezzo-soprano Liora Grodnikaite – a former Jette Parker Young Artist and Principal Artist. I don't know if it was a deliberate strategy for her to pare down her sound to a bare minimum to maintain a cool objectivity, but it sometimes meant that she was simply too quiet, even for the Linbury's small space and the chamber orchestra's accompaniment. She just didn't seem to project, either vocally nor interpretatively.

The second half kicked off with another revelatory performance, this time of the bare bones of Wagner's sketches for Siegfrieds Tod, his first attempt at what would eventually turn into the Ring Cycle. With sparse piano accompaniment (Catriona Beveridge, another Jette Parker Young Artist, did all she could to bring this to life) and a cast of three Norns, Brünnhilde and Siegfried (strongly sung by soprano Eryl Royle and tenor Gareth Roberts), it was a brief, fifteen minute snippet. What was astonishing about it, though, was that it was totally unremarkable musically and poetically. It gave a fascinating insight into what it was that drove Wagner to rethink opera as a genre; it must have been obvious to him how inadequate the conventional musical and poetical language he was using was (first for the text, written in 1848, and then the music, probably composed in 1850).

The fragment breaks off as Brünnhilde embarks on what could have ended up as an endless series of questions designed specifically to re-tell what had happened so far, and it was this requirement to recount the back story that led Wagner to abandon this sketch and start retrospectively to add operas as his vision grew. The sketch hints at some of the music we know from the final tetralogy but without much of the harmonic imagination that filled out the ideas even in the pre-Tristan parts of the Ring. There is very little hint of any system of Leitmotifs more sophisticated than that used in Lohengrin, and there's no sign of the Stabreim that would characterise the poetry of the finished Ring. It's a measure of Wagner's greatness as an artist that he realised these conventional means weren't going to be adequate for his vision and rather than curtail that vision, or simply give up, he set about reinventing the genre itself.

There's an air of justified self-satisfaction in the Siegfried Idyll which completed the concert. Composed some twenty years later when most of the Ring was completed, Wagner can be forgiven this little bit of indulgence. It's a charming work, especially when performed as beautifully as it was here by the Southbank Sinfonia. Although the Linbury's dry acoustic gave them little help, they acquitted themselves admirably in this deceptively tricky piece; the horns in particular were outstanding. In the context of this concert of so much that was new and interesting, though, the Siegfried Idyll seemed little more than a filler, and a good chance to allow the rest of what we'd heard to sink in. This was a truly fascinating evening.

By Hugo Shirley