December 23, 2013 5:08 pm

BBCSO/Edward Gardner, Barbican, London – review

A concert that showed how Wagner changed the course of musical history

Forget Christmas. For its last concert of the year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra stuck religiously to artistic principles by building a concert around Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s hymn to adultery. Well, not the whole opera, but the Prelude, its harmonic kernel. Wagner has had a good bicentenary, and the BBCSO rounded it off in style – but it did so in a way that made intellectual as well as emotional sense, by showing how the Tristan Prelude changed the course of musical history.

It was quite simple, really. The performance began with the composer’s rarely played Faust overture, which opened the door to his distinctive style of romanticism. Then, by way of the Tristan Prelude and its echo in the Wesendonck-Lieder, it progressed to Webern’s Passacaglia Op. 1 and Berg’s Seven Early Songs, both of which look back to Wagner and forward to modernism. The concert ended with Tod und Verklärung, a tone-poem in which Richard Strauss seemed determined to trump Wagner’s notion of crescendo and decrescendo, climax and release.


IN Music

In philosophical terms, you could summarise the evening as a musical transfiguration of life through love and death – an unusually powerful dramaturgical thread for an “ordinary” symphony concert. Edward Gardner articulated some of these ideas in a short speech from the podium – a good example of how and when a conductor can communicate directly with the audience.

The orchestra played with fibre. Gardner’s skilful grading of the Tristan Prelude – where to “place” the climax and how to wind it down – suggested it may be time he conducted the entire opera at English National Opera, where he is music director. His Strauss exuded the same easy command, but it was the Webern that impressed most. The Passacaglia is not as dry or forbidding as its composer’s reputation suggests. What it needs is lucidity and sweep, passion and commitment, and Gardner gave it just that.

His soloist in the Wagner and Berg orchestral songs was American soprano Christine Brewer, whose voice is still majestic enough to ride the climaxes and sufficiently well controlled to find soft shading for the quieter songs. Such vocal artistry in Wagner is rare – and special.

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