Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra © Suntory Hall

Although Wagner himself conducted at the Royal Albert Hall, there was a lengthy period when his music was not heard here much. It was just over a decade ago that he made a big comeback with the first ever BBC Proms Ring cycle and the Wagner bicentenary in 2013 produced a huge outpouring.

This year’s Proms programme features a standard selection of “bleeding chunks” from the operas, but there was one more substantial offering. Act 1 from Die Walküre turned up alongside Webern and Mahler in this Prom from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Their 2010 Tristan und Isolde apart, any Wagnerian outing must count as a bit of an adventure for them. Neither Salonen nor the Philharmonia is a habitué of the opera-house and that was reflected in a performance that put musical standards ahead of theatrical atmosphere.

Salonen’s choice of programme was interesting. He presented a journey through German music in reverse, starting with Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.10, a far outpost of where Wagner’s developments led, through the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No.10, his last finished music, back to the Wagner itself.

A Royal Albert Hall audience has to hold its breath if it is to hear the wispy flutterings of the Webern, perfectly pitched by Salonen’s fine ear. The Mahler was restless, focused on detail, a long way from the deep-toned threnody that Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra made of it earlier in the year.

There was a good cast for the Wagner. No performance of Die Walküre with Anja Kampe as Sieglinde can be half bad. She sang the role in Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring and was equally wholehearted here, the voice glowing with expression. Robert Dean Smith’s well-schooled singing as Siegmund was welcome for its clarity and musicianship, whatever he lacks in heroic ardour. Franz-Josef Selig was an imposing Hagen, belying the rather puny announcement of his arrival by the brass.

This was less an evening to become immersed in Wagner’s mythic world, more one to admire the clarity and balance of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing under Salonen’s analytical direction. How marvellous, though, to hear Wagner’s music in this hall, where its aspirational grandeur feels so much at home.


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