sun 23/02/2020

Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Koenigs, St David's Hall, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Koenigs, St David's Hall, Cardiff

Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Koenigs, St David's Hall, Cardiff

An idyll and a symphony, chamber music versus cathedral organs

Might they have planned it differently had they known? Wedding marches and arrivals of queens of Sheba would have drawn the Valleys coach parties; but opera orchestras have enough candyfloss in their understage underworld. Above ground, they need to assert their seriousness. No accident, surely, that Bruckner worshipped Wagner and stole liberally from him (especially in this particular symphony) without ever sounding derivative. No accident (one hopes) that both works are in E major, though I wonder how far Lothar Koenigs, the orchestra’s usually reliable conductor, reckoned with their sharp differences of weight and texture, and the fact that, after Wagner’s mostly slow idyll, Bruckner starts with two very long, slowish movements. If it was a gamble, it just about came off, but only thanks to some fine, enthusiastic playing and a number of interesting musical choices along the way.

In fact, the Siegfried Idyll was not without its problems. Wagner wrote it for a group of 13 solo instruments, but Koenigs, as is usual nowadays, played it as a chamber-orchestral piece with 20 or so strings against solo wind. What emerged, bizarrely, was that the wind instruments tended to blurt their entries, while the strings – anxious not to drown them out – played so delicately as at times almost to vanish. My theory about this is that if the strings were solo, they would play up to the wind more freely and the balance would work better. Probably the piece sounded pretty squeaky that Christmas morning of 1870 on the staircase at Triebschen; but of course it doesn’t have to, and I’m sure Wagner’s chamber-music conception is the essence of the piece, even though its themes all crop up in the Ring operas. This WNO performance was sometimes tentative, by no means immaculate, but it was sensitive and musicianly on the whole, and very finely paced.
Bruckner’s orchestra, though replete with Wagner tubas, is really a very different affair from anything ever heard in the Bayreuth or any other pit. Bruckner scored like the cathedral organist he had been, pulling out stops and pressing pistons, then letting rip, and Koenigs reseated the players accordingly: he had the violas well away to his right, cellos facing him, and the brass split right and left with the percussion (including the possibly inauthentic cymbals) in between. The noise, often, was spectacular – brassy, of course, but then Bruckner, a modest soul by day, was like a boy with a new drum when let loose on an orchestra, and to deny this element is to deny his music.
Koenigs, whose Meistersinger last summer was one of the great experiences in Cardiff’s recent musical life, is himself a master at pacing as well as spacing these vast architectural expanses. Bruckner can’t be hurried: even his quicks are slow, in the sense that his edifices are constructed laboriously stone by stone, like a medieval cathedral with its craftsmen and labourers dressing each stone on site and laying it solemnly in position. For years I could never stand this rustic splendour, but I came round to it after visiting the Danube monasteries where Bruckner had played and after studying (rather than enduring) his symphonies and beginning to grasp how brilliantly he translated the spiritual experience of simply being in a great church into an abstract musical image worthy of its model. Koenigs’s majestic performance did nothing to undermine this conversion.


I think Mr Walsh rather misses the point on the Bruckner . and I perhaps best leave his condescending comments on 'Valleys coach parties' until last. He admittedly describes Lothar Koenigs' Bruckner performance as 'majestic'. It was a heartfelt peformance of breadth, insight, beauty and splendour. But that is pretty all he tells us about what was, for the WNO orchestra, a towering achievement in (for them) unfamiliar repertoire. This was world class playing by any standard. I speak as having heard live performances of this work under Solti, Abbado, Haitink, Davis, Rattle, Masur and Tennstedt - to name but a few. Surely a compliment or two on the playing. both collective and individual might not have gone amiss. The sense of elation and pride amongst the players (and indeed the conductor) in the bar after the concert was palpable. It was sadly rather poorly attended (it was after all a Bank Holiday), but for those in the hall there was an overwhelming sense of experiencing something very special indeed. Their rapt silence throughout this long work was proof of this - and my word they showed the appreciation at the end. Yet Mr.Walsh seems to think a diet of wedding marches and the like might have had them flocking from the valleys and hence put more bums on seats (perhaps Meastro Koenigs might have been persuaded to accompany Max Boyce in some rugby songs!). No, contrary to what Mr.Walsh may think, Wales is not full of oiks and cultural Philistines who merely 'like what they know'. The Cardiff audience is largely a loyal and discerning one - and quite as capable of enjoying Bruckner as any on the English side of the Severn Bridge.

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