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Hahn, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Hahn, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Hahn, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Wagner bicentenary celebrations lift-off with excerpts from Götterdämmerung

Mermbers of the BBC Philharmonic at Salford Quays

Wagner was not averse to highlights being plucked from the mighty Ring, even though it is an all-encompassing drive-through drama. Perhaps it’s as well, since the bicentenary celebrations of his birth are getting up steam and concert planners are at pains to pull out a few plums. After all, we can’t wallow in the whole of the cycle all of the time.

For the start of his second season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Phil, Juanjo Mena (pronounced Huanho Mayna, he being a proud Basque) chose favourite dramatic excerpts from Götterdämmerung. Not a choice for the fainthearted, featuring the progression from dewy Dawn to flaming Death. And with parts of this country inundated with floods, what could be more topical than music capturing the mighty Rhine burstingits banks?

Hahn showed great presence, yet without any histrionics

But before all that, we had the German soprano Brigitte Hahn, latterly Hanover Opera’s Brunnhilde, singing the Wesendonck Lieder, which are marking a significant anniversary of their own – they were first performed 150 years ago. These five heartfelt songs inspired by the composer’s love affair with Mathilde, the wife of his wealthy patron Otto Wesendonck, and using her poems are an emotional roller-coaster. Or they can be.

On this occasion, however, they came across as somewhat restrained. It took time to get the balance right between orchestra and singer. Hahn has a fine tone and her voice is rounded, but it was difficult to hear her clearly in the first song, "The Angel", and the sense of real sorrow was lacking. Things improved with the second song, "Be Still!", which dwells upon the wheel of time, particularly in Hahn’s rendering of that metaphysical line “Wenn Aug’ in Auge wonnig trinken” (When eye drinks blissfully from eye), shades of Donne’s “eye beams twisted”. But, again, the sense of lovers’ passion, let alone sexual pleasure, seemed underplayed. They might just have been saving themselves for the big number. Mena conducted coolly and correctly, and Hahn did her job. And in the songs which were studies for Tristan and Isolde, "In the Hothouse" and "Dreams", they did engender more emotional involvement.

When it came to the main event, it was a different story. Mena (pictured right) showed what he and the orchestra can achieve at their best. The music is so descriptive that images come into the mind. In "Dawn" and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey we hear/see the sun rising and the excitement of Siegfried’s departure from the rock. Mena, with his army of brass in top form, brought out the familiar motifs associated with the characters – the Rhinemaidens, Loge the fire god, the Gibichungs.

We then came to Siegfried’s Funeral March. Mena showed a sense of scale, maintaining the tension and capturing the drama of Siegfried’s heroism with real impact. Finally, we reached Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene, a 20-minute drama calling for the full force of the orchestra in all its parts. The soloist takes command as she gives out instructions to build the pyre for Siegfried, whilst expressing grief, betrayal, love and final understanding of the trials she and her hero have been through. Ultimately, of course, she jumps on her horse and leaps into the flames. That’s a lot to ask, but Hahn showed great presence here, yet without any histrionics. And she did have a battle vocally when the orchestra reached full throttle. It certainly did that, but with precision and thrilling exuberance.

Mena and Hahn may benefit from more time together to bring the best out of one another. Clearly, they both have a Wagnerian grasp and by the time this concert is broadcast on Radio 3 in the Sunday Concert slot on 7 October any imbalances will have been sorted out.

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