Sunday 26 August 2007

Prom 55: Wagner and Debussy (Haitink)

25 August 2007

Wagner - Parsifal: Prelude to Act I and 'Good Friday Music'
Debussy - Nocturnes
Debussy (orch. Rudolf Escher) - Six épigraphes antiques
Wagner - Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and 'Liebestod'

Tenebrae (women's voices)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

What are we to do about Wagnerian 'bleeding chunks'? Ever since Sir Donald Tovey coined the phrase, and arguably before that, there has been some doubt concerning the appropriateness of performing sections of Wagner's music-dramas out of context, especially when this involves omission of vocal lines. Probably the best course of action is pragmatic: if something works, it does, and if not, leave it well alone, whilst always bearing in mind that one may be doing Wagner less than justice and in some cases even violence.There seem to be few if any problems with a concert performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger; with these Parsifal excerpts, I am less sure. The Prelude to Act I is so much a prelude to what follows, a necessary preparation that can only lead in one direction, that it cannot produce anything like the effect it would in prefacing the drama. Fair enough, one might say; in which case, treat it simply as a concert overture. This might work in theory, although I cannot recall an utterly convincing example. Do we not treasure even Furtwängler's reading above all since we lack a recording of the entire work? However, there was little sense here of a self-standing piece, or even of one which made more sense alongside the 'Good Friday Music'. This is mere speculation, of course, but I wondered whether Bernard Haitink's current preoccupation with Parsifal - he has recently conducted the work in Geneva, and will return to Covent Garden to do so in December - inclined him to hear the music simply as it would be in a reading of the entire drama. The 'Good Friday Music' in particular might well have worked perfectly well in the opera house - with voices - but here it really did seem a 'bleeding chunk'. The orchestra sounded fine for the most part, but on occasion did sound a little drab. We could have done with far more of the Debussian sense of being 'lit from behind'. There was nothing especially 'wrong', but electricity and luminosity were not in abundant supply. It pains me to say so, since there can hardly be a greater admirer of Haitink's Wagner than I, but this was not a memorable account.

Not to worry: matters improved thereafter. Haitink and the Concertgebouw have a long track record in Debussy, their 1979 recording of the Nocturnes having garnered awards. The balance between the three movements was expertly judged, as if one were dealing with a three-movement symphony. Nuages seemed to grow out of the sounds of late Wagner, but with more attention paid to colour. Liszt's extraordinary late piano piece, Nuages gris, much admired by Debussy, also sprang to mind as a source. But the sound was all Debussy's own. Haitink has never been a conductor to exhibit the laser-like clarity of Boulez in such repertoire - or indeed in any other repertoire - but one could hear everything that was going on, especially the delightful woodwind, without any loss of atmosphere. The rhythmic assuredness of Fêtes had almost the implacability of Ravel, again without losing the impressionistic ambiguity so personal to Debussy. Antiphonal placing of the women's voices paid dividends in Sirènes, and once again the woodwind, not least the English horn, shone, as did the beautiful muted trumpets. One could have lingered forever with these dangerous siren sounds, but then that is the point. All I missed was a hint more of Wagner from the strings, which sounded uncharacteristically lean. A little more refulgence would not have gone amiss, although one might well argue that they sounded all the more 'French' for this.

Rudolf Escher's orchestration of the Six épigraphes antiques was also well performed. I am not convinced that the orchestration is quite the last word, although it appears to have become quite popular. It neither sounds quite like original Debussy - how could it? - nor like an imaginative re-creation in a personal voice of the composer's own. The seductive combination of flute and harp is perhaps a little over-used. Still, both orchestration and performance gave some sense of the music's origin in incidental music (to a recitation of poems by Pierre Louÿs), whose material was then reused in the relatively well-known work for piano duet. At the risk of unbearable repetitiveness, this item once allowed the woodwind to exhibit great beauty and individuality of tone.

Fine though the Debussy items were, the climax came with the Tristan excerpts, and with the so-called 'Liebestod' in particular. (The term comes from Liszt, in his piano transcription, not Wagner, who favoured Verklärung, 'transfiguration'. Still, we appear stuck with 'Liebestod', so best not to complain unduly...) Here, Haitink's experience with the work in the theatre - who could ever forget his magnificent account during his last season as Music Director at Covent Garden? - worked dividends. One loses much, of course, by only having the opening and the conclusion, but there was here perhaps enough distancing too, to allow the music to emerge on its own terms. There was never any doubt of the inevitability of where it was heading (Furtwängler's fabled Fernhören), save for the slight awkwardness of transition between Prelude and 'Liebestod'. Nothing can be done about that really, for the two do not really belong together, as Tovey pointed out. Here at last the strings shimmered with the vibrato of Nietzsche's 'voluptuousness of Hell', with no sacrifice in terms of the rest of the orchestral playing, which was uniformly superb. Haitink's wisdom shone through in the marvellously judged ebb and flow. If the climaxes were not so shattering as they might have been in the theatre, here they benefited from his expert musical shaping. There was never any question of transforming the music into an orchestral showpiece; in that, I was reminded of Claudio Abbado's Mahler Third a few nights earlier. It may be a forlorn hope, but we must fervently hope nevertheless that Haitink will once again have and take the opportunity to conduct the entire work. Responding to the warmth of the reception that will surely always be his in London, Haitink then allowed the orchestra to show off in a blazing encore: the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.