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A Particular Pleasure

Christine Brewer sings Wagner,
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL


Soprano Christine Brewer is rather sparing with her operatic appearances so it was a particular pleasure to encounter her singing Wagner, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 10 December 2009. Mackerras is not a conductor that one immediately associates with Wagner, but his long discography includes such gems as excerpts from Götterdämmerung with Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios, sung in German and recorded before English National Opera managed to get its full account of the opera onto disc. Christine Brewer, of course, has a long association with the composer and her discography includes a fine account of Tristan und Isolde with Donald Runnicles conducting.

The programme started with Wagner's concert arrangement of the Prelude and Venusberg music from Tannhäuser, though the drawback with this version is that we are deprived of the magnificent return of the pilgrims hymn at the close of the full overture. As it was, Mackerras and the Philharmonia gave a lively account of the Prelude whose delicacy reminded us of Wagner's debt to Weber. I have always been a bit unconvinced by Wagner's orgy in the Venusberg music, but Mackerras almost persuaded me.

The orchestra was then joined by Christine Brewer for the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This wasn't the fastest performance of the Prelude that I have heard, but it certainly had an impulsiveness which completely belied the veteran conductor's age. It is difficult, when hearing these bleeding chunks, to be certain what a complete performance of the opera would be like, but on this hearing Mackerras's atmospheric account made me want to hear much more.

As Isolde, Brewer was wonderfully generous of tone. Though singing heavier roles of late, the soprano preserves something of the lyric qualities in her voice and this is ideal for Isolde. Whilst having the power to soar above the orchestra, Brewer also preserved the lovely line of the music. This was an Isolde still able to mould the vocal line intelligently and beautifully, at times there was a lieder like delicacy to the singer's approach. Then at the end she floated the final notes in a haunting manner.

For the second half of the concert we had a group of excerpts from Götterdämmerung welded into a single whole. The orchestra started with Siegfried's Rhine journey which flowed seamlessly into the Death of Siegfried and his Funeral March before Brewer gave us the Immolation scene. This assemblage of excerpts proved surprisingly satisfying and made rather more musical sense than I would have expected as Wagner's music took us on Siegfried's emotional journey even though the singer himself was lacking.

Mackerras obviously relished the opportunities that a fine ensemble like the Philharmonia gave him. The substantial brass department (five trumpets, four trombones, tuba and ten horns) produced some magnificent ringing tones at the opening of the Rhine journey and during the Funeral March. But this wasn't a performance that was all about bombast and there were moments of delicacy and great beauty.

You don't feel that Brünnhilde is a role which suits Brewer's voice quite as naturally as Isolde does. Brewer lacks the really steely element which is needed and has to work a bit harder to create the right sound. Though of course, with Isolde she has sung the role rather more often as well, which might help. That said, this was as beautifully sung as her Isolde.

Whilst it might seem ideal to hear this music in concert, the placing of the orchestra on stage rather than in the pit means that the soprano has to do battle with even more orchestral noise than usual. Having relished the orchestral opportunities in the opening sections, Mackerras seemed to do little to reign in the Philharmonia and there were moments when they threatened to drown Brewer entirely. The soprano kept her balance however and gave us a beautifully modulated account of the role, marred only by a couple of moments of wildness in her top register. Whilst the closing moments of the vocal section did not overwhelm me the way Brewer and Mackerras had done in the first half, there is no doubt that this was one of the most finely sung accounts of the Immolation scene that I had heard. And the closing moments as the Rhine overflows its banks and floods the Gibichung Hall were magical.

Mackerras, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christine Brewer gave us glowing accounts of these excerpts from Wagner's operas; satisfying as they were, we left the concert eager to hear more.

Copyright © 11 December 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK








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