in: Reviews

March 22, 2013

BSO Celebrates Wagner

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Michelle DeYoung joins Daniele Gatti (Stu Rosner photo)

Michelle DeYoung joins Daniele Gatti (Stu Rosner photo)

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Daniele Gatti led the Boston Symphony in an all-Wagner program on Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Gatti’s impressive Wagnerian résumé includes Parsifals at Bayreuth every year from 2008 to 2011, and he conducted the Metropolitan Opera’s production of that work just last month. Michelle DeYoung joined the orchestra for two pieces, Kundry’s Narrative from Act II of Parsifal and the latter part of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. From her long and varied resume we remember her mostly for her striking Brangäne in the Met Opera Tristan that was simulcast to theaters in 2008.

Performing excerpts of Wagner in concert has a long history, and the program notes remind us that the practice started with Wagner himself. Such concerts were public relations exercises. Since it could take months or years for Wagner to get a production mounted, presenting excerpts enabled him to get his music before audiences much sooner. There is no suggestion, though, that this was ever considered a good idea on purely artistic grounds. The results on Thursday night couldn’t make the artistic case either, being rather uneven in musical quality, albeit excellent of execution. Gatti’s strong presence and a clear aesthetic vision for this music deeply impressed when it was working at its best.

The first half of the evening was occupied with the famous orchestral excerpts from Götterdämmerung, “Dawn and Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March.” Gatti’s approach to all the pieces on this evening was lean, lithe, controlled, and dramatic. Every note sounded placed on purpose, the unfolding of the music inevitable. Gatti exploited pianos and pianissimos to focus concentration and to heighten the tension of the music. The very first sound the orchestra produced was hushed tones from the trombones, a sound both firm and distant, drawing attention by the quality of its quiet. Gatti’s movements were fluid and confident; a slightly bearish man, he nevertheless exuded grace and control—his physicality during his more demonstrative podium gestures reminded me of the sight of John Travolta walking in Pulp Fiction. At many of the more active moments of the music, by contrast, his gestures ceased, conveying what felt like a gesture of trust that the orchestra knew how to carry on. He conducted the entire second half from memory; I believe he may have done so in the first half as well, but I failed to note that. I do know he conducted his Met Parsifal from memory—an astonishing achievement. The high point of the evening may well have been “Siegfried’s Death.” This music moves by fits and starts, fragments separated by silences, with an obsessive repeated rhythmic motif. The silences carried the drama of the piece. Every halt was an anticipation of dread, and one waited raptly for each new entrance. At the very quiet dynamic Gatti asked for, is it difficult for the instrumentalists to enter cleanly, especially winds and brass, yet the BSO responded superbly, their precise and crisp attacks surgically piercing the looming silences they had created. At the other end of the spectrum, his fortes glowed and were never overbearing. When the music finished, I distinctly heard a “wow” behind me.

After intermission, Mr. Gatti attempted to work similar magic on the Overture to Tannhauser, but in this youthful piece, Wagner lets him down. Applying same sense of attention and care allowed him to elicit beautiful sounds, especially from the winds. The Pilgrim’s Chorus melody, which is just slightly longer than one might expect, was always sustained and its long line anchored. But the piece exhausts its material too quickly, and ends conventionally. In a way, I felt that Gatti was too good for this music. In general, his Wagner is Apollonian: precise, measured, and confident. It is no less powerful for this approach, but perhaps a bit of messier Dionysian interpretation would have helped invigorate this very early work (I think of a Bernstein recording which is thrilling, if not exactly in the best taste). But even here, he made interesting points;  I remember from this performance not the big statement of the theme in the brass early on, but rather the surprising twist in the harmony a few bars back (bar 31, if you want to hunt it down).

The Prelude to Lohengrin, which came after “Kundry’s Narrative” from Parsifal was, though, a complete success, positively shimmering and flowing in waves over the audience. By calling it “Hypnotism in music,” Nietzsche meant to disparage it, but this performance redeemed it.

This evening was about orchestral command, and alas, DeYoung was not an equal participant. “Kundry’s Narrative” sat uncomfortably among the orchestral excerpts. In this excerpt, Kundry is singing to the holy fool Parsifal, intending to “seduce” him. I add the quotes because, as with much in this work, there is something a bit odd going on. Kundry’s seduction takes the form of…. well, in the words of the Metropolitan Opera’s summary: “Kundry, transformed into a siren, enters to woo [Parsifal] with tender memories of his childhood and mother.” Make of that wooing what you will. Like many Wagnerian arias it isn’t as self-contained as a Mozartean or Verdian number, and suffers more when taken from its context. It ends clumsily on the word “sterb” and a terminal pizzicato. DeYoung sang well, with perhaps a little steeliness in the upper register, but could not make more of the excerpt beyond a display of vocal luxury. She wore a black dress, which she exchanged for a white one to sing Isolde in the Liebestod, the evening’s finale—but her interpretation did not change so dramatically.

Fair warning: I am very attached to Tristan, but I am not fond of the evisceration that is the Prelude and Liebestod. Nietschze, in another moment of abuse which uncovers a truth, called Wagner “our greatest miniaturist in music. His wealth of colors, of half shadows, of the secrecies of dying light…” Tristan is a five-hour domestic scene, an entire evening that explores the depths of passion and abandon. The magic of Tristan inheres not in the famous chord or in the portmanteau love-death, but in the way that a domestic entanglement succeeds in generating one of the crowning achievements of Western culture. To cut out the middle merely robs the opening of its mystery and longing and the conclusion of its sense of completion. Yet Gatti’s one overtly Dionysian impulse occurred in the Liebestod, where the erotic pulses that briefly appear made their urgent presence known, carrying away the orchestra, even to the point of covering DeYoung. Though I found the performance inevitably disappointing, I was in a clear minority, as the audience sprang to its feet at the end to voice their approval.

That audience was disappointingly sparse—people were seated all over the house, leaving numerous empty seat. The evocative silences of Gatti’s Götterdämmerung excerpts were broken not only with the expected upper-respiratory interruptions, but also with a general furniture-moving rumble. But I’m also fairly sure that the “wow” after the Götterdämmerung excerpts came from one of numerous young concert goers who surrounded me.

Gatti’s interpretations are muscular, disciplined, restrained and well considered. I am anxious to hear more from him. In the next BSO concert he conducts the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler; it will be interesting to hear how his intelligence and force of personality is applied to that unwieldy work, and how his interpretive principles will adapt to that composer’s sound world.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

22 Comments

  1. What a useful and interesting review – especially for someone like myself who is determined to overcome a deep prejudice. Thanks to your nice Nietzsche citation, I will pay special attention to the Lohengrin Prelude when I attend the concert tonight. I think I might even download your review and take it with me.

    Comment by Ashley — March 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

  2. Nice review. I loved the concert (Thursday night). I thought that the BSO’s playing was sensational–with passion, depth, transparency, restraint when needed, and without the sort of vulgarity that too many fall into when playing this music. They were definitely “on” Thursday night. Gatti did conduct the entire program from memory. All of it was extremely well done, particularly the Gotterdammerung excerpts and the Prelude to Lohengrin. Unfortunately, the one disappointing performance of the evening was the Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan.

    I have to admit, maybe I’ve been listening too much to Karajan and Furtwangler, but it seemed to me that the Tristan excerpt was an underpowered performance. I believe the orchestra gave Gatti exactly what he wanted, and they are not to blame here. But what can be said of Michelle DeYoung? I agree with Mr. Schuth in that she was the weak link of the evening. She has a BIG voice (and hair to match, I might add), and I generally have enjoyed her when I’ve heard her in the past, particularly in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” But she was singing so painfully sharp in her upper registers that she missed notes completely. Further, there was too much of a warble in her voice on Thursday night. She really wasn’t in the ballpark at all, unfortunately. If only we could have instead heard Stephanie Blythe, Jane Eaglen, Christine Brewer, Deborah Voigt, etc. Still, even with these issues, it was a concert I greatly enjoyed, and the BSO was at its best.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 23, 2013 at 8:48 am

  3. The Parsifal excerpt ends with “starb” (past tense), and hardly sounds clumsy. On Friday, Ms. DeYoung was thoroughly into her part and on pitch, although she did have noticeable vibrato.
    From Row U, the orchestra did not drown her, though it did match her, which is what I believe Wagner wanted. Since she has a microphone directly in front of her, the Saturday broadcast will presumably boost her comfortably over the accompaniment.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 23, 2013 at 9:05 am

  4. I join in the applause for this review. In fact, I believe this will be the first time a review has ever inspired me to go to a concert; I just went online and bought a ticket for tonight. Like Ashley, I have a deep prejudice to overcome, but I have always been Wagner-curious; too many people I respect and admire love his music for me to entirely disdain it. I make periodic attempts, but so far these have all involved recordings or DVD’s, and I usually give up as soon as I honorably can. I look forward to the total-immersion experience tonight, with this review and Mogulmeister’s comments as a guide.

    Comment by SamW — March 23, 2013 at 9:48 am

  5. Brian, that “I distinctly heard a “wow” behind me, was me, if you were in Row P, aisle seat, right. You precisely hit our sentiments (all us intermission critics, over wine). Gatti seemed to achieve finer work from the horns of the BSO than many recent maestros. The storm motif, folding into calm, was wonderfully theatrical, and the horn offstage, then back to the hall, almost made me think the “dramatis persona” were moving towards me, through the woods (river?). It struck me that although the BSO used a larger orchestra than performed the recent Mozart “Jupiter”symphony, the playing here showed more refinement.

    I found the second half disappointing, attributing it to wresting excerpts of operas and thereby not creating the long suspension into another reality required with Wagner, but someone much more knowledgeable than I (you can hazard a guess) said it can be done — but agreed that it wasn’t. Brian comments on the Parsifal clarified my reaction. Michelle De Young maybe was not up to her best; she was fabulous with Jose van Dam in Bluebeard’s Castle at Tanglewood a few summer ago…

    Parting shot: Gatti brings Italian emotion and drama — with musical authority — to the BSO. I love it.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — March 23, 2013 at 10:27 am

  6. A Report from OR P 4:

    Donald Francis Tovey (in “Essays in Musical Analysis,” Vol.6) puts the case for all time against wrenching Wagner extracts out of context for the concert hall:

    ” .. When I first heard Parsifal at Bayreuth I noticed with some amusement that the Good-Friday music in its proper place did not strike a familiar chord at all. Not only did it mean all that was implied and explained by its position in the drama, but it became a piece of quite sensible music, instead of a piece of orchestration beginning nowhere in particular, repeating its figures, like all unsound Wagner extracts, far too often for variety, obstinately refusing to change its ground when change of ground is musically due, making no effort towards a climax unless a belated one conscious of its untimeliness, and ending vaguely in exhaustion in a region which, like that of the beginning, is nowhere in particular, but different inasmuch as it is elsewhere.”

    This week’s BSO program might have been out to make Tovey’s general point but with different pieces of evidence. The overall effect Friday afternoon, to these ears at least, was one of incoherence and miscellaneousness, a sort of tossed salad of disjecta membra. You could never be quite sure where the hell you were. See also, in his “Wagner in the Concert Room” essay, Tovey’s rubbishing of Siegfried’s Funeral March qua concert piece, which did weary on so in this rather long concert.

    The good bits, and they were many, came in the variety of dynamic and timbral shadings that Daniele Gatti was eliciting from his players. Something had clicked. You sensed a heightened attentiveness to balance and fineness of attack that were just this side, barely, of self-consciousness.

    And there was the singing. Michelle DeYoung’s contributions were of star quality, being firm and assured enough not to be submerged in the waves of orchestral tone coming her way in the “Liebestod.” It has to be said, though, that the default basic sound — an edgy near-monochrome, the too-persistent vibrato — is not one of the more seductive ones going.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 23, 2013 at 5:41 pm

  7. Oh, I love your response, Good King Richard.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — March 23, 2013 at 6:48 pm

  8. One objection to the Wizard, propounding above, is offered with obsequiousness. As the Siegfried excerpts came in the first half of the concert, I (and, presumably others) was/were not aware that it was to be “rather long”; ergo, it did not “weary” this listener, not a whit. Aux armes!

    Buell is so right about Ms. DeYoung’s singing…

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — March 23, 2013 at 7:00 pm

  9. I first heard Michelle DeYoung at Symphony Hall some years ago in an oratorio with a very different orchestra. Even then, I figured that she was on her way up, and she was nice to work with as well.

    Her Wagner tonight, on the other hand, was a little disappointing. No purely musical problems– her pitch was generally spot-on, and she had very clear diction. What I missed was a sense that the words were actually part of sentences that meant something. They just seemed to drop one by one, and her line gave me very little clue of what she thought Kundry was up to.

    There was much to enjoy, however. The BSO solo winds continue to impress, and Tim Genis once again (following his stellar Bruckner 4th) contributed fantastically to the whole. Although the strings weren’t always completely glued together, there was much fine, lyrical playing to be had from them. And Gatti’s pacing and proportions were very convincing.

    Comment by Camilli — March 23, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  10. One of important concepts of the great genius Wagner’s music drama is continuous melody.It appears to a very ironic way to celebrate his 200 years birthday for anyone who truly admire his art, by having a concert playing excerpts.

    I think Richard Straus would agree that only Hollander and Tannhauser Overtures are fit for concerts. (Tannhauser is a much immature work. Many italian opera lovers who pretend to love Wagner would claim it is their fav. Yet its overture is very complete and is as superior as Leonore Nr.3) Wagner did say sth very important in Tannhauser’s voice that (not exact words) those who do not love his music by heart have not experienced true music at all. Ocassioanlly Tristan Prelude and Liebestod with Isolde could be performed at much serious circumstances. If the celebration has to be in a concert hall, an entire act of his opera should be performed.

    Nietzsche is a very good example of people overestimating their understanding of Wagner’s music.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 24, 2013 at 11:30 am

  11. “An edgy near-monochrome, the too-persistent vibrato…” Glad someone finally mentioned that. At the time I was thinking of the famous line, “a vibrato so wide, you could drive a truck through it.”

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — March 24, 2013 at 4:10 pm

  12. À propos excerpts, as I was listening to Siegried’s funeral march last night, the thought occured to me, as it often does, that Wagner should have stuck to writing orchestral music and spared us all that (mostly) dreary, boring singing. Well, if he put it in, it’s a mercy to the audience to take it out rather than make us sit through hours of it to get to the good stuff.

    And for those who have subjected themselves to the nearly interminable Gesamtkunstwerke, you can recall the excerpts’ place in the music dramas without being bothered by a tenor who’s having trouble with his top notes that evening or a ludicrous set.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 24, 2013 at 6:07 pm

  13. Ha ha ! Now that Joe Whipple has drawn enemy fire I feel safe in coming out from under cover. I feel like a little boy who was taken to the opera by his parents to hear Wagner, and who, when asked whether he liked it, says “yes, especially the parts where nobody sings.”

    The Götterdämmerung excerpts blew me away; I was in awe of the continuous invention, of the ability of the music to drive from within, to create the illusion of perpetual change while still saturated with the element of repetition that is necessary for it to remain music. Wagner has an amazing understand of what things can be made to sound like.

    I was glad on re-reading this review to learn that Tannhauser is an early work, because that’s certainly what it sounded like. There were a lot of tunes that sounded written to please a crowd that no longer exists. Well, I guess it must exist, since the opera is still produced, but the overture certainly sounds old-fashioned.

    The Lohengrin prelude was mesmerizing as promised. Of the vocal excerpts I can only say that I wish Wagner had taken his megalomania to its logical conclusion, and invented Opera Without Words. After all, those singers are great nuisance.

    Comment by SamW — March 24, 2013 at 7:48 pm

  14. Now, if Toscanini had programmed and conducted this concert he would have sequenced the works this way:

    Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
    Tristan Prelude and Liebestod
    Kundry’s Narrative
    Gotterdammerung excerpts
    Tannhauser Overture

    That way, he would have sent people home in a thrilled mood — just check his all-Wagner NBC telecasts from December 29, 1951, March 20, 1948 and December 4, 1948.

    Gatti just doesn’t know how to build a program. And his conducting is slack, too. I hope the BSO doesn’t fall for him.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — March 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm

  15. Schwartz has an interesting writeup rather along those lines:

    http://newyorkarts.net/2013/03/gatti-bso-wagner/#.UVCBiL_xN6N

    Comment by David Moran — March 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm

  16. Let’s face it: we miss the Cat.

    Comment by Ashley — March 26, 2013 at 6:31 pm

  17. How many people — surely not enough — know of Emmanuel Chabrier’s affectionate distillation of “Tristan” into a sequence of quadrilles?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6G77cvcPA-s

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 26, 2013 at 6:46 pm

  18. No we don’t.

    Comment by Camilli — March 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm

  19. Last comment a reply to Ashley.

    To Richard, an invitation to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ozrHcm2B9c

    Comment by Camilli — March 26, 2013 at 7:33 pm

  20. Ah, there are other, cleaner ones:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzIKkgS4AtM
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCNJyYELD4M

    Comment by Camilli — March 26, 2013 at 7:38 pm

  21. Chabrier shows some of the real potentialities which Wagner never mined. Hooray for this affectionate distillation! (And any other distillations he was driven to.)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 26, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  22. One intriguing theme here is what you can expect from excerpts, as opposed to a whole work. Instant gratification: BLO is doing a whole work – an early version of The Flying Dutchman – starting April 26. It should add another layer of interest, to have some of the above comments in mind.

    Comment by LoisL — March 29, 2013 at 9:08 am

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