A favorite instructor from my undergrad days used to love describing the polarizing music of Richard Wagner thusly, “Some people would travel halfway round the world to hear a single performance. Others wouldn’t cross the street.”
Thankfully for enthusiasts, the ultimate love-him-or-hate-him figure in the Western canon found an ardent and articulate champion in conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in their all-Wagner program on Wednesday night at Sanders Memorial Theater in Cambridge. Performing selections from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung, the concert provided a fine introduction to one of the least accessible Romantic composers. It is hard to imagine that even the most intractable anti-Wagnerian could be immune to Zander’s sprightly energy. His thorough delight with his subject was manifest in every moment of his performance; during the livelier moments of the Meistersinger selections, the maestro seemed almost to dance an elfin jig in time to the music.
Zander’s insightful introductions and unpretentious illustrations of key elements of the composer’s style made for an engrossing lecture-recital on a grand scale—it was as though an impassioned professor had been given a full, live orchestra for the purpose of playing musical examples. In just such a winning moment, BPO principal trumpet Eric Berlin gave a rousing solo reading of the Siegfried theme and was greeted by thunderous applause. Zander turned to the audience and, grinning playfully, remarked “now you see why orchestra musicians love playing Wagner.”
British soprano Alwyn Mellor joined the Philharmonic to give voice to the two quintessential Wagner heroines, Isolde and Brünnhilde. Much has been made of Mellor’s potential as the future of Wagnerian soprano singing, and her performance on Wednesday evening proves that her instrument is well suited to the task, though the lowest end of the range lacks somewhat in power. Her voice is round, full, lush and warmer perhaps than the kind of sound traditionally associated with this repertoire. This warmth, however, did not necessarily translate to her acting; while she was plainly aware of the specifics of her text (and I have rarely heard such clearly articulated German diction), her affect came across as flat and somewhat disconnected from earth-shattering emotions reflected in the music. This impression was augmented by her phrasing, which felt lacking in shape, particularly in the Liebestod, though individual moments thrilled—as Brünnhilde she delivered her command “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!” with every bit of the electrifying power one expects from Wagner’s greatest heroine.
The orchestra played with accomplishment and vigor throughout, relishing Wagner’s more boisterous passages and filling Sanders’ appropriately Teutonic-looking wood-paneled space with a rich, robust sound. Zander proved adept at bringing out specific motives, melodies and countermelodies, so crucial to the building of what he described as Wagner’s complex “musical worlds”. As such, individual sections of the ensemble stood out for brilliance at particular moments; the brass were magnificently athletic in their portrayal of the “doomed Volsung race” in the Götterdämmerung sections, as well as alternately muscular and heroic in their portrayal of Siegfried in both the “Rhine Journey” and in the “Funeral March.” The woodwinds, clarinets and oboes in particular, added sweetness to music that can come across as bombastic, while the percussion section as a whole was consistently thrilling. The strings played with finesse throughout, though it was the violin section, led by concert mistress Joanna Kurkowicz, that gave the evening its subtlest and most effective utterances. I have rarely heard a group of musicians outside a chamber setting play with such unity, refinement and focus.
For all the obvious passion in the playing, there were occasional problems with pacing, phrasing and dynamics overall. The beginning of the Prelude to Tristan, for example, seemed to move in fits and starts; while the music is written to mimic the halting progress of forbidden romance moving furtively toward ecstatic climax, the hesitation in the orchestra seemed more mechanical than emotional on Wednesday night. The orchestra might have employed the full range of dynamic shadings to greater effect: the BPO’s forti were fortissimo and their piani pianissimo, though it is important to remember that much of the drama available in Wagner’s music lies between the two extremes, in the subtle gradations made possible by generously proportioned forces. Lyrical passages seemed more difficult for the ensemble to pace than the up-tempo passages, so while the Overture to Meistersinger was suitably grand and vigorous, the Liebestod seemed to lag. As for the passages from the Ring cycle, anyone who knows and loves Götterdämmerung is keenly aware that Wagner saves his single most ecstatic utterance, the Transformation/Transfiguration leitmotif, for the final few minutes of the opera. As Zander noted, in the context of the full cycle we wait 16 hours for this exquisite figure to appear; despite a far shorter waiting period in Wednesday’s concert, one wished that the orchestra might have savored this extraordinarily moving melody upon its arrival. Instead, the final bars of the piece felt rushed, as though the orchestra had run away with its own enthusiasm.
That said, in the face such dramatic intricacy, expressive power and emotional depth, it is difficult not to get carried away. In the context of a concert with the stated goal of broadening the composer’s appeal, is it clear that a highly motivated ensemble playing with passion is vastly preferable to an orchestra playing with absolute technical precision but with no great desire to communicate. Zander began the concert with a story of an acquaintance of his in the audience, once no great lover of classical music, who has recently taken to attending the BPO’s concerts with increasingly large groups of friends and acquaintances. By the end of the evening, I was sorry not to have attended the concert with one or more of my less Wagner-friendly associates; with the help of his gifted ensemble, I am certain Zander would have shed lively light on many points I have labored to make in support of this mighty, oft-misunderstood repertoire.
The concert repeats on Saturday evening at 8pm (Jordan Hall) and Sunday afternoon at 3pm (Sanders Theater.)