Guest conductor Marc Minkowski came to the front of the stage to personally introduce this morning’s Wagner matinée a la française with the Mozarteum Orchestra. An introduction was in order, as he had changed the concert program recently, and after this concert (part of a subscription series) was originally announced.
Minkowski explained that Wagner did not write symphonies (except for one particularly poor one that is never performed for good reason). So, he asked, who wrote Wagner’s unwritten symphonies? French composers, inspired by pilgrimages to Bayreuth. Or so Minkowski said. I won’t deny that some French composers did indeed frequent Bayreuth, but they had to keep their heads down when they got home because of the negative perception of Wagner’s music in France.
One composer Minkowski did not mention was Massenet, who did write (generally exceedingly dull) operas. Other Fench opera composers who admired Wagner, such as Meyerbeer (who was actually not at all French, but an Italian-trained German Jew whose music owed nothing to France although it was adopted there), found that they could not convince French tastes to accept Wagner no matter how much they championed him.
But Minkowski persisted, and the first half of the concert contained one of the French symphonies Wagner never wrote: the Symphony #1 by Ernest Chausson. Chausson, a student of Massenet, is largely forgotten today (he died in 1899, aged only 44, in a bicycle accident). Minkowski is championing his work, but from this morning’s concert it seems the music was rightly forgotten, other than as a curiosity. The symphony was pleasant but meaningless. It was Wagnerian in scale, but not in drama. Wagner’s failure to write symphonic music is directly tied to his own sense of drama – and for him, this required the Gesamtkunstwerk, and not just an orchestral component. Chausson’s symphony did have some beautiful passages, but they never went anywhere, nor did they seem to connect to each other effectively. In the end, it was this lack of any sense of meaning that made the work, even if Wagner-inspired, typically French.
After the intermission came Wagner himself. I don’t actually hear enough Wagner. His operas are hard to stage (and cast), which limits what opera houses can handle them. And too many places that do stage Wagner bring in self-important and utterly terrible German opera directors that make attending Wagner operas unwatchable and unbearable. So I get Wagner, if at all, mostly in concert performances (or recordings). One of the reasons I liked the original program this morning was that it had extended excerpts rather than short extracts, but the changed program went back to the short extracts.
Two of these had connections to Paris. First came Senta’s ballad from the Flying Dutchman in its original version (written by Wagner in a proposal to the Paris Opera, which the Paris Opera rejected – Wagner later wrote the full opera for Dresden). Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, only recently branching into Wagner, captured the inner passion of Senta in a thrilling and emotional reading.
There followed the Overture to Tannhäuser in the version Wagner reworked and extended for the Paris Opera to include a bacchanal. This is the only ballet music Wagner wrote, and it fails as a concert work (it is even debatable if it succeeds dramatically on stage – in general, the French practice of inserting ballets into operas was a really bad idea – but the right choreographer would make a difference). So the thrilling stage-setting that comes from the original opening of the overture devolves quickly in the unstaged ballet music.
Brimberg returned for the final extract, which Minkowski explained had no French connection but which they just wanted to perform: Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. Although Brimberg’s voice may not be big enough (yet) to perform the entire role, she does have the right sense of drama to carry off this scene. Despite her defiance, Brünnhilde’s final scene is actually sad, and Brimberg understood the tragedy.
The Mozarteum Orchestra, today with heavily-augmented winds, sounded fine. My understanding is that one of Minkowski’s assistants actually rehearsed the orchestra for this concert and Minkowski just showed up at the end. If so, the orchestra was clearly well-rehearsed. Minkowski, not known for his Wagner (although it is apparently his current interest), carefully crafted the drama, with good pacing and modulation, but having the orchestra in good form certainly helped.