And, that’s no bad thing. This concert, the first of Sir Simon
Rattle’s three Prom appearances this season, offered the opportunity to
hear two great romantic scores performed on contemporary instruments and if the
results of the lower pitch and the full, mellow tone of the OAE were not always
wholly successful in the dramatic contexts, they were certainly
thought-provoking and at times illuminating.
While the decision to present classic dramas of love and death by two
cultural giants, Shakespeare and Wagner, seemed a natural and sensible one, it
led to a slightly unbalanced programme, with the erotic love scene of
Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, forming a first half
lasting only 18 minutes — even in this rather slow reading by Rattle.
Berlioz’s vast structure and forces — nine double basses towered
over the centre of the platform — were shaped and guided with finesse by
Rattle, who was ever alert to the composer’s startling harmonic effects.
However, despite the use of copies of nineteenth-century woodwind instruments
(for example, the oboes played on models of German instruments c.1865, with an
easy, soft lower register; the bassoons employed French instruments c.1840 for
the Berlioz, switching to German post-1870 for the Wagner, the latter
possessing a darker, less reedy tone which blends well with the horns and
clarinets), the sharp individuality of particular instrumental lines was
somewhat softened, woodwind colours blending sweetly with the whole but not
always delivering their full dramatic impact.
A similar problem was apparent after the interval, in Act 2 of
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the harmonious whole was
achieved at the expense of orchestral incisiveness. Wagner aimed for a unity of
instrumental and vocal lines, with the symphonic leitmotivic texture carrying
the burden of the emotional and dramatic narrative, in dialogue with
declamatory and naturalistic vocal melodies; but here the wash of orchestral
sound served primarily as a secure, relaxed back-drop to the singers, who were
therefore pushed to the foreground. Adding the fact that this was a concert
performance, with no scenery and little dramatic interaction between the
soloists, this was hardly the Gesamkunstwerk of Wagner’s
That said, the concordant orchestral cushion elicited by Rattle did evoke a
sense of ‘distance’, and an appropriately ethereal atmosphere, for
Tristan’s and Isolde’s desire can never be fulfilled in this world
and release from yearning will only be achieved through transcendence.
Moreover, particular instrumental effects were not neglected, and the rich
palette of the period orchestra was revealed: the off-stage horns signalling
the departure of the hunting party were strident and clamorous, while eerie sul
ponticello playing by the strings conveyed both the delicacy of the moment and
the anxious vulnerability of the lovers. Low woodwind colours intimated the
shift from the daylight world to the realms of night, from the mundane to the
oblivion of the sub-conscious.
With two renowned Wagnerian specialists in the cast, expectations were high,
and it was no surprise that the quality of the singing invested this
performance with vigour and compelling drama. Violeta Urmana, as Isolde, had no
difficulty filling the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall, her powerful,
impassioned soprano always secure and focused, her tone thrillingly ecstatic.
Sadly, Ben Heppner’s Tristan was less assured and rather inconsistent.
While there is no doubting his innate appreciation of this musical language,
there were more than a few wobbles, as he struggled to project. Yet, the
exquisite sound for which he is renowned can still genuinely reveal
Tristan’s exaltation. Franz-Josef Selig negotiated King Mark’s long
monologue with confidence and clarity, conveying both the authority and stature
of the betrayed King and the pain caused by Tristan’s disloyalty. Sarah
Connolly communicated Brangäne’s distress thoughtfully, with controlled
phrasing and delivery. Timothy Robinson (Melot) and Henk Neven (Kurvenal)
completed the accomplished cast.
Overall this was a thoughtful and refined performance. But while these two
passionate romantic encounters certainly touched the heart they did not,
perhaps, quite reach to the soul.