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12 Sep 2019

Prom 68: Wagner Abend - Christine Goerke overwhelms as Brünnhilde

Wagner Nights at the Proms were once enormously popular, especially on the programmes of Sir Henry Wood. They have become less so, perhaps because they are simply unfashionable today, but this one given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht steered clear of the ‘bleeding chunk’ format which was usually the norm. It was still chunky, but in an almost linear, logical way and benefited hugely from being operatic (when we got to the Wagner) rather than predominantly orchestral.

Prom 68: Wagner Night, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marc Albrecht

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Christine Goerke (soprano)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


From the outset, with the treacherous horn writing in Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz, one got the impression that this was an RPO on magnificent form. It wasn’t just the precision of the playing; it was the tone and attention to dynamics as well. What was perhaps less convincing was Albrecht’s view of the overture which seemed much more Wagnerian than it is. The music is dark, downright sinister in places, but the ‘Wolf’s Glen’ themes are a tad stormier than we got here. Albrecht conjured such lugubrious playing from the strings there wasn’t too much room for the music to glitter; those heavy-handed closing bars felt oddly misplaced.

There was nothing heavy-handed about Forest Murmurs from Siegfried . Ravishingly played, almost as transparent in its textures as you might hear in a performance of Siegfried Idyll, everything sounded right. The divided writing for the strings was so carefully drawn out; but so too was the music for woodwind, with birdcalls that quivered around the fluttering wings of the strings. If Albrecht had been a touch reticent at drawing the nature perspective into the overture of Der Freischütz , Forest Murmurs dazzled with rustic charm.

Franck’s Le chasseur maudit (‘The Accursed Huntsman’) bears more than a few similarities to the Weber which began this concert: The hunting theme, the supernatural, the sinister demons, even the music which edges towards the sinister and gloomy in places. But this is also music which seems overwhelmingly religious in parts; bells toll, and there is a hymnal melody which accompanies sections of the score. Again, the playing was exceptionally fine; passing exchanges between the strings and woodwind that suggested the galloping of the hunt, thundering trombones which roared through the orchestra like demons, beautiful string tremolos that splintered and speckled, brass which refracted with a blazing brightness.

The second half was entirely devoted to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, beginning with the interlude linking the Prologue to the first act, the love duet, ‘Zu neun Taten, teurer Helde’, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Death and Funeral March and, finally, Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. It’s often struck me when listening to Wagner taken out of the opera how fragmented and disjointed it sounds from the point of view of tension - that was rarely the case here. Incomplete it may have been, but it felt entirely convincing. Rarely has ‘Dawn’ opened in a concert performance with such a vermillion glow of sunrise; it felt genuinely luminous, with cellos rising through the orchestra as if awakening from a dark sky. Those magnificent RPO horns - the leitmotif of Siegfried himself - were heroic and pristine.

Stephen Gould tenor.jpgStephen Gould (tenor). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Christine Goerke’s very first line - ‘Zu neuen Taten’ - as she sings for him to go forth on new ventures rather begged the question of role reversal here. The voice is magnificently rich, so broad and dark in its tone, you wondered if her Siegfried, Stephen Gould, could ever be the heroic journeyman on his quest; the answer is he couldn’t. Likewise, if this is a love that burns with fire - ‘Brünnhilde brennt dann ewig hellig dir en der Brust’ - it never entirely felt one which was convincingly reciprocated. It wasn’t that Goerke sang as if she was detached from Gould’s Siegfried, rather that she was so daunting and fearsome you weren’t persuaded by it all. So much of the libretto here seemed entirely descriptive of Goerke’s assumption of Brünnhilde: fearless, powerful, stormy, raging - all emerging with effortless, even terrifying, strength from a voice that easily strode above an orchestra at full tilt. As the duet ends, the sheer chill factor of both singers’ ‘Heil! Heil!’ served to emphasise the size of one voice against the comparative meekness of the other.

Back to the orchestra again, and we got a beautifully phrased Rhine Journey, a gloriously graphic picture of the flowing river, before Gould gave an outstanding performance of Siegfried’s death scene. Where he had seemed remote in the Love Duet, the intensity he brought to his death was affecting. If you had wondered where the passion for his Brünnhilde might have been in the duet’s ‘Heil, strahlende Liebe!’ the answer was given in his inwardness and tenderness in the death scene’s ‘Ach, Dieses Auge’. The link to such a towering and brutal Death and March was quite astonishing: trenchant strings in unison like pallbearers, timpani that weren’t just menacing, but with a gravity that felt more terrifying than usual. It was enough to stiffen the sinews.

I’m not sure what happened with the transition between the end of March and the beginning of the Immolation Scene, but conductor and orchestra briefly drifted apart. Goerke doesn’t take this music as fiery as some sopranos; in fact, it’s such a slow burn, the tension she brings to it is unmistakably one that flickers, ignites and then blazes like an inferno. Some might find her voice, which is more bronze than golden, to lack sufficient colour - but this is all of a part with her embracing a Brünnhilde who would rather take her tone from the braying, yet velvety, tubas in the orchestra, rather than the steely horns. You hear betrayal in this voice, a desolation and dolefulness which often isn’t apparent in a more penetrating voice. It left an unforgettable impression, as did most of this concert. This was a Wagner evening which felt entirely Teutonic - a not inconsiderable achievement.

Marc Bridle

Christine Goerke (soprano), Stephen Gould (tenor), Marc Albrecht (conductor) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Monday 9th September 2019.

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