Britten and Wagner. I can't say the connection is obvious to me, apart from the fact that each was probably the most influential opera composer of his day. But they do make for an interesting combination this weekend at Symphony Hall.
They also provide Utah Symphony music director Joseph Silverstein with a dual showcase for his soloist, Metropolitan Opera tenor Gary Bachlund. And with respect to Britten, for once not in the ubiquitous Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings but in the lesser-known but no less deserving "Les Illuminations," for the same combination minus horn.Here it was preceded by the Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes," a work with which it shares a key relationship, that of B flat and E major. Indeed there are places (notably the "Interlude") where the song cycle almost seems a study for the opera.
Certainly they share the theme of self-discovery, more resigned in the case of the songs (based on poems of Rimbaud) but ultimately no less lonely. That motif is sounded in the Passacaglia via the viola solo that opens and closes the piece, bridged here by a developmental section of remarkable weight and brilliance.
Brilliance was likewise a hallmark of Bachlund's work in the "Illuminations," to my ears excessively so. Not that there was much to complain of vis-a-vis his French (unlike Peter Pears' on the Britten recording). But only occasionally in these sometimes fragile evocations was there much attempt at subtlety or musical shading and then the results often sounded strained.
It is a robust voice, less a tenor, I think, than a baritone with an extended top. Not always easefully extended, though - witness his struggle with the tessitura of "Marine" and the upper reaches of "Parade." On the other hand I liked the sensitivity he brought to much of "Antique" as I did the darkness Silverstein communicated in the final song, "Depart."
All this was preceded and followed by Wagner, beginning with the "Rienzi" Overture and concluding with extracts (sort of) from "The Ring."
The overture began well, with a controlled trumpet solo from Edmund Cord, moving to a stately invocation of the prayer and battle hymn. Again one admired the depth of the strings and the volume of the brass. But toward the end I could not shake the feeling that this performance could have used a little more oomph, as was the case with Silverstein's Dvorak Seventh two weeks before.
After intermission Bachlund returned with more Wagner, the "Winterstuerme" from "Die Walkuere" and, as an encore, the Forging Song ("Nothung! Nothung!") from "Siegfried." Befitting a would-be Heldentenor, he seemed distinctly more at home in the heroics of the latter (here taken at about twice the normal tempo); Siegmund's love song, by contrast, was verbally adept but never really lyrical enough.
When I said "sort of" in reference to this concert's "Ring" excerpts, it was to leave the book open on the "Siegfried Idyll," which may have contributed as many themes to that opera as it drew upon. Prepared as a birthday present for Cosima, it is the most personal glimpse we have into the Wagners' private world, and is unrivaled among his orchestral essays for intimacy and tenderness.
Here, despite the use of a full orchestra, it received a performance that did justice to both. From the gentle treatment of the opening theme, the music under Silverstein's direction gradually grew warmer and more expansive, leading to a carefully graded climax capped by a reasonably expressive horn solo.
That same horn - indeed the same theme, although it is usually buried in the counterpoint - could be heard in the concluding work, "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from "Goetterdaemmerung." Again one admired the rich sound of the low strings in the first, with its subdued tuba growl, and the rousing journey to the Rhine, which here surged majestically. If a little more passion might not have been amiss in the love duet that came in between, well, better slow than slick. Which occasionally seems to be Silverstein's motto as well.
Bachlund will also perform Sunday on the Kol Ami Concert Series, in songs of Stravinsky, Ravel, Weiner and Vaughan Williams. Starting time is 7:30 p.m., with tickets available at the door.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: The composer's own recording with Peter Pears (London) is still the most authoritative account we have of "Les Illiminations," although the original setting for soprano may be heard on EMI, with Jill Gomez.
By contrast there are any number of recommendable recordings of the "Siegfried Idyll," among which Ashkenazy's (London), Sinopoli's (DG), Toscanini's (RCA) and Walter (CBS) seem to me the most outstanding.