Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried

It is to be hoped that those Londoners who do not travel much — though it remains unclear to me why they could not listen to the odd recording or broadcast — will finally be disabused by this Proms Ring of the strange claim that the sub-standard Wagner they have all too often been served up over the past decade represents anything but a pale shadow of the ‘real thing’.

That is crucial
not from the standpoint of drawing up some variety of ghastly league table, but
because Wagner deserves so much better, as, barring a few noisy miscreants, do
audiences. A friend remarked acutely earlier in the week that so much of the
chatter concerning last year’s Covent Garden Ring concerned the work
as some sort of ‘ultimate challenge’ and congratulated the forces for
having (just about) withstood that challenge. Art is not, however, a school
sports day; to come anywhere near realising Wagner’s potential requires
musicians who understand his (admittedly strenuous) demands, who are as
comprehending of his world-view and its implications, historical and
contemporary, as possible, and who are expert at communicating his message at
as many of its multiple levels as they can. ‘Muddling through’ — or, to
put it another way, a self-congratulatory celebration of English amateurism —
should never be an option.

Barenboim once again had the measure of the score, his understanding of
which has deepened considerably over the years, from the outset. The Prelude to
Act I opened very slowly, but its hallmark was flexibility, not least when a
mini-Furtw‰nglerian accelerando led us, as the most natural
development in the world, into Wagner’s menacing treatment of the
no-longer-dormant Nibelung motif. Lesser conductors would simply present one
thing after another, perhaps with the odd ‘shock’ effect imposed upon the
meaningless progression; Wagner’s drama needs to be simultaneously
communicated and reinforced through a tightly woven web of motivic
interconnection. As Carl Dahlhaus put it, ‘the decline in importance of the
symphony as a genre represented the obverse of an inexorable expansion of the
symphonic style in other genres.’ It is inconceivable that a great Wagnerian
would not also be a great Beethovenian.

The dark orchestral phantasmagoria, inevitably bringing to mind Adorno’s
Versuch ¸ber Wagner, conjured up by Barenboim and his orchestra as
Mime initially struggled to forge the sword told of dark forces, dramatic and
musical, at work; one was drawn into the drama in the very best way, by the
score ‘itself’. And yet, there was plenty of life: Siegfried’s music
quite rightly evoked the world of a Beethoven scherzo, transformed into
musico-dramatic material. Barenboim showed that lightness does not preclude
depth; indeed, it often relies upon it. And depth one certainly heard from the
Staatskapelle’s strings, heart-rendingly when Siegfried casually knocked the
food Mime had prepared out of his hands; we empathised with Mime and his misery
through Wagner’s extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal. Likewise, in the
third scene, Barenboim — and Wagner, of course — conjured up the sheer
horror of Mime’s predicament just as truthfully as the other, unconscious,
heroic side of the coin. Competition between soundworlds, distinct and yet
dialectically related, was very much the stuff of this first act. The dark
Staatskapelle brass, never brash in the way sections from Anglophone orchestras
might often be, told during the Mime-Wanderer scene of the darkness still cast
by Alberich’s Nibelheim curse — even when the Wanderer was ostensibly
talking of himself. Schwarz- and Licht-Alberich continued their dialectical
dance of death (even though we never discover quite what becomes of the

Act II opened in similarly magisterial fashion. Marking by kettledrums of
that crucial tritone — the giants’ motif darkened, perverted, from its
initially diatonic form — was effected to musico-dramatic perfection; that
interval, that sound would hang over the act for at least as long as it took
Siegfried to slay Fafner. A febrile undergrowth, scenic and harmonic, would
soon find itself conjured up — that phantasmagorical phrase again — by
composer, conductor, and orchestra together. The orchestra, moreover, gained a
real spring to its step during those extraordinary exchanges between Mime and
Siegfried, when the former, despite all his efforts, betrays his true
intentions, Wagner’s sardonicism conveyed with the darkest of comedy. And
that Feuerbachian moment of hope — love, revolution, love in revolution might
yet emerge the victor — at the end of the act was captured to perfection,
only to be contrasted, at the beginning of Act III, by a very different variety
of dramatic urgency, the Wanderer’s dismissal of Erda (and thus of Fate
itself) upon us.

Barenboim’s deceleration as Erda rose from the depths told of far more
than mere handling of the score; this was an attempt to hold back history
itself — likewise at the end of his confrontation with Siegfried in the
following scene. The Wanderer’s urgency with Erda, rhythms buoyant and
generative, would emerge victorious, but at what cost, and for how long?
Questions rather than answers were proffered. His silence following ‘Weisst
du, was Wotan will?’ was made to tell in a fashion not entirely unlike a
silence in Bruckner, and yet, with its very particular musico-dramatic import,
quite unlike it. By contrast, the transformation to the final scene was perhaps
the most ecstatic I have heard, the orchestra revelling in Wagner’s wizardry,
Barenboim ensuring that such revelry retained dramatic motivation. There were
moments when one heard, for instance, the fresh air of Johannistag — ‘Ach!
Wie schˆn!’ as Siegfried loosened Br¸nnhilde’s helmet — or delectable
violin femininity, as Siegfried lifted the breastplate. But they never stood
out, self-regarding, for their own sake; the drama was the thing.

Peter Bronder’s Mime was excellent. He wheedled without falling into
caricature, projected a strong command of his line throughout, and even proved
a dab hand pretty with his (small) hammer. There was real anger, moreover, as
well as self-pity, when he dubbed Siegfried ‘dankbares, arges Kind!’ Lance
Ryan is not possessed of a beautiful voice, but he showed the necessary
tirelessness not simply to ‘get through’ the role, but also to shape its
progress. If vocal lines were often less than mellifluous, one could hear
pretty much every word. He had a nice — or rather nasty — line in cruelty
of delivery, for instance when telling of how he longed to seize Mime’s neck,
though there were undoubtedly occasions when he erred on the side of crudity,
not least during the forging of Notung, and clowning around over the horn was
probably overdone. Johannes Martin Kr‰nzle once again contributed an attentive
reading of Alberich’s part, words, music, stage manner welded into something
considerably more than the sum of its parts. Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner (from
the organ) was properly evocative of the rentier as dragon: what he
lay on, he owned. One even felt a degree of sympathy at the moment of death.
Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was not as large of life as some, but his
solemnity told its own tale; this was, after all, a Wotan two generations on
from Das Rheingold, scarred by events, working his way towards
renunciation of the Schopenhauerisn Will. Whether that were actually how
Stensvold thought of it or no, one could certainly understand his portrayal
that way. His Norwegian way with Wagner’s words harked back to the the old
sagas: perhaps not ideal in abstract pronunciation terms, but again opening up
other associations for those willing to listen. As in Berlin, Rinnat Moriah
proved a bright-toned Woodbird, perfectly contrasted with the deep contralto of
Anna Larsson’s wonderful Erda, her tiredness and fading powers conveyed
musically rather than by default. Nina Stemme’s Br¸nnhilde gave an excellent
impression of awakening, and handled very well this difficult transition from
Valkyrie to woman. She more than whetted the appetite for what is now to come.

Mark Berry

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image_description=Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management]
product_title=Prom 18: Wagner — Siegfried
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Lance Ryan [Photo by Musica Management]