|Wagner Under the Sails | Sydney Symphony Orchestra|
|Written by Nicholas Routley|
|Friday, 10 August 2012 12:54|
Conductor Simone Young
The concert program was identical to that given in 1973 at the Gala Opening of the Sydney Opera House. The SSO decided to present it in celebration of their 80th anniversary (tantalisingly, we were not told what the program for their first concert was). It was an all-Wagner program which included the serendipitously appropriate aria "Dich, teure Halle" from Tannhäuser. Charles Mackerras, who conducted the 1973 incarnation, having noted that Wagner was a 'famous Australian composer', went on to point out that the title of this aria could be translated "You, expensive hall".
Simone Young's recreation of this event was on such a high level of aesthetic achievement that I know already I shall run out of superlatives. Like Daniel Barenboim (who is one of my musical deities) she conducts Wagner lovingly, indeed passionately, without a trace of bombast, and with a rhythmic plasticity which always serves the expression. I imagine orchestras love playing under her. In this concert she made every musician feel, quite rightly, that they were a crucial part of the whole.
The last time I heard Tristan in the opera house Stuart Challender was conducting. I will never forget his huge wing-span – his reading of the Prelude was vast and expansive. Simone's was, I think truer to Wagner's intention, intimate and yearning. Her performance was very slow indeed, with lingering agogic accents drawing out the last beat of many bars. It seems absurd to say this, but the orchestra played with even more immaculate tuning than usual under her. (Absurd, because tuning is a matter for the orchestra itself rather than the conductor.) Perhaps it was partly the SSO's response to Young's perfect control of balance. But partly it was just magic. Her ability to balance and blend, from the brilliant overture to Die Meistersinger which opened the program to the concluding bars of Brünnhilde's Immolation which concluded it, meant that the extraordinarily soft playing, for example in the Dawn scene from Die Götterdämmerung, filled the hall, and the vast sounds of Siegfried's Funeral March were nevertheless so transparent that one could hear the entire texture of the score. I have only ever heard one other conductor capable of doing all this so well, and he was a far less expressive conductor than Simone Young – Pierre Boulez.
Christine Brewer, who sang the Tannhäuser aria and also Isolde's Liebestod and the Immolation scene, shows that it is possible to sing with enormous vitality and volume without allowing vibrato to create the least trace of wobble. This is really rare in Wagner singers. It is difficult enough to sing this music with the orchestra well below you in the opera pit. Singing concert performances, with the orchestra all round you, makes almost impossible demands of balance, but the audience was not conscious of this – Young's tact and Brewer's golden voice were equal to the demands. I could not hear any of the words of Isolde's Liebestod, but it didn't matter, (they don't tell you much anyway unless you know your Schopenhauer); in the Immolation (where I could hear some of the words) scene Brewer sang imperiously, with absolute conviction.
Like much of the audience, I know the music of this program like the back of my hand, and there was not a detail that was not coaxed lovingly from the orchestra. Which sections shone? All of them. I am left remembering the whole cello section, especially their dialogue with the violins in the same register in the Tristan prelude, and also in dialogue with the first oboe (I think played by David Popp); Ben Jack's breathtakingly superb playing in all the Götterdämmerung excerpts; the whole horn-plus-Wagner-tuba section (you wouldn't have guessed how fiendishly difficult those tubas are to get in tune); Lawrence Dobell, understated yet melting on 1st clarinet; the richly sonorous quartet of trombones led by Ron Prussing.
The program rather non-commitally referred to Simone Young as "An Australian conductor of note". Let me rephrase that. She is among the dozen or so greatest conductors currently on the world stage. She is artistic director of Germany's second house, Hamburg (Simon Rattle has the first, Berlin). Famously, she was the first woman ever to be invited to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. It is time we in Australia came out and said it. She is a national treasure.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents
Wagner Under the Sails
The Opening Gala Revisited
Conductor Simone Young
Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 9 –11 August, 2012
Tickets: $159 – $35
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