Monday, 2 August 2010

Rattle, Romantic. Prom 21 Wagner Berlioz

For Rattle Mahler First with the Berliner Phil see

When Simon Rattle first started conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, some wondered if a conductor known for modern(ish) music could adapt to early music. Not a problem. Many modern composers and conductors have refreshed themselves in music before 1870. No-one now queries Rattle's affinty with the genre.

Prom 21 confirms how Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment use period principles to inform mid 19th century classics. Refinement isn't something always associated with Berlioz, but shorn of the big choral finale, the delicacy of the Act 2 love duet from Roméo et Juliette sounds exquisite. Romeo and Juliette are alone, in a garden at night. Rattle makes the themes curve like caresses. Remarkably fluid playing, strings and winds in seamless harmony.

Knowing that Tristan und Isolde was to come, it was natural to pick out correspondances, like the tiny passage near the beginning which sounds like a prelude to the later opera. Can we hear the future ocean call?

Another Act 2 love duet, this time between Tristan and Isolde. Period instruments favour intimacy, so the orchestra creates a musical veil wrapping the lovers from the world outside. We hear the sea and the muffled sounds of the hunt, but Tristan and Isolde are oblivious. We hear the mounting tension in the music and Brangäne's cries, but we're hypnotized by the music, just as the lovers are hypnotized by one another.

Fabulous, luminous playing, gently unfolding, so when the tension breaks, it's agony. A pity that the singing wasn't technically up to the level of the orchestra. Violetta Urmana's a dramatic diva, more heroic than tender, and Ben Heppner's voice is losing its bloom. I don't mind that much, since Tristan is a man with a past, and a haunted past at that. Indeed, psychologically he's more convincing as a weary older man than a mindless lad. Isolde has a past, too, and had planned to kill him. So no staging needed. Urmana and Heppner act with their voices, and to me, that's what drama is about.

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