Christine Brewer doesn't sing Wagner in the UK all that often, so when she does it's not to be missed. The last time I caught her, it was for a stunning Gotterdammerung at the 2007 Proms, conducted by the man himself (obviously I mean Runnicles, not Wagner, that would be impressive!).
When I spotted that she was joining the Philharmonia for an all Wagner programme, I knew it was not to be missed. Furthermore, with Charles Mackerras on the podium, there was a seemingly unbeatable combination.
Mackerras is not necessarily the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of Wagner, though he has racked up plenty of experience, from a Ring cycle at ENO to an impressive DVD of Meistersinger (not to mention the inaugural concert at the Sydney Opera House, where he conducted Wagner chunks with the legendary Birgit Nilsson, CD/DVD available).
The concert started with Mackerras and the Philharmonia alone in the Prelude and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser. This was quite simply superb, and in some ways the highlight of the evening, perhaps because it is a little more satisfying in isolation than the other chunks. The orchestra's rich and intricate playing was a joy to hear. Mackerras, never any slouch, didn't show his eighty-four years in the brisk tempi he chose and in the thrilling reading he delivered (those with £1 burning a hole in their pocket could do worse that pick up the recording they made at their 2006 QEH concert).
They were then joined on stage by Brewer for a tender and moving account the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. There was a nice flow and sense of drama and Brewer's power and ability to soar above the orchestra was simply stunning (though the fact that even she was at a few moments overwhelmed indicates why Wagner recessed the orchestra so much at Bayreuth).
The second half was entirely given over to Gotterdammerung and a selection of, for the most part, well chosen highlights. A lively account of Sigfriends Rheinfahrt set things off, marked especially by some stunningly boisterous brass playing, trombones particularly. The only sour notes were the rather too many fluffed notes from the off-stage Wagner tuba, who then had the ignominy of having to sneak back on stage to join the rest.
This was followed by The Death of Siegfried, a slightly odd choice and not one I've come across before in Wagner chunks. There's a good reason for this: Siegfried should be singing here. Had we had a Siegfried present that would have been all well and good, without him it felt even more glaringly incomplete than such exerts normally inherently do, especially in the tender moments where the songbird's motif returns. Much more sensible, surely, to have skipped it and, if the programme needed padding, to draw from elsewhere such as the Walkurenritt or the Waldweben.
They were on safer, well, chilling ground for the Trauermarsch and then the final scene. Brewer was perhaps on even finer form here, though it is true that it does lack the same impact as it would have with the whole of the preceding four hours, no matter how finely played and sung (and it was very fine indeed).
Still, good opera house Wagner is hard to come by, and by no means an everyday occurrence, so such concerts form a nice stopgap. My next full encounter with Wagner will be the Deutsche Oper Ring in April (a familiar conductor at the helm); I found myself wishing Brewer was going to be on duty there.
The only other grip is the failure to provide texts in the programme. Of course, the Philharmonia's programmes cover several concerts in one go, but I still take a dim view of it, especially when you write in it "The sung texts and a translation are available as a free supplement from the programme sellers before this concert". Well they weren't, and it really isn't good enough. If I knew I wasn't getting them, I could bring my own. Still, such administrative mess-ups aren't enough to blight artistic excellence.
Those unable to secure tickets to the Concertgebouw's Mahler second on Sunday afternoon could do worse than check out Mackerras's second concert of Beethoven's sixth and chunks from Hansel and Gretel.