Wagner, Wesendonck-Lieder (arr. Henze), J. Van Nes, Northern Sinfonia, R. Hickox (Chandos, 1995)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, K. Böhm (Audite, 1977) [64'30"]
Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, B. Haitink (CSO Resound, 2007) [67'30"]
The evening's big discovery was the Henze arrangement, made in 1976 for a chamber-sized group of strings, harp, horns, and winds. Wagner composed these five songs on poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, during a time when his infatuation with Mathilde destroyed his first marriage. He set aside his work on the Ring cycle, working out in the songs some of the themes he would use in Tristan und Isolde. Wagner specified only that the songs were written for eine Frauenstimme, and although we have enjoyed them sung by a soprano (most memorably, Christine Brewer), they work well for a low-set voice, too. By almost anyone's standards, Nathalie Stutzmann's voice is not ideal for Wagner, but Henze's transparent scoring, with lots of divisi and low winds (alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon), can accommodate a smaller voice. Stutzmann has mannerisms that will bother some listeners, especially a tendency to hit some notes in straight tone, just a scintilla under pitch, and then warm the sound with vibrato. Still, this was a beautiful, nuanced reading of both text and vocal line that focused more on artistry than real power. The delicate sounds created by Henze -- muted brass, tinges of harp, no violins or basses in the third song, murky fogs in the third and fifth songs -- were scaled beautifully to this intimate performance, likely far too intimate for listeners farther away in this large hall.
Although Eschenbach's Bruckner with the NSO thus far has been admirable -- an eternity-minded ninth in 2012 and a bold sixth in 2010 -- his take on the seventh symphony (E major, WAB 107) was no less strange. The orchestration (an imperial brass section of 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba) and many of the motifs are Bruckner's tribute to Wagner. When he began the Adagio movement, Bruckner reportedly had premonitions that the idolized composer he called "the Master" would soon die, a passing that occurred in the middle of Bruckner's composition of the second movement. In response, he extended the Adagio, marking its concluding elegy "In memory of the immortal and dearly beloved Master who has departed this life." At the climax of the Adagio is a disputed cymbal crash and triangle roll, which Bruckner added at the request of his friends Ferdinand Löwe and Josef Schalk, with the acceptance of Arthur Nikisch, who conducted the premiere in Leipzig. Because this percussive accent was added to the score on a little pasted-on slip of paper, some conductors choose not to include it: there is not much of a role for percussion in the symphony overall, and two players to perform this few seconds of music are not otherwise needed in the course of an hour-long work.
Anne Midgette, National Symphony’s Eschenbach gives Bruckner a loving, original reading (Washington Post, October 12)
This concert repeats tonight and tomorrow night (October 12 and 13, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.