Juanjo Mena launched the BBC Philharmonic’s season with an all-Wagner programme which, despite some small faults, featured some excellent playing.

BBC Philharmonic at MediaCityUK Salford Quays © BBC / Sussie Ahlburg
BBC Philharmonic at MediaCityUK Salford Quays
© BBC / Sussie Ahlburg

The main issue was soprano Brigitte Hahn’s projection, particularly in the Götterdämmerung finale. There was less of a problem in the soft and lyrical Wesendonck Lieder of 1858, settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, with whom Wagner has at various times been suspected of having a close relationship. The songs are perfectly suited to Brigitte Hahn’s gentle and unfussy style, helped by the more conventional scale of orchestral accompaniment than that in the Ring. Her soft control at high pitches was wonderful, and interactions between soloist and first horn and cello were beautiful. For the most part she gave quite a reserved performance, even when there seemed scope for greater intensity in the fourth song, “Dreams”. The orchestral accompaniment was sympathetic and well attuned to the solo, with some richly flowing trumpet lines in Sorrows.

In the Götterdämmerung excerpts the orchestral playing could not be faulted. Mena pushed through the final pages of the Immolation Scene rather more quickly than he needed to, making it hard to imagine the 14 hours of opera which would have preceded the destruction of Valhalla as part of a full Ring. The pauses between the three extracts were also slightly unsatisfactory; a longer moment of silence would have been useful to separate events as different and dramatically important as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral and the Immolation Scene. Elsewhere, though, Mena’s conducting was excellent, shaping finely balanced heroism for Siegfried motifs and rich, flowing Rhine music. As a section the horns and Wagner tubas were excellent, also working well for the most part with the trumpets and trombones on the far side of the stage. The strings combined incisive attack with careful rounding of phrases to great effect.

It was a shame, though, that much of Brigitte Hahn’s singing was lost in the orchestral mêlée. Perhaps part of the problem was that she was singing within 20 metres of over 100 musicians with no physical barriers between them, rather than on a stage set above an orchestra pit, though it is hard to see what could be done about this in a concert hall setting. The quieter orchestral passages allowed her to show a beautiful tone, and one suspected she sang the whole scene very well but for being lost even in her more dramatic, biting lines.

Earlier the concert had opened with the overture to Tannhäuser, possibly the composer’s best-loved overture. The initial woodwind statement of the Pilgrims’ Chorus was very soft with great attention paid to dynamic variations. This grew to a very broad, stately tutti realisation of the chorus with the descending string figure heavily marked in articulation. The ensuing Allegro was nimble and invigorated by the same close attention to string detail. The theme later revealed to be Tannhäuser’s Hymn to Venus (and implied sinful, sensual love) was treated with wonderful, unashamed gusto, and the return of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, now redemptive for Tannhäuser’s soul, was suitably noble.

Overall this was a fine concert which was slightly let down by some small details. It was certainly appreciated by the audience, and the rest of the season will be eagerly anticipated.

***11