The Wagner bicentennial marches on, bringing grand sounds from practically every corner of the musical earth. What appear most frequently on concert programs are various extracts from the operas, such as the collection of preludes, overture, and vocal and orchestral excerpts offered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Daniele Gatti at Carnegie Hall. This kind of programming runs the risk of coming across as a tasty but haphazard smorgasbord; composer and musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey denounced these “bleeding chunks of butcher’s meat chopped from Wagner’s operas”. On this occasion, however, Wagner’s inspiration shone through magnificent orchestral playing, even if the interpretations sometimes fell short of the intensity that the music demands.

Daniele Gatti © CAMI
Daniele Gatti
© CAMI

The evening began promisingly, with concert excerpts from Götterdämmerung, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music, all performed as a single stretch of music. The meandering opening, dominated by the leitmotif for fate, was spacious and restrained. The music then effortlessly climbed out of the murk to a grand exaltation in the brass, as Siegfried and Brünnhilde emerge on a mountaintop. Throughout the performance Gatti excelled at moments like these, bringing an intuitive sense of breath and phrasing, letting the orchestra build up a head of steam on some of the most fun-to-play moments in the repertoire. As Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off in search of further heroic exploits, he sounds his famous horn call, played offstage with appropriate swagger by principal horn James Sommerville, who made a quick dash onstage to rejoin his section. In the exuberant passage of dense counterpoint that follows, the BSO brass played with remarkable clarity and energy, proving that the orchestra hasn’t lost a step in its past two years without a music director.

Without pausing, Gatti and the orchestra plunged directly into Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music, jump-cutting into the moment where the hero is stabbed, followed by his dying soliloquy (without voices, of course), and then the instrumental funeral march itself. Arranged this way, the death scene might be called the work with a thousand endings. Long silences divide phrases of varied emotions, which might sound more cohesive if the vocal parts and the dramatic context were present. Under Gatti, the climaxes were impressive, but the silences were leaden rather than haunted. It might have had something to do with his precise and very sharp cutoffs, disconnecting the phrases from each other.

A professional orchestra playing the Tannhäuser overture is the musical version of a reunion of old friends: it is a piece that most musicians have played since high school, and they take to it with familiar ease. Gatti would have done better to have gotten out of their way a bit more; his tempi were generally strict, with the consequence that intimate moments could have lingered longer, and climaxes did not fully reach their peak. After the soaring opening theme of the Pilgrims’ Chorus wended its way from solo clarinet to strings to unison trombones and back to clarinet, the lively bacchanalia that fills out the balance of the work maintained the same relentless intensity for long stretches.

The prelude to Act I of Lohengrin cannot help but be beautiful. The opening chorale of high strings slowly invites the rest of the ensemble in an even-paced hymn of expanding fervor. The right elements were there, but it could have used a touch more contrast between the intimate and the grand moments.

The vocal soloist for the evening was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, whose glorious voice is best enjoyed in Wagnerian repertoire and other heavy opera roles. It truly is a marvelous instrument. With pearlescent high notes and a rich low range, you could luxuriate in it forever. The only thing missing was a more compelling connection with the text. In Kundry’s narrative from Parsifal, the long, floaty phrases could have used a clearer indication of shape. The second part of the narrative (“Ich sah das Kind”), in which Kundry recounts scenes from Parsifal’s childhood in an effort to seduce him, has a charming lilt to its triple meter when it evokes his mother lulling him to sleep. Between DeYoung, Gatti, and a tempo that seemed too slow, the lilt did not come across, and the narrative was more like a one-sided conversation.

DeYoung fared better in Isolde’s Liebestod, with that luscious voice soaring over the orgasmic swells as Isolde finds release from love in death. But right from the woodwind phrases punctuating the tonally ambiguous, anguished opening of the prelude (musicologists often cite the piece as the beginning of atonal composing), the emphasis was on beauty and polish rather than yearning and solitude. Isolde was enveloped in waves of gorgeous, well-balanced orchestral sound; she was not, however, annihilated by what should be some of the most devastatingly passionate climaxes in all music. In one sense, Wagner never fails to impress. But Gatti, a rumored contender for the BSO directorship, should pull out some more of the stops.