Confronting Wagner with Stravinsky may not be as obvious as opposing Wagner to Verdi, but it definitely comes close. Stravinsky did cultivate outright anti-Wagnerianism, which is the most primitive form of post-Wagnerianism, and his first works are usually interpreted as a reaction to conventional musical forms. The latest concert by the Orquesta Nacional de España (ONE), conducted on this occasion by Christoph Eschenbach, explored this opposition and brought together two of the most Romantic works ever written by Wagner (Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre) and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It wasn’t the most original of programmes, but the clarity and the boldness behind the performance almost turned the concert into an enlightening essay on contemporary music history.

Christian Eschenbach © Fernando Marcos
Christian Eschenbach
© Fernando Marcos
The first bars of Tristan’s Prelude immediately set the tone for the first part of the concert. Eschenbach underlined Wagner’s most conventional traits, expanding the musical phrases and slowing down the tempi to let the melody flow clean over the corrosive chromaticism of the score. All the edges of the score were softened, which tempered the inherent tension of the piece. The strings were at their best, producing a clean and rich sound that was able to live up to the task of recreating Wagner’s impossible musical architecture.

This tame version of Wagner was not enough to help Mathias Goerne in his unconvincing attempt at Marke’s monologue and Wotan’s farewell. A lieder singer with a fine but modest lyric baritone, Goerne was unable to overcome the technical challenges that these two characters pose to his voice. Marke’s and Wotan's bass-baritone tessitura is so far from his reach that he had to inflate the timbre artificially, losing flexibility and distorting his natural colour. Even his usually perfect German diction was compromised. As a consequence, he was so concentrated in sounding as Marke and Wotan that he forgot to define these complex characters through phrasing and acting. He did have some beautiful moments that reminded of his best lieder performances, notably in the ending of Marke's monologue, almost whispered to a silent hall, and in Wotan’s poignant kiss to Brünnhilde. The orchestra sounded a bit messy and saturated in the first part of Wotan’s Farewell, but it gave a sparkling rendition of the Magic Fire, in which all the orchestral layers stood out clearly.

Mathias Goerne and Christian Eschenbach © Fernando Marcos
Mathias Goerne and Christian Eschenbach
© Fernando Marcos

The second part explained why Eschenbach had portrayed such a conventional and conservative approach to Wagner’s works. His Rite of Spring was stark and simplistic, steering clear of Stravinsky’s intellectual and controlled wildness. Rhythmic contrast was exaggerated and the volume and density of each section of the orchestra was always pushed to the limit, even causing some small mistakes. His Rite was truly primeval and deliberately masked the sophistication and the immense variety of colours that define this landmark score. But this sacrifice was done for a reason: even if Stravinsky’s score is less radical and more eclectic that it may seem at first blush, it truly sounded like a violent and uncompromising challenge to convention, represented in this concert by Wagner, conveniently depicted as a canonic authority. While the idea of spring and life in Wagner was sublimated by the leitmotif of Brünnhilde’s love, in Stravinsky it was blended with violence and suffering. Under this light, The Rite of Spring seemed an alternative musical version to the same plot, a radical variation on the same theme: tearing down Valhalla, taking Freia by force and sacrificing Brünnhilde were the only way to break an unbound and fruitful new musical path. Eschenbach made his point.