This concert, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, opened with that composer’s most influential phrase – the beginning of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde wherein the Tristan chord, which is reputed to have had such an unsettling effect on the harmonic language of all who followed, first stole upon the ears of 19th-century music lovers. The cellos of the Heidelberg Philharmonic played with full and rich tone, and the charismatic young Bulgarian conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov shaped the phrases to perfection. The Liebestod, bereft of Isolde’s voice and four hours of intervening opera, is never quite what it should be, but Kamdzhalov in the build-up to the climax had the strings playing with such febrile intensity that the resolution hardly discharged the tension created, the excited passion of greater import than the climax toward which it strove.

Yordan Kamdzhalov
Yordan Kamdzhalov

Eva Vogel (replacing Stella Doufexis at short notice) then took command of the stage to deliver a wonderfully controlled, perceptive and supremely beautiful rendition of Wagner’s setting of the poems of his young friend Mathilde Wesendonck. Two of the settings use music that was to blossom darkly into Tristan und Isolde, but the music we had heard so wildly heated in the Liebestod was here far cooler. The orchestral accompaniment was wonderfully judged, full of soft colour and subtle highlights. Vogel’s was a fabulous performance, a glorious voice presented with clarity and authority.

Survival after falling under Wagner’s spell is a challenge to many musicians. Eva Vogel was somewhat distanced from the pain and longing of Wesendonck’s poetry, not seeming to make the words her own but presenting the Lieder more as glorious music untrammelled by the expression of an unresolved Wagnerian erotic longing. Bruckner’s take on Wagner would also assert a rather pure, very individual view of his “master of all masters”. What was played this evening was Bruckner’s very first version of his Wagner Symphony, a score that only survives because Wagner accepted its dedication and hence received a copy that was preserved at Bayreuth. Programme notes would have you believe that this first version of the symphony is littered with Wagner quotations, but any expectation of leitmotif-spotting will be disappointed: you might just notice a Brucknerian version of the “magic sleep” motive, a hidden melodic phrase from Tristan and a climactic brass theme in the slow movement that sounds a bit like Wagner – and that’s all.

In number of bars, it is Bruckner’s longest work, though Kamdzhalov, remarkably conducting this rarely performed work without a score, seemed at times determined to make it one of the shortest in duration. This led to moments of great excitement, the excellent musicians of the Heidelberg Philharmonic Orchestra required to play towards the limits of their considerable virtuosity. The entire Scherzo was dispatched in just over five minutes, which was certainly a breathtaking white-knuckle ride, but the stamping rhythm of the fortissimo tuttis was in danger of becoming garbled.

This was an immensely committed performance, even Bruckner’s characteristic general pauses remaining full of tension – a tension that extended to the pauses between movements, where it was only the need for the musicians to turn the pages of their parts that inhibited Kamdzhalov from proceeding attacca from one movement to the next.

The interpretation was astonishing for the sheer ferocity with which much of the symphony was imbued, and the courageous and uncompromising consistency with which Kamdzhalov sustained his interpretation. The first movement’s opening arose with its characteristic atmospheric magic, the detail of the string ostinato beautifully clear, the trumpet theme and the wind solos that respond to it nicely judged, but by the time of the massive climax of the development we were travelling at high speed, the violins frantically powering through their accompanying arpeggios and scales. There was little respite in the Adagio, Bruckner’s prayerful sudden soft interruptions never allowed to moderate the surging progress of the work. After the high-speed Scherzo, Kamdzhalov raced into the Finale’s relentless rising quaver figure, unleashing a veritable storm of a movement. At times, such as the brash, brassy third theme’s recapitulation, the music seemed so bizarre that one was reminded of the words of the critic Dömpke who wrote, some years later, “Bruckner composes like a drunkard”. Just in case, in all of the excitement, we had forgotten whence we had come and how to find our way home, Bruckner gently reminds us of themes from each of the previous movements, and then lets rip with a D major apotheosis of the opening trumpet theme – the very theme that had so impressed Wagner when he first saw it. True to his view of the work to the very end, Kamdzhalov made no concessions towards a portentous conclusion, not a hint of a rit. or final crescendo: the music just stopped in full flight. Conductor, orchestra and audience alike remained momently frozen in suspended animation until the magician on the podium relaxed and broke the spell that had held us in thrall since the symphony began.