From an inauspicious overture to a transcendent final hour, this return to the traditional ‘Wagner Night’, once a fixture in Proms gone by, went on a Rhine journey all its own.

Marc Albrecht conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchesta © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Marc Albrecht conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchesta
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

First the bad news. Weber’s opera Der Freischütz predates the focal composer’s oeuvre by many years – Wagner was only a tot when it was written – but that didn’t stop Marc Albrecht and the massed ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from giving it the big-boned treatment. The effect of their numerical overkill was to blanch the score’s inner detail in a generalised wash of unvaried dynamics.

Matters improved dramatically, in all senses of that adverb, with performances of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” and César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit that dripped with theatrical evocation. Albrecht’s opera credentials (he is music director of Dutch National Opera) allowed the Siegfried interlude to paint a dappled, idealised natural landscape, even shorn of the work’s voices in this concert version, and as an amalgam of bucolic fragments it seemed to share a common woodland with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.

Having shone in Wagner, the RPO’s wind players then lent a rare extra dimension to the Franck, a tone poem I grew up with but have never heard make so physical an impression. Albrecht lifted this listener out of the concert hall and deposited me in a baleful landscape the like of which I'd never previously encountered in this music. By the careful highlighting of specific solos or sections, then allowing balance to follow naturally, he did more than conquer the Royal Albert Hall’s exuberant acoustic: he exploited it. This accursed huntsman's musical material may be thinly stretched over the 14-minute running time but Franck’s orchestral colours enrich it triumphantly and Albrecht’s conducting ripped it from the page.

Christine Goerke and the RPO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Christine Goerke and the RPO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

On a night when the RPO – so often a poor relation to the LSO, LPO and Philharmonia – showed itself to be a worthy stakeholder in London’s musical scene, things went from good to great in the course of the Götterdämmerung highlights that followed the interval. Eloquent, accurate brass and horn playing added zest to an orchestra that had already shown itself to be sound in wind and string; the musicians clearly loved playing for this imaginative, loose-limbed conductor. Albrecht knows his Wagner – he led an outstanding Flying Dutchman for the Royal Opera a decade ago – and his account of these five elided excerpts was exceptional. Every tempo, every dynamic felt right, and the pomp and majesty that his clean, high trumpets brought to the climax of “Siegfried’s Funeral March” will live long in the memory.

The presence of two world-class solo singers didn’t hurt. Duties were divvied between tenor Stephen Gould and soprano Christine Goerke in roughly the same proportion as the male and female singers in Das Lied von der Erde, with Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene a suitably epic substitute for “Der Abschied”. Both Americans are Wagnerian specialists of the first order and their extended love duet “Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde” was less a tingle moment than a tingle quarter-hour. Together they were on soul-flaying form. Such romance! Such power! Our fragile little Albert Hall didn’t stand a chance.

****1