Who isn’t partial to forbidden fruit once in a while? Rabelais neatly summed up the lure of temptation: “We always long for the forbidden things, and desire what is denied us.” Wagner’s excessive libido and disregard for conventional morality led him into a number of sexual scrapes; had Bruckner been alive today and given his penchant for pubescent girls he would surely have had to do his composing behind bars. Ultimately, love inspired both of them to turn vast waves of emotional energy into art.

Lawrence Renes © Mats Bäcker
Lawrence Renes
© Mats Bäcker

Throughout his career Wagner profited from the largesse of wealthy benefactors, not least the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Earlier, while still in political exile in Switzerland, he and his wife Minna had been rescued from penury by a rich merchant in Zurich, one Otto Wesendonck. It was his wife Mathilde who then became Wagner’s muse and supplied him with the five poems that form his only mature song-cycle, of which he later said: “I have written nothing better than these songs.”

There is a chamber-like delicacy to much of the scoring of the Wesendonck Lieder (no trumpets or heavy brass), and it was therefore surprising to see that Lawrence Renes, conducting the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, had opted to use a full string complement, all the way down to eight double basses. However, he kept his forces nicely in check, even in the storm-tossed rhythms that open “Stehe still!”. His soloist, Emma Bell, already has a track record of Wagnerian roles in the theatre, but with the exception of the last two songs I never felt that she was entirely inside the music. Almost throughout she remained quite statuesque, uncomfortably demonstrating that absence of body language inevitably results in a loss of communicative reach.

Renes sought out the dark undercurrents in the orchestral accompaniment to “Im Treibhaus”, but there was no corresponding increase in the emotional temperature. The febrile atmosphere suggestive of heated passion – and in Richard and Mathilde’s case, forbidden love – was sadly missing. Happily, in “Schmerzen” Bell was more in command of the emotions which oscillate between despair and optimism, and in the concluding “Träume” – a kind of dry-run for the second act of Tristan – Renes and his soloist were beautifully synchronised, the susurration of strings together with soft-toned wind and horns ideally matching the dying vocal line.

Donald Tovey once argued that Bruckner’s symphonies always begin with Rheingold harmonic breadths and end with Götterdämmerung climaxes. This analogy is entirely apposite, since the younger man was a fervent admirer of Wagner’s sweep, surge and swell. In this performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony Renes did most of the things a good conductor should do when conducting this composer: he balanced the individual sections of the orchestra with care, making sure that the brass were never rampant; he took account of the structural argument, realising that the man from Ansfelden near Linz never lived solely in the moment; he paid attention to the critical marking “nicht zu schnell” (not too fast) which characterises three of the four movements; above all, he had a sense of the awe and majesty without which this music can easily become so much white noise.

It would be idle to pretend that the MPO strings have the heft or tonal richness of some other ensembles. The woodwind section is characterful; the brass, with a noble-sounding horn section led by Etienne Cutajar, mostly secure. With the exception of a strangely reticent timpanist, the MPO played with commitment and a visibly eager response to the expressive demands of their conductor. In that regard, it was heartening to see a Mediterranean orchestra embracing full-flown Austro-German Romanticism in two works not part of their staple diet. Renes, in turn, knows what meaningful gestures are: these do not include the left hand simply mirroring the right, or the use of both arms in the windmill-like gyrations favoured by others.

He directed an expansive account (lasting some 70 minutes) of the revised 1878-1880 edition. There was the faintest of rustles from the strings at the outset, and indeed the soft playing elsewhere was a notable feature of this performance. By placing the violas on the extreme right and giving them particular prominence in the slow movement and again in the finale, Renes underlined those dark forest-like textures through which the shafts of sunlight constantly fall. The Scherzo had the right degree of jauntiness without collapsing into unbridled exuberance, with a leisurely and very pastoral-sounding Trio section forming a strong contrast. It was a pity that he needed to make a lengthy pause before the start of the finale because the tension inevitably then sagged. However, the coda was finely controlled, the mesmerising string ostinatos at first rock-steady but then moving rapidly and inexorably through the gears during their final powerful ascent.


Alexander's press trip to Malta was funded by the Malta Philharmonic

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