Blue moons and epiphanic concerts occur with roughly the same degree of frequency. Or more accurately, an epiphanic moment, for it was only in one piece, the Prélude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in last night’s concert that I experienced such a glorious revelation. This was thanks in large part to the superlative musicianship of conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann conducting a responsive NSO.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

The programme was decadently romantic – the musical equivalent to having three helpings of pudding at dinner: Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, the opening and closing to Tristan and Mahler’s Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It was wonderfully satisfying as only a surfeit of confectionary can be, but I was conscious of the necessity of a return to Lenten frugality by the end.

A beloved operatic overture, Wagner’s Tannhäuser is full of glorious tunes which Queen Victoria, when she heard it for the first time, described as “quite overpowering […] and in parts wild”. Stutzmann downplayed the wild parts as she sought to bring out the inner subtleties of the gossamer music of Venus, drawing expressively shaped phrases and warm sounds from the string section. Even the Pilgrims' Chorus in its first triumphant iteration was restrained, lending an air of nobility to it. Stutzmann deliberately held back the crescendos to great effect while the overall lighter texture of the overture allowed the merriment to show through which can be swallowed up in other versions. In the final rendition of the Pilgrim’s motif I found it most satisfying that Stutzmann didn’t consider it necessary to break the sound barrier in order to impress. Sometimes less is indeed more.

The shifting harmonic climate of the Prélude and Liebestod is utterly different to the bracing dramatics of the previous piece. Its brooding and intense melodies captivate the senses, so that by the climax of the Liebestod death’s sublimation of desire seems entirely appropriate. Opting for a Furtwangler-like slowness of tempo for the opening Prélude, the tension was palpable from the start, despite a minute disjointedness between woodwind and cellos in arriving on the Tristan chord exactly together. Stutzmann delicately crafted the musical line as the crescendo ebbed from section of the orchestra to the other. This was a slow, seductive reading with the melody wooing us, overpowering us as it lingered on exquisite dissonances producing a frisson of desire. This was my Proustian moment; I heard this work as if for the first time, this beguiling, sensual music holding me captive, as phrase upon phrase, without a pause, wrought the tension to an unbearable degree. I credit Stutzmann with this superlative interpretation as she dared the cellos to take a fraction of extra time and as she drew a smouldering antiphonal response between woodwind and strings. The Liebestod opened with a shimmering pianissimo like dawn creeping over the Alps. If there were a shortcoming in this magnificent interpretation it was that the climax wasn’t cathartic enough. I wanted to be swept away in a huge wave of sound of this all-consuming music.

In the second half, the NSO were joined by French baritone Stéphane Degout and young mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, an Irish rising star and one to watch out for in the future. Mahler set an anthology of famous folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) to music creating 12 songs for voice and orchestra and 12 others for voice and piano. The songs were composed over a decade and were not intended to form a unified whole. Possessed of a pleasing baritone voice, Degout’s projection improved with each passing song, so that by the final “Solace in Misfortune”, his voice rang out powerfully as he declared his indifference to his lover.

The first song (“The Sentinel’s Night song”), by contrast, was muddier in the lower registers. Degout’s seriousness was offset by Erraught’s natural effervescence. There was a great playfulness to her first song “Labour Lost” and though there was excessive vibrato in her voice here, this settled later on. Both the capricious charm and hilarity were well captured by Erraught in “Who thought up this little Song?” and “Praise of lofty Judgement”. It was not alone in the light-hearted songs that Erraught shone, but in the more serious ones too: the poignant “Where the fair trumpets sound” featured some exquisite soaring notes and she showed a real musical maturity in her delicately graded “meinem Herzallerliebe”. Degout’s interpretation of “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish” lacked the necessary ironic undertones to make this song convincing but the final comic song brought the concert to an enjoyable close.