With Esa-Pekka Salonen out with Covid, British conductor Alexander Soddy stood in, making his debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra. As Music Director of the Mannheim National Theatre, Soddy led a new production of Wagner’s Ring last season, and as Director of the city’s Akademiekonzerte he conducted a Bruckner symphony cycle, so no change needed to the programme.

Alexander Soddy conducts the Philharmonia
© Robert Piwko

The only problem with the stirring performance of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger that opened the concert was that one wanted the curtain to rise on a Nuremberg church. But the next best thing was to have an excerpt sung by a distinguished Hans Sachs, Sir Bryn Terfel. The choice fell on the poetic Act 2 Fliedermonolog, when Sachs sits beneath an aromatic elder tree on a warm night and muses upon some affecting singing he had heard from a newcomer. Terfel’s quietly intense rapture touchingly recalled song “that sounded so old but was so new”. For one moment the Philharmonia was slightly loud , but the balance generally allowed Terfel’s trademark mezza-voce to register. His ringing forte moments still combine heft and noble tone.

Closing Die Walküre, Wotan bids farewell to his favourite, but most rebellious, daughter in the most moving scene of the whole Ring. Terfel brought all the pathos and authority he shows on stage to the concert platform, infinitely tender in “kissing the godhead” from Brünnhilde, the Philharmonia horns capping the climax as if calling from Bayreuth’s pit. The brass generally were in ripe form, the trombones sounding both the corporate pride of the Mastersingers, and the minatory warning never to ask the name of the mysterious swan knight, in the Act 3 Prelude from Lohengrin that separated the two vocal items.

Sir Bryn Terfel
© Robert Piwko

The second half featured Wagner’s biggest fan (more idolater than admirer), and as if in homage seven horns remained from Wagner’s orchestra, though Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony only needs four. But with playing at this level of dedication and skill, much can be indulged. Skill especially is needed in the tricky first movement. Its play of rhythms was very well executed by the Philharmonia strings, so that whether accompanying or brought into greater prominence, the cumulative impact of this apotheosis of the “Bruckner rhythm” made its mark. The tremendous coda – which Donald Tovey claimed “Wagner might have been content to sign” – visibly reached its heights on energy coming from the podium.

Tovey said of the slow movement “listen to it with reverence, for the composer… is speaking of sacred things”. Soddy brought the solemnity the marking asks for, and found a natural flow to knit its episodes together. The Scherzo’s climaxes thundered, and the Trio’s exchanges between pizzicato strings, horns and woodwinds were serenely persuasive. The finale provided that apotheosis Bruckner aims for, not least with the triumphant return of the work’s opening theme. It is to be hoped Soddy will soon return to London’s concert halls, perhaps with a Bruckner score in his luggage.