Wagner is the opera composer most lauded for the symphonic nature of his scores. Still, it’s rare for me to find myself just a few metres away from Wagner played by a top class symphony orchestra with a top opera conductor: that’s what we had in the shape of Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican last night.

Karita Mattila © Marica Rosengard
Karita Mattila
© Marica Rosengard

The orchestral opening of Die Walküre, Siegmund being chased through the forest, was electric, Pappano proving that you don’t have to play fast to create the excitement: it’s all in the accenting. The LSO’s lower strings were on top form in driving the rhythm, producing richness and detail of tone. When, after the first timpani-laden climax, the chase motif was taken up again by the cellos, my jaw dropped at the richness and clarity of timbre coming from principal cellist Tim Hugh. This set a pattern: Pappano kept the tempi spacious, allowing many details of the score to shine through that often get lost in the mayhem. I heard clear contouring of the way Wagner grows a woodwind motif out of a string phrase (and vice versa), I picked up several chunks of leitmotif that I’ve missed on previous hearings. Pappano and the orchestra deftly handled the big moments where a leitmotif tells us about a character who is absent (when Sieglinde describes the one-eyed old man, Wotan’s motif leaves us in no doubt as to that man’s identity; Hunding’s entry is signposted well before he appears).

This was an orchestral performance to savour, as was the concert’s opening work, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, in which the orchestra were given plenty of space to breathe and provided those rolling waves of sound with which Wagner evokes eroticism.

Given the presence on stage of Jonas Kaufmann, it’s probably fair to suggest that most of the audience hadn’t come to the Barbican with the orchestra foremost in their minds. Surprisingly, though, we were treated to two vocal performances stronger than Kaufmann’s. Karita Mattila was a sensational Sieglinde. The first act of Die Walküre is all about storytelling, and Mattila’s diction was pin-sharp: I don’t think I missed a syllable of her German in the whole performance. This was allied to perfect intonation and a palpable sense of urgency and distress as Sieglinde reacts to Siegmund’s smallest word or action. Mattila put flesh and blood into Sieglinde’s character at the same time as bringing musical excellence.

Eric Halfvarson also found the perfect balance between musicality and character. Hunding is a coarse, violent man, and Halfvarson was certainly coarse and violent. But his music can be deliciously legato: Halfvarson was able to produce lyricism and dark chocolate timbre in these phrases while leaving you in no doubt that the violence would soon return.

By comparison with the virtuosity of the orchestra and of two singers who were putting everything into their characters, Kaufmann came across as rather restrained. In the first half of the concert, we had seen him in the Wesendonck Lieder, five settings of poems by Wagner’s patron (and possibly lover) Mathilde Wesendonck. Kaufmann brought to these songs the qualities we know him for: a dark, burnished timbre, excellent control of dynamic contour, clear diction and good variation of expression – which is required since the five poems span diverse moods. Wesendonck is not going to go down in history as one of Germany’s great poets, but Wagner’s music is interesting enough and it made for an interesting warm-up piece.

After the interval, I was expecting Kaufmann to ratchet up the intensity in making the transition from Lieder to full blown opera – indeed, one of Wagner’s most dynamic acts. Against that expectation, Kaufmann seemed strangely restrained. For sure, all the vocal qualities were there, especially the clarity of diction and the attention to meaning: “Hunding will ich hier erwarten” (aka “I’m not budging from here”) and “Nun weißt du, fragende frau” (“now you know, questioning woman, why I can’t be called Peaceful”) were delivered with uncompromising precision. But I’ve heard Kaufmann sing Wagner at full strength from five balconies up in an opera house and this was a long way from that experience: it sounded far more like fireside tales than like a man faced with his operatic enemy.

At the end of the day, though, Die Walküre is about spinning a yarn, and this performance accomplished that thrillingly from beginning to end. The concert format allowed the audience to fully grasp exceptional amounts of instrumental detail, as well as allowing singers to concentrate fully on the interpretation of the text (all three singers had scores in front of them, which I’m sure none of them need). All in all, an unforgettable rendering.