“By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air. “
There are many myths and half truths circulating around composers with interesting if not scandalous private lives, and Wagner, along with Liszt, is probably at the top of the list. An uncompromising man of great passion, he was by no means a modern day commitment phobe and the work we heard tonight, along with its backstory, gives ample proof of this. It is, in fact, a consummation.
Cosima, Wagner’s first wife and twenty four years his junior, was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, herself born of passion. Married to Hans Von Bulow, a student of Liszt and a celebrated conductor, far too young at 18 and bearing him two children, feeling increasing coldness from her husband, she fell first for Wagner’s music, and then him, having met when the Von Bulows stayed with Wagner for the weekend. There followed a long term affair siring three children out of wedlock before Von Bulow relented and the couple married.
At the time of writing Siegfried Idyll in what has to be the ultimate birthday present, the musicians settled on the stair that led up to his wife’s bedroom inside their Swiss villa on the birthday morn so they could perform a symphonic poem that Wagner had written as a celebration of her birthday as well as to mark the joyous occasion of the birth of their son Siegfried the year before. Cosima awoke to the sound of music wafting into her bedroom and at first she thought she was dreaming. Beats being woken up by the radio alarm, doesn’t it?
Why I had always thought this story improbable is that most people hear the work played by a full orchestra of a hundred or so players,or at least a full string orchestra. How could they all fit on the stairs? Much revised, the version was originally written for an ensemble of fifteen as we heard it tonight (albeit 13 desks, close enough), so the story begins to ring true. For proof, read Cosima’s diaries.
I tried to get all this into my head when listening to our band this evening, Ensemble 1880. On paper a supergroup with several principals and past principals of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this particular band has an esoteric approach to the music, neither contemporary nor original instruments, but trying to approximate the sound at the time of early recorded music. One really has to question this approach; while period instruments and arrangements have their place, who is interested in early recordings with all its sonic limitations, especially in this day of remastering? Moreover, Siegried Idyll was first performed in 1870 and Brahms Serenade No 1 in 1858. Director Alec Frank-Gemmill explained this approach while showing us his 1920 horn. The first shellac disc came out in 1895. Is this not all a faux concept?
The reversal of playing order should have been a signal. Everybody had come to hear the Wagner, hence it was originally put on last. We were told we were to hear it first. It was thoroughly disappointing and under rehearsed. Individual playing was competent, but there was no feeling of ensemble, a complete absence of legato with wind and brass in particular failing to gel. The two horns struggled to hit the note first time, oboe jerky, and the patient trumpet who had to sit there for the first fifteen minutes was too loud when he did make his entrance. Too much of the heavy lifting of the theme was taken by the first violin, using inappropriate glissando. Only in the closing two minutes of the piece did we get an idea of what this group was capable of. With the end in sight they relaxed and played in a smooth, together style which one had wished we had experienced from the start.
Had there been an interval I would have left, but I was glad I didn’t. Now a nonet to reflect the original scoring of the work, the ensemble gave a superb, confident nay exemplary performance of the Brahms Serenade No 1 with some frankly virtuoso playing in particular by Alec Frank-Gemmill on horn and Georgia Browne mastering the tricky wooden flute. The strings played together like they did every day. Forty minutes of joy.
Such is the nature of live music, a fickle creature. Something wasn’t working even in rehearsal in the Wagner, I suspect, hence the playing order swap and the look of restrained relief on the players’ faces when it was over and somewhat brief muted applause from the audience. By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air.
Reviewer: †Charles Stokes (Seen 13 August)