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150th anniversary of Henry Wood's birth

24.09.2019


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Composer-themed evenings were a distinctive and popular feature of the early Prom seasons under Sir Henry Wood. For instance, if it was Monday, it was a Wagner night. Therefore, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Henry Wood’s birth, David Pickard, Director, BBC Proms, came up with the bright idea of reviving this tradition which found favour all round particularly with the discerning band of Prommers. I think that ‘Old Timber’ (as Sir Henry Wood was affectionately called) would have approved.


Wood passed away on 19th August 1944 aged 75 having conducted at the Proms for nearly half a century. After his death, the concerts were officially renamed in his honour - the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Now called the BBC Proms, it’s the longest-running series of orchestral concerts in the world.


Today, he’s remembered every year at the Proms with the placing of a bronze bust of him at the back of the Royal Albert Hall’s stage. And on the Last Night, a chaplet (garland) is placed over the bust (which is borrowed from the Royal Academy of Music) by a couple of selected members of the Prommers followed by a rendering of the ‘Fantasia on British Sea-Songs’, a medley of British sea-songs arranged by Wood in 1905 to mark the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. An indispensable item of the Last Night. Once the Proms have finished, the chaplet is taken from Wood’s bust to Holy Sepulchre without Newgate, Holborn Viaduct, Londonwhere he is buried and a service is held in his memory.


However, opening Prom 68 fell to Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz (The Free-Shooter) while César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman) ended the first half with Wagner’s ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Act II of Siegfried sandwiched in between.


However, it was Wagner all the way in the second half featuring well-loved scenes from Götterdämmerung, the climax of Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. One was treated to such delights as ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, the famous love duet, ‘Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde’, ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’ and Brünnhilde’s ‘Immolation Scene’, a vocal tour-de-force like no other.
By including Weber’s ravishingly-orchestrated overture to Der Freischütz in the programme (which received a successful première in Berlin in 1821) it proved just the ticket. Widely considered the most prominent work in establishing a German romantic style Der Freischütz was a major influence on Wagner while Debussy, Stravinsky and Hindemith also acknowledged its importance.

 
The overture vividly depicts the two central elements of the opera: the life of the hunter; the rule of demonic powers. The former is represented by the sound of the horn quartet with the horn section of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra finding themselves on top form while the latter is represented by the low registers of the strings, clarinets and bassoons. No other work of Weber, I guess, better shows off his skill as an orchestrator and perhaps no other opera overture better sets the stage for the drama to follow.


Wagner’s ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried was sensitively portrayed by the RPO under Marc Albrecht, chief conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, who worked absolute wonders with this fine orchestra admirably led by Duncan Riddell and founded by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946. Maestro Albrecht delighted not only a packed house but, I should imagine, those tuned into Radio 3 as well.


The forest in Siegfried is, of course, an enchanted one and the eponymous hero enters it on his way to do battle with the dragon Fafner. A songbird cries out to him but he cannot understand it and making an effort to communicate he firstly fashions a pipe from a reed and then by sounding his horn. This awakens the dragon and as Siegfried plunges his sword into the beast its blood splashes and burns his hand. Instinctively, he puts his hand to his mouth and is amazed to discover that having tasted the dragon’s blood he now understands the birdsong telling him that he now owns the ring of the Nibelung and, indeed, the golden bounty. It also tells him the whereabouts of Brünnhilde surrounded by a ring of fire at the top of the mountain waiting to be woken by the touch of one fearless enough to cross the fire. Realising that he is this fearless one, Siegfried sets out to meet his destiny.


Closing an agreeable first half was César Franck’s symphonic poem, Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman), premièred in Paris in March 1883. But for this Belgian-born composer’s allegiance to the musical ethos of Wagner it put him strictly at odds with many of his contemporaries especially those in Paris.


Inspired by the ballad Der wilde Jäger (The Wild Hunter) by the German poet, Gottfried August Bürger, the huntsman of the story mirrors to a certain extent Hunding the damned and hateful huntsman seen in Die Walküre, husband of Sieglinde who gives birth to Siegfried from an incestuous relationship with her long-lost twin brother, Siegmund.


The piece tells the story of a count of the Rhine who dares to go hunting on a Sunday in violation of the Sabbath. In defiant mood he sounds his hunting horn despite the warnings of the church bells and sacred chants which call the faithful to worship. Due to his actions he’s cursed condemning him to be pursued by demons for eternity. Franck’s brilliant orchestration evokes the dark, fantastic atmosphere of the infernal chase with the conclusion of the piece recalling the macabre ‘Songe d’une nuit de sabbat’ from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.


Composing Götterdämmerung between 1869 and 1874, I feel that Wagner truly stamped his authority on German romanticism. The opera’s renowned for its orchestral sequences such as ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, a depiction of sunrise while Siegfried’s noble horn theme alternates with Brünnhilde’s melody while their intense love duet ‘Zu neuen Täten, teurer Helde’ is sung before Siegfried departs with the ring of power to Gibichungs Hall.


The two Wagner heavyweights engaged for this concert - American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke and American heldentenor Stephen Gould - proved a formidable pair. A regular at Bayreuth, Mr Gould (making his Proms début) put in a magnificent performance in the title-role of Tobias Kratzer’s riveting new production of Tannhäuser at this year’s festival while Ms Goerke’s arrival on the Green Hill comes round next year singing - you’ve guessed it - Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. She’ll be following, though, in the wake of Catherine Foster who excelled in the role of Brünnhilde in Frank Castorf’s bicentennial Ring and, indeed, the first English-born soprano to sing the role at Bayreuth.


A woman of the world Brünnhilde’s a highly-emotional but very self-confident person who develops into an extremely strong person as the story of the Ring unfolds reaching its destiny in Götterdämmerung where she sees that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse is inextricably tied to the ring. Therefore, to cleanse mankind she has first to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it as possession of the ring demands a sacrifice. 


But as the Nibelung dwarf Alberich lives on as he sacrificed his humanity Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to ensure mankind can be reborn to start again. In this respect, she dramatically orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse. This is, of course, the beginning and end of the Gods and their beloved Valhalla. It’s an exciting and thrilling scene and extremely challenging for any singer to undertake but totally rewarding nonetheless and in the case of Ms Goerke her realisation of this big scene was absolutely magnificent and she stamped her authority on this great and majestic role in true Wagnerian style.


But before this Wagner super-star gets to Bayreuth she’ll be setting the stage alight at Chicago’s Lyric Opera singing Brünnhilde in Sir David Pountney’s new Ring in April of next year. That really promises a big treat! Over the past few years Ms Goerke has developed a special relationship with the Edinburgh International Festival inasmuch as she made her début in the role of Brünnhilde at the 2017 Festival in Die Walküre returning for Siegfried in 2018 and, not surprisingly, found herself back in Auld Reekie (Old Smokey) for Götterdämmerung this year. Brava!


Programme: Carl Maria von Weber, overture to Der Freischütz; César Franck, Le chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman); Richard Wagner, ‘Forest Murmurs’ (Siegfried). From Götterdämmerung: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’; love duet ‘Zu neuen Täten, teurer Helde’; ‘Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March’; Brünnhilde’s ‘Immolation Scene’


Performers: Christine Goerke (soprano), Stephen Gould (tenor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marc Albrecht


Tony Cooper

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