This was potentially a very nice programme which frustratingly only rarely lived up to its promise.
First on the programme were the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, the iconic bookends of Wagner's most revolutionary work. The Prelude lacked the extraordinary tension and atmosphere it can have, though the climax was powerful throughout. Anyone who heard Angela Denoke in the recent run of Salome at the Royal Opera House will not be surprised to hear that her delivery of the Liebestod was severely affected by her sad and by now quite advanced vocal decline - which manifests principally as poor diction, wayward intonation and difficulty in sustaining a line. Her posture showed very uncomfortable signs of physical tension, and the severe jaw shake points to further vocal tensions that interfere with voice production. At least Isolde's scena lies much lower than does Salome's final scene, which meant that the wobble that plagues her high notes was kept better in check, but at this stage Denoke is not capable of doing full justice to Wagner's music.
Berg's Three Fragments from Wozzeck include Marie's two arias and the very end of the opera; that is, the most ravishing and heartbreakingly beautiful sections of the score. It was assembled with the initial intent that as a concert item it might foster greater interest in the whole opera. Marie is a role that sopranos very often take up late in their careers as its principal vocal demands are dramatic declamation and intensity of expression, and the fractured lyricism of the vocal line does not require a bel canto technique to deliver. In this Denoke was far more comfortable, her intention always clear, but again at least some legato singing would have been desirable, and the intonation issues continued to grate. The LSO offered some great playing, particularly from the principal strings, Noseda focusing on detail and making the most of the wondrously inventive colours of this score, though slightly at the expense of symphonic momentum and line. Occasionally the brass seemed tentative and noncommital, and there was the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing was a little under-rehearsed, but overall this was fine music making.
Finally we heard Beethoven's Symphony no. 5. Noseda's approach was so completely contrary to "historically informed" practice that one almost felt that he was making a reactionary statement - the string sound very often stridently loud, steely, pushed, vibratissimo, with woodwinds and brass adding weight and muscle, rather than colour and contrast. I say "almost" reactionary, because tempo wise Noseda's choices were occasionally so idiosyncratic that it was clear that he wasn't aiming at anything as romantic as some return to "tradition".
I have never heard the first movement taken so fast, nor have I heard the famous opening motive played completely without fermata or so strictly in tempo. Novel though this was, the result was a sort of insane macho caricature of the opening movement, surging on and on, louder and louder, but lacking gravitas or tension. The slow movement was the most "normal" sounding but, like the first movement, lacked true warmth and subtlety. The Scherzo, though not particularly slow, felt sluggish and ponderous, and predictably the Trio was played as loud as possible. Everyone in the audience knew that the Finale was going to be a stentorian decibel fest, but sadly the balance suffered and the bass line was overpowered against the massed winds and upper strings. I won't deny that this perfromance was very exciting on the purely visceral level, and the audience erupted into frenzied applause of course, but I can't in good conscience say that this was in any way a great performance - this interpretation accentuated just one characteristic of this masterpiece at the expense of all the others, and failed to connect at all with the spiritual core of the music. On the other hand, I can't help but admire the risk-taking and gutsy attitude to try this, and certainly I wish as many performances that I attended of the standard orchestral fare held this many surprises.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS