Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Thielemann - Philharmonie Luxembourg, 25 November 2007
Discussion of the Bayreuth festival tends to centre on the wrangling Wagner clan or the latest and silliest production Konzept. It's easy to forget that behind (or more correctly, directly underneath) every performance is the festival's own orchestra, a busman's holiday for some of Germany's top orchestral players.
They made a rare venture outside their Bavarian burrow for the closing concert of the 2007 Luxembourg Festival, a programme of Ring extracts, together with maestro/blogger Christian Thielemann, who conducted the festival's recent, highly-praised Ring cycle, and three members of that Ring cast - Endrik Wottrich (Siegmund), Kwangchul Youn (Hunding) and Falk Struckmann (Wotan) - as pictured above - and another Bayreuth veteran, soprano Evelyn Herlitzius.
Because it was my first visit, I arrived early to take a look around the venue, Luxembourg's Philharmonie, which is rather inconveniently situated on a six lane motorway at the edge of town, neighboured by corporate HQs and chain hotels.
It looks rather like a giant radiator with its carapace of narrow white columns.
Inside are more columns, mystifyingly spotless (how do you get a duster up there.....?).
The concert hall itself sits in the centre of the cage, an angular white block spectacularly lit in pinks and oranges, accessed by sweeping ramps.
After the surgical styling of the exterior, the traditional dark wood panelling of the concert hall itself comes as a surprise. Columns of artily-lit boxes are set around the sides, the lower ones projecting precariously. I sat right at the front of the stalls. Here's the hall just before the concert:
Act 1 of Die Walküre (or most of it anyway) formed the first half of the programme. The opening bars of the Vorspiel immediately thrilled with their insistent advances and retreats, Thielemann sweeping from mouselike pianissimos to earsplitting thunder and back again in an instant. The orchestra must know this back to front by now, and they were on marvellous form, intensely focused, responding as one to Thielemann's highly detailed interpretation. Horns snarled, strings glowed in this energetic and powerful account.
In the face of an orchestral performance this exhilarating, the singers (good as they were) seemed almost a distraction. As they were parked mid stage rather than stage front, I couldn't see much of them from my front corner seat, but they came over very clearly.
Kwangchul Youn made a powerful and authoritative Hunding, though without the resonance or menace that made Stephen Milling's recent Covent Garden performance so memorable. Endrik Wottrich has an interesting, metallic voice - smallish but incredibly well-projected - but he sounded strained for much of the performance. Evelyn Herlitzius's Sieglinde was rather uneven technically, with a loose vibrato and some stress at the top, but she convinced dramatically, compensating for a certain reserve in Wottrich's Siegmund.
We then skipped a chunk of Walküre to end the lengthy first half of the concert with Falk Struckmann delivering Wotan's Abschied in a rather dry style that contrasted dramatically with the turbulence Thielemann was wringing from the orchestra.
After swift refuelling on crémant and macaroons came a shorter second half - basically all the best bits of the last act of Götterdämmerung. Of the singers, only Evelyn Herlitzius returned, this time to play Brünnhilde, refrocked from her sparkly orange ballgown of the first half into a slinky black velvet number. Here she seemed more comfortable and secure, but again the real drama was coming from the men in frack, and it was more of a pleasure simply to swim in the orchestra's surging swell.
On this showing, Katharina Wagner has been smart to hitch her Bayreuth takeover campaign to Thielemann's coat tails - it's hard to imagine any other conductor today pulling together a Ring with quite this blend of passion and expertise.
and the standing ovation: