Royal Festival Hall, London
Wagner in the concert hall is an inevitable compromise, but this 200th-birthday anniversary concert, which also launched London's Wagner 200 festival, lacked nothing for commitment to the master's cause. The Bayreuth-style triple fanfare summonses into the hall before both parts of the concert were a nice celebratory touch, while Sir Andrew Davis, who made a short speech beforehand, is a conductor who has always revelled in special occasions.
With a programme comprising the Meistersingers overture, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and the third act of Die Walküre, this was a greatest-hits evening. But although it was fundamentally a celebration of Wagner himself, it was also a showcase of the rich and continuing British Wagnerian tradition, with all the principal singers and the conductor native born, and not a German in sight.
Davis's Wagnerian credentials may surprise. He has conducted little of the composer's work in the UK, but in his long years in charge of Chicago's Lyric Opera he has turned himself into a thoroughly reliable Wagner conductor, with an excellent sense of line and structure that was particularly evident in the Walküre act, ingeniously and atmospherically semi-staged on a shoestring by David Edwards.
Susan Bullock was the evening's vocal lynchpin, characteristically sympathetic and intelligent as both Isolde and Brünnhilde. As in the Covent Garden Ring last autumn, the lightness of her upper register and a troublesome vibrato in the Liebestod made Bullock, in the end, an artfully touching rather than instinctive exponent of these roles. James Rutherford's Wotan was full and visceral of voice in just the way Bullock is not, while lacking, as yet, some of the vocal refinement with which she is so endowed. Giselle Allen blazed in Sieglinde's brief appearance, and Katherine Broderick's big sound stood out in an excitingly wild bunch of Valkyries.
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Alice Coote's many admirers will be grateful to have her performance in Mahler's great song-symphony documented in a carefully made studio recording, for she has emerged over the past few years as one of the finest mezzo interpreters of Das Lied von der Erde around today. Her singing may not be as sumptuous as some, but it is exquisitely coloured; every word matters, and the sadness that pervades the mezzo songs in particular is conveyed without it ever becoming self-conscious or sentimental.
The rest of this performance isn't quite on Coote's level. Burkhard Fritz is the tenor, efficient and more or less on top of the formidable challenges Mahler sets him, but too often sounding under a pressure that drains most of the character from his singing. Marc Albrecht's conducting tends to be under-characterised, too; some of it is very beautiful – he and the Netherlands Philharmonic make the opening of the second song, Der Einsame im Herbst, quite spellbinding, for instance – but there are too many moments, especially in the final movement, Der Abschied, when you long for the orchestra to dig deeper and create a real emotional counterbalance to Coote's raptly poised singing.
The release of this disc has coincided with the appearance of EMI's final batch of Otto Klemperer reissues, bringing together all the recordings he made with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia orchestras from the mid-1950s until his death in 1973. One of them is a box devoted to Mahler, and alongside four of the symphonies, including Klemperer's monumental account of the Second, and his craggy, stoic reading of the Ninth, there's his legendary 1964 performance of Das Lied von der Erde, with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich as the matchless soloists. It is, simply, one of the great classical recordings of all time.
On disc, at least, no tenor has come close to Wunderlich's effortless power and lyrical ardour, while Ludwig's performance is matched only by the recording she made 11 years later with Herbert von Karajan. While the Pentatone disc is well worth hearing, especially for Coote's contribution, no collection should be without Klemperer's performance.
One of France's leading composers, he used colour, harmony and form to magical effect
Henri Dutilleux, who has died aged 97, was the outstanding French composer between Messiaen and Boulez and, like both of them, achieved a wholly individual synthesis of ear-catching colours and harmonies with formal rigour. In a musical world where many loudly proclaim their independence, he was a true but discreet indépendant.
His Piano Sonata (1948) was a large work that moved away from the Ravelian influence bedevilling much of French music in the 1930s and early 40s, and celebrated a pianism that is "sensual, not too dry". It marked a turning point in his career, and from here on he was "increasingly interested in large forms, with a desire to change and renew them". But he never returned to the piano for this purpose, preferring to limit himself to shorter pieces in what he confessed was a difficult medium for the 20th-century composer.
Nor did he experiment with electronic music, although his post as head of musical illustration at French Radio for 18 years from 1945 gave him access to the wherewithal. The time that had to be spent to produce what were then rather crude sonorities seemed to him excessive.
Instead, he preferred to see what could still be made with traditional resources. The answer, as provided by his First Symphony, was "a great deal". Its broadcast, in June 1951 under the baton of Roger Désormière, led to many performances over the next few years and to the spread of Dutilleux's reputation outside France. His independence of traditional models shows both in his adoption of a passacaglia as the opening movement and in the smaller instrumental groups (for instance, piano, timpani and clarinets) that often oppose the orchestral mass.
This success was repeated by his music for Roland Petit's ballet Le Loup (The Wolf, 1953). Later he would accept only the second of its three scenes as worthy of performance, but the whole score, transmuting various Stravinskian rhythmic and melodic procedures and with more than a nod in the direction of Ravel's La Valse, is among the most sheerly beautiful scores he ever wrote, with a bittersweet tone that was to become one of his hallmarks.
The Second Symphony, premiered by Charles Münch in Boston in 1959, continued the antagonistic preoccupations of the First, with a constant smaller orchestral group formally acknowledged in the score. But again Dutilleux was not merely copying the procedures of the 18th-century concerto grosso: the interplay is highly nuanced, with the smaller group prompting, interrupting, even contradicting the larger one, and the brass writing, as the composer admitted, owes something to Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Its subtitle, "Le Double", also bears on Dutilleux's interest in flux and, nourished by his love of Proust, in the actions of memory. These preoccupations informed each of the four major orchestral works that Dutilleux laboured on between 1959 and 1985.
Métaboles was commissioned by George Szell for the Cleveland Orchestra, and it was premiered by them in 1965. Dutilleux referred to it as "a concerto for orchestra" and he had in his mind's ear "the purity and timbral éclat" of the Cleveland players, "their luminosity, especially in the woodwind". The "méta" of the title indicates what Dutilleux called the "progressive growth" of one idea into another, this growth being coloured by the privileging of the different orchestral families in the course of the work's five movements, culminating in a more expansive version of the opening Incantation.
This allusion to the magic of music was not haphazard. Dutilleux believed in composition as a quasi-sacred occupation and permitted himself to utter (for him) harsh words about composers who spent more time in front of television cameras than in front of their manuscript paper.
The three orchestral works that followed touched again on virtuosity and its relationship with structure. The two concertos – Tout un Monde Lointain (A Whole Distant World, 1970) and L'Arbre des Songes (The Tree of Dreams, 1985) – written respectively for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Isaac Stern, are grounded respectively in the world of Baudelaire and in the idea of arboreal ramification, and both conjunctions brought with them a high degree of virtuosity, focused, in the case of Tout un Monde, on Rostropovich's especially beautiful tone high on the A string. But, as usual, these virtuosic and colouristic aspects are set against formal ones, such as the retrogrades in the cello concerto's fourth movement, Miroirs.
Between these two concertos came Timbres, Espace, Mouvement (1978), inspired by van Gogh's painting La Nuit Etoilée (Starry Night). Like Debussy over L'Après-midi d'un Faune, Dutilleux was quick to resist the notion of any too schematic correspondence between the music and what it refers to, but he did admit that his omission of violins and violas was suggested by "the vertiginous impression of space, of emptiness" between the church and the cypress on the ground and "the celestial vault". Although Dutilleux never used overtly religious words or symbols in his music, he recognised the "mystic, cosmic" element in this piece, quoting Van Gogh's letter to his brother: "I have a terrible need for religion. So I go outside at night to paint the stars."
One of the works of which Dutilleux was proudest was his string quartet Ainsi la Nuit (1976). Before writing it, he studied the literature intensely (Beethoven, particularly Opus 95 and Opus 127, Bartók, Webern's Bagatelles, but not Berg's Lyric Suite - "I didn't want to get too close to it!") and even after that went through the stage of writing sketches, called Nuits, exploring individual string textures.
Only then did he set about constructing what he later felt was one of his most coherent works, coherence for him standing higher in the hierarchy of aims than any melodic, harmonic or colouristic features. The work immediately became a classic of the genre.
That Dutilleux was no ivory-tower composer but one alive to the darker side of the 20th century became clear in his chamber work Les Citations (1985), originally written for Aldeburgh but revised for the 50th anniversary in 1990 of the composer Jehan Alain's death on active service, and in The Shadows of Time (1997), in which three boy soloists, representing concentration camp victims, sing the heartbreaking refrain "Pourquoi nous?"
Between these two he broke new ground for him in Mystère de l'Instant (1989), one of the last of Paul Sacher's commissions for the Basel Chamber Orchestra: instead of the Proustian density of interrelated thoughts, the work consists of "ten sequences of varying proportions, each conveying a particular aspect of the sound world, recorded spontaneously without a prepared outline as a basis". But on repeated listening the hand of Dutilleux, the master of structure, remains audible, even if less conspicuous.
In 2002 he wrote Sur le Même Accord (On the Same Chord) for Anne-Sophie Mutter, and this was followed by two orchestral song cycles, Correspondances and Le Temps l'Horloge (Time and the Clock). As often, he had particular performers in mind: for Correspondances, completed in 2003, Dawn Upshaw and what he heard as the "instrumental quality" of her voice. The texts are letters from Prithwindra Mukherjee, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rainer Maria Rilke and Vincent van Gogh – the latter the quotation given above, followed by an extract from Timbres, Espace, Mouvement.
In writing the four songs of Le Temps l'Horloge he had in his ear the rich, dramatic voice of Renée Fleming. He also valued the long, enthusiastic letters she wrote him as the composition proceeded, and not least her professionalism at the premiere of the whole cycle in Paris in 2009, when she was unhappy with her performance and insisted immediately on singing it again. For the first two songs he turned to poems by Jean Tardieu, for the third to Robert Desnos's Le Dernier Poème, already set by Poulenc, and for the last song he returned to Baudelaire and to his injunction to: "Get drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, or whatever!"
Although Dutilleux's longevity may partly be ascribed to regular consumption of the best Bordeaux could provide, his compositional control was, needless to say, as complete as ever. As in Correspondances, the accordion is brought in off the boulevards to make a respectable contribution.
Artistic talent came to Dutilleux from both sides of his family. His paternal great-grandfather was a friend of Delacroix and Corot: a Corot landscape, handed down through the family, hung above the fireplace in the composer's Paris apartment. His maternal grandfather, Julien Koszul, of Polish descent, had been a fellow-pupil of Fauré at the Ecole Niedermeyer and later, as director of the conservatoire in Roubaix, near Lille, had encouraged Albert Roussel to leave the navy and concentrate on music.
Born in Angers, Dutilleux moved to Douai after the first world war with his family. He studied at the local conservatoire with Victor Gallois who, unusually for the time, made him work at harmony and counterpoint almost simultaneously, instead of regarding the first as a preparation for the second.
Gallois also had the distinction (unenviable, in Dutilleux's view) of having won the Prix de Rome in 1905, the year Ravel was disqualified in the preliminary round. "My own reservations", wrote Dutilleux later, "with regard to the Institut [de Fance] and officialdom in general stem in part from that."
But he always spoke highly of Gallois's teaching, and when he entered the classes of the Gallon brothers, Noël and Jean, at the Paris Conservatoire in 1932, he was déjà armé. He flourished too in the composition class of Henri Büsser, but in retrospect wished that he had been able to profit more from Maurice Emmanuel's history classes and even that he had pursued his early organ studies with Marcel Dupré – even though he never regarded Dupré highly, either as player or composer. "Tournemire was a different matter."
This ambivalent relationship with virtuosity lasted throughout his life. On the one hand, unlike most students, he actually enjoyed writing fugues as an abstract discipline. On the other, he enjoyed, by his own admission, not only "a taste for a beautiful chord" but also the visceral excitement of fine performers doing difficult things well: he liked Daniel Barenboim's recording of his First Symphony because he took the scherzo at the correct, headlong tempo. Setting one aspect off against the other produced many of the most exciting and rewarding moments in his music.
In 1938 he crowned his Conservatoire career by winning the Prix de Rome, although, in line with his cool attitude to official honours, he thought his 1937 entry, when he had come second, was a better piece. But perhaps the most perceptive comment on Dutilleux's Prix de Rome offerings had been made in 1936 by Maurice Emmanuel, who wrote to Büsser that "at no point was Dutilleux banal: perhaps he interpreted the subject in too gloomy a light, but several happy ideas on the melodic front justified his [third] prize."
Dutilleux's fight against banality was indeed to be chronic, and one of the things that made him a slow composer, to his own chagrin. An attraction to melancholy was also innate, if counterbalanced by his increasing admiration for Berlioz.
The outbreak of war cut short his stay in Rome, and he returned to Paris. During the Occupation he was accompanist for a singing class at the Conservatoire and was appointed chef de chant at the Opéra – preparing Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina in 1942 was one of the most miserable experiences of his life.
Following a wartime performance of his Sarabande pour Orchestre, his abilities as an orchestrator were widely remarked upon, but the mature Dutilleux had little time for any of the music he wrote before the Piano Sonata. It was premiered by Geneviève Joy, whom he had married in 1946. At the end of 2009 she died of cancer, and he missed the support of her cheerful, vigorous common sense.
In the last decades of his life, Dutilleux was invited all over the world to performances of his music. His generosity in accepting was counterbalanced by his unwillingness to leave his studio on the Ile Saint-Louis, which was the heart of his existence.
If never exactly clubbable, Dutilleux was one of the gentlest and most charming of men, with a delightful sense of humour. He was also inexhaustibly kind: what other composer of international stature would offer to find out for an English visitor the Bibliothèque Nationale's dates of opening? He had a strong line in self-deprecation (on learning that a young British composer was notably slow in delivering, he commented, "Il n'est pas le seul") and this, together with his refusal to pontificate, perhaps contributed to the slow growth of his fame.
But it was indeed a "croissance progressive", and by the time of his death it had reached a climax comparable with that of Métaboles. Its "résonance", and that of his highly wrought, intellectually tough and deeply passionate music, will undoubtedly ring on through the 21st century and beyond.
• Henri Dutilleux, composer, born 22 January 1916; died 22 May 2013
Stephen Moss explores Wagner's heroine from perhaps the most significant musical work of the 19th century
I is for Isolde, the greatest female figure in the Wagnerian canon (some might choose Brünnhilde, but she seems to me more symbol than flesh-and-blood character). The seven-minute Liebestod (love-death) at the end of Tristan und Isolde never fails to move, and it is almost worth sitting through the tedious first act of the opera to hear it. (I jest! Tristan und Isolde is a gripping opera, and perhaps the most significant musical work produced in the 19th century.)
The peculiar thing about the opera is that the back story – war, slayings, the murder of the Irish princess Isolde's betrothed by the Cornish knight Tristan, her determination to kill the latter, her failure to do so, the way she healed Tristan's wounds and kept his identity secret – is more interesting than the story itself, which revolves around the pair not quite being able to make love despite drinking a love potion (substituted by Isolde's lady-in-waiting Brangäne for the poison with which Isolde intended to kill both Tristan and herself as they journeyed to Cornwall, where she was to marry boring old King Marke). But let's not complain. If Wagner had done what he did with the Ring and got so interested in the story that he felt the need to recount everything, composing backwards from Siegfried's death, we would probably have ended up with half a dozen operas and had to spend a week in the theatre. At least T&I weighs in at a breezy four and a bit hours.
The opera was written in the 1850s and inspired by Wagner's infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his patrons – the composer was never shy of pursuing his friends' and colleagues' wives. It is not known whether Wagner consummated his passion for Mathilde, but it is tempting to assume not, so overwhelming is the sexual yearning in the opera, a yearning that can only be fulfilled in death – hence that devastating Liebestod. The work was completed in 1859 but not premiered until June 1865 in Munich, courtesy of Ludwig II of Bavaria who supplied the money. Who said Ludwig was mad?
Tristan und Isolde is based on the Arthurian legend Tristan and Iseult, a favourite romance in early medieval French poetry. The ideal Isolde is flame-haired, fiery, indomitable yet vulnerable, stern yet tender, and a standout dramatic soprano. It is a huge dramatic and musical challenge. The all-time greats in the role are Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. Powerful modern interpreters include Waltraud Meier and Nina Stemme. You can hear it live at the Proms or on Radio 3 on 27 July.
A is for AlberichB is for BayreuthC is for CosimaD is for DeathE is for winsome heroinesF is for Die FeenG is for GesamtkunstwerkH is for Hitler
French composer Henri Dutilleux has died at the age of 97, it was announced earlier today.
I recently wrote about his exquisite catalogue of pieces in my contemporary music guide. His is music of luminous enchantment that was only becoming more popular with audiences and performers towards the end of his life - and will go on doing so. If you haven't already, immerse yourself in this magical, translucent soundworld, and discover the music that just might become the most beloved of any post-war French composer.
In his time the composer's 'dangerously stimulating' music was blamed for melancholy, hysteria, hypnosis and even triggering orgasm
Reports may seem far-fetched that a German production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, feted as a highlight of the 200th-anniversary celebrations of his birth this month, have taken such a heavy psychological toll on members of the Düsseldorf audience that some have needed medical attention.
But in his day, the German composer was held responsible for a lot more than fainting and heart palpitations: his works were viewed as a threat not only to the health of musicians and listeners but also to any society that was trying to uphold order.
"No musician's music was seen as such a potentially dangerous stimulant as Wagner's," says James Kennaway, a historian specialising in music and medicine. "While the Nazis famously saw him as a model of musical health, at no time before or since the 1800s has one figure so dominated the debate on music as a pathogen as Wagner."
His music was seen not just as a symptom of the physical and sexual pathologies associated with a nervous modernity – everything from neurasthenia [nervous exhaustion] and degeneration to perversion and fatigue – but also as the direct cause of these.
Respected doctors blamed him for much mental illness, with the Dutch psychiatrist Jacob van Deventer concluding in 1891 that "a large number of the mentally ill are passionate lovers of Wagnerian music".
The medical profession put this down partly to the sheer length of his operas, partly to the "pathological lack of rhythm" in Wagner's music, which led the late-19th-century author of popular science Grant Allen to conclude that the "gathered energy has to dissipate itself by other channels, which involves a certain amount of conflict and waste, leading to fatigue". This was also a time when the medical profession widely believed that disease was "unrhythmical" while health was "rhythmical".
Probably the first acknowledged victim of the nervous strain caused by what Kennaway calls Wagner's "lush timbres and radical harmonies" was Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the first singer of Tristan und Isolde, who died in 1865 in a "Tristan" delirium at the age of 29 shortly after his debut performance, muttering: "Farewell, Siegfried; console my Richard!" In a letter, a distraught Wagner admitted his music had "driven the singer to the abyss".
Women were considered to be particularly susceptible to the "disease" of musical nervousness that was often referred to as Wagnerianism. The music was inextricably linked to eroticism (take the incest in Die Walküre and the adultery in Tristan), and was believed to nurture dangerous sexual feelings among young, unmarried women. Wagner was blamed not only for the premature onset of menstruation but also infertility, melancholy, hysteria and hypnosis.
The Gestalt psychologist Christian von Ehrenfels went so far as to claim that he could literally "point to the bars" of Tristan that triggered orgasms. Kennaway points out: "This was also an era when women were dissuaded from playing the piano because the effects were said to be as dangerous as those of strong alcohol on men."
Just as men of a nervous disposition were encouraged to stay away from whisky, love affairs and cigars, so women were urged to avoid piano-tuning and Wagner.
In one recorded case, a psychiatric patient was said to have been haunted by Wagnerian auditory hallucinations, while Wagner's very own patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, passed out during a performance of Tristan because of nervous strain. Aloys Ander, who played Tristan in a Vienna production, died insane in an asylum in 1865.
"The idea of music being a potentially unhealthy form of stimulation, similar to drugs or electricity, had been commonplace during the 19th century," says Kennaway. "But with Wagner, the danger became specifically associated with modern music and modern urban lifestyles in diagnosing the fashionable disease of the time, neurasthenia."
Critics even suggested that Wagner's music was sickly and feminine, a suspicion that prompted a popular link to be made between Wagner and homosexuality – viewed then as a medical condition – which was said to be connected to the erotic power of music.
Wagner himself was seen as effeminate – he was very partial to silks and satins, which he ordered in huge quantities from Paris – in marked contrast to the macho image of him that the Nazis projected, which survives to this day.
Kennaway attributes the widespread and well-documented illnesses attached to Wagner's music in part to the fact that people rarely had the opportunity to listen to live performances.
"Even if you were living in a city, you'd be lucky to see Tristan and Isolde even three times in your lifetime, so the impact of it on many may well have been overwhelming," he says.
Added to which, Wagner made early use of such innovative techniques as stage curtains, smoke and steam machines, and the dimming of lights in his theatres – a new practice that in itself led to the rise of a new craze of "theatre groping".
The other novelties he employed in his Bayreuth theatre included hiding the orchestra in a pit – which was said to increase the music's potency – and first-class acoustics. These were interpreted as devices, says Kennaway, to "bypass the conscious mind and influence the audience via the nerves".
It was, in fact, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Wagner's erstwhile most passionate friends and supporters, who delivered the most damning verdict on the medical dangers posed by his fellow German: in his 1888 book The Case of Wagner, he unleashed a diatribe, asking: "Is Wagner actually a man? Is he not rather a disease?"
• James Kennaway's Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease is published by Ashgate
• This article was amended on 22 May 2013. The original said Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died in 1859. This has been corrected to say 1865. It was further amended on 23 May 2013 to correct Schnorr's deathbed quote. The original had it as: "Farewell, Siegfried; console me, Richard!"
Born 200 years ago today, the German composer is credited with changing the face of music forever. But do you know your Tannhäuser from your Wagner tuba? Test your knowledge here
Forget the stories, the words, the stagings and the politics. The 200th anniversay of Wagner's birth is the perfect time to get into the music of the man who changed opera for good
Forget the cliches about the Nazis and fat women in Norse helmets with spears. Wagner needs no apologies. He was, quite simply, one of the most important composers to have ever lived. He transformed western music, and opera in particular, with lasting consequences to this day. Two hundred years after his birth, he remains – with Bach – the largest enduring contemporary presence of all the great composers.
Wagner's impact was and is immense. He wrote the most discussed and analysed opera of all time – the four-part Ring of the Nibelung, more commonly known as the Ring cycle; he wrote arguably the most influential opera of all time – his often exquisite final work, Parsifal; he also wrote the opera which, because of its eroticism and advanced musical language, can claim to be the most important of the lot – Tristan und Isolde; in addition, I am tempted to say, he wrote the most misunderstood opera of all time – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. By any standards, he is a big, complex figure.
That doesn't mean Wagner is beyond criticism. Nothing does him less service than an uncritical Wagnerite. But the criticisms should try to address Wagner's music, rather than his political influence beyond the grave. Wagner died in 1883, fully half a century before the Nazis came to power. He was not a Nazi. The squeamishness we rightly feel about fascist appropriation of Wagner is not a balanced reflection on his operas. Wagner was certainly an antisemite, although in a 19th- not a 20th-century way. He never, as far as I know, advocated the killing of Jewish people, much less their wholesale extermination. There is an argument to be had about the influence of antisemitism in Wagner's music (as there also is about antisemitism in Bach's), but in my view it is often overstated. If antisemitism is so central to Wagner's art as some argue, why is it so well hidden?
Wagner is intimidating, especially to new listeners. Most of the intimidation, though, is down to two things. First, the social place of all opera – not just Wagner's – in today's society makes it seem unfriendly and inaccessible (though this was the very opposite of what Wagner, a democrat, wanted).
Second, and above all, it is down to Wagner's works themselves. In particular, it is down to the sheer length of the 10 major stage works, few of which contain less than three hours of music (excluding intervals) and some of which require a listener to focus for more than two hours before a break. That's why – if nothing else – it is great that the BBC Proms this year will feature no fewer than seven Wagner works, at low prices and in rather less forbidding surroundings than the standard opera house.
Maybe there are some people who have fallen in love with Wagner at first listen. For most of us, though, it is through a long process of exploration. Listening to Wagner requires some preparation, partly because of the works' length but also because, more than most opera composers, Wagner's operas are about ideas, not just stories. Wagner read widely, and wrote more about ideas than any other composer, and his works yield many of their secrets slowly. I have been to at least 200 performances of his 10 major works, and I am still discovering new things.
Wagner was a revolutionary. He was on the barricades in Dresden in 1848 and was forced into exile. He wanted to change society. He wanted to elevate the arts to the centre of the human experience. He thought the artist – and one artist in particular: himself – could change the world. At some level this theme runs through all of his work.
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His art was revolutionary too. Wagner changed the rules of opera. His operas are "through-composed" – there are no stops and starts for arias and duets. Singers ceased to be the stars around whom performances were centred. He made the orchestra, and thus the conductor, into a crucial protagonist, to communicate some of his most powerful musical ideas. He required new sorts of singers and new instruments for the orchestra. And because he put staging at the heart of his theatre he wanted new theatres too. That – along with the egotism – was why he designed his own purpose-built theatre in Bayreuth for the exclusive performance of his works. Wagner's ideal was of a total artwork in which staging, singing, orchestra and text achieved a unity. His ambition was extraordinary, and that is why, 130 years after his death, every production of his work does something new – sometimes disastrously so, but sometimes magically.
In the end, though, none of it would work without the music. If the music was banal or bombastic, Wagner would be in the same league as such a composer as Rutland Boughton, who tried to create an English Arthurian version of Bayreuth in Somerset at the start of the 20th century and is now remembered primarily as a curiosity. Though Wagner is the most discussed composer of all time, the discussion is only meaningful because of the quality and originality of the music. In Wagner the ideas are carried on and in the music, which is inseparable from the drama.
That's why I would always say listen to the music before you go to Wagner. Get the hang of the style, the pace, the sound and the themes. Listen to what used to be called "bleeding chunks" or highlights. They become handles to hold on to while you get the measure of the larger musical construction. Don't worry so much about the stories or the words at first, let alone get too taken up with the stagings. Forget politics too, especially the Nazis. In Wagner it's always the music that matters most. For me it is the music that is the gift that keeps on giving.
Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes
Richard Jones's production of Falstaff first appeared at Glyndebourne four years ago with, by all accounts, a few rough edges. But in its latest incarnation, which has been revived by Sarah Fahie, everything falls perfectly into place. In Ultz's designs, Jones's updating to late-1940s austerity Britain is a gently affectionate dissection of the English class system, from top-hatted Eton schoolboys to mischievous Brownies, from the crumbling foundations of John Falstaff's own aristocratic background through the aggressive middle-class aspirations of the Fords, still digging for victory in their suburban garden, to the streetwise opportunism of Pistol and Bardolph.
From the animatronic cats to the well-drilled rowing crew, everything is beautifully observed; none of the humour is forced, and musically it unfolds just as naturally and unselfconsciously, too. The credit for that goes to Mark Elder, whose account of the score is witty, buoyant and wonderfully humane, missing nothing. He is conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and while their period instruments do not alter the soundworld radically, there are enough shifts of emphasis to create some unexpectedly new perspectives and bring a transparency that suits the generally light-voiced cast perfectly.
Laurent Naouri is the Falstaff this time, with just enough sense of old-world privilege to make his disdain for Graham Clark's Dr Caius dismissively haughty, and enough surviving charm to make his pursuit of the Windsor wives not entirely fanciful. Ailyn Pérez is Alice, Lucia Cirillo is Meg (the decrepit husband Jones invents for her is a nice touch); Susanne Resmark is the formidable ATS-uniformed Mistress Quickly. Roman Burdenko's rather unconvincing and almost wordless Ford is a disappointment, but the young lovers, Antonio Poli and Elena Tsallagova, make a beautifully matched couple. It is altogether a captivating, joyous evening.
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Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
Graham Fitkin and his music have been a feature of the Vale of Glamorgan festival for a couple of decades, and his 50th birthday feels like a milestone for the festival and its audience, incredible though it seemed. "What do you mean, 50 – that young man in tight trousers who just took a bow?" someone was heard to ask.
But perhaps the bigger career milestone for Fitkin was in 2011 when his Cello Concerto was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma at the Proms. The work's strengths re-emerged convincingly in a performance by soloist Raphael Wallfisch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Garry Walker. Though Wallfisch could not boast the characteristic Ma depth of tone, his playing was hauntingly expressive, and the Hoddinott Hall acoustic allowed the orchestral colours, with harps and muted trumpets, a clear canvas. The stillness and questioning of the opening poses an immediate challenge to the listener – a single note spun out in a long thread. Yet the concerto is very much about how the individual can validate their own particular voice in the face of the assertions of greater numbers, namely the orchestra, and this felt less to do with the balance of power than about finding a path that could be followed with integrity. As the cello returned to the simplicity of the opening after the bombardment of orchestral chords, Wallfisch could endow the line with a new serenity that spoke eloquently.
Fitkin's Mindset was conceived as a ballet score, written for Jonathan Watkins' As One performed by the Royal Ballet in 2010. As a concert piece, its episodic form moulded effectively into a single extended span of music, it had a natural theatricality, not least when the piccolo insisting on a rising interval, creating real dramatic tension.
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