You would think the success of any vocal work would depend largely on the strength of its text. And yet, so many pieces of classical music can lay claim to iconic status in spite of their lyrics. Consider Franz Schubert, who took any number of fairly wretched poems and fashioned them into memorable, exquisite songs. Or what about Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius? You’d never know the insipid poetry that comprises its libretto could have given rise to music of such grandeur, purity, and nobility.
In 1862, Richard Wagner published a cycle of songs based on poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, a married woman he had fallen for in Zurich. Wesendonck’s poems, filled with maudlin sentiment and trite metaphors, display the worst, most embarrassing excesses of Romanticism. But Wagner was very much in love, and he treated the drivel of his beloved with the utmost commitment and seriousness. His Wesendonck Lieder turned out to be lovely works, atmospheric and full of heat; two of the songs even served as studies for that great memorial to illicit love—the opera Tristan und Isolde. So convincing, so sincere is the music that if you didn’t understand the words being sung, you’d think you were listening to Wordsworth or Keats.
In 1976, the German symphonist Hans Werner Henze re-orchestrated the songs, stripping down the accompaniment to that of a chamber orchestra, and it was this version that the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach, performed last night, with Nathalie Stutzmann as soloist. Perhaps it was a combination of Stutzmann’s dark-hued contralto voice and Henze’s spare orchestration, but this was a very different sort of performance than one typically hears of the work. Stutzmann—passionate yet tightly controlled, moving yet subdued—imbues these songs with a dusky, autumnal glow. In the languid “Im Treibhaus” (“In the Greenhouse”), she sings many of the lines without any vibrato at all, rendering a feeling of stark desolation that contrasts beautifully with the more impassioned moments, when she conjures up a warmer timbre.
In certain moments, for example during the second song, “Stehe Still!” (“Stay Still!”), she may have struggled to cut through the roiling, tumultuous orchestral accompaniment, but her phrasing of the quiet, poignant lines of the fifth song, “Träume” (“Dreams”), was utterly pure and heartfelt. In general, her interpretation is far from extroverted, but in repertoire like this (more akin to art song than opera, the connections to Tristan notwithstanding), I prefer such subtlety and restraint; I almost wish I could have heard the performance in more intimate confines, rather than the spacious setting of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
The pairing of the Wesendonck Lieder with Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7—the most beautiful of the composer’s set of nine—is, in many ways, ideal. Much has been made of Bruckner’s fealty to Wagner, and when Wagner died in 1883, Bruckner dedicated the great slow movement of this work to the memory of his dead hero.
With Bruckner, tempo isn’t everything, but it counts for a great deal. Eschenbach judges his tempos very well; stately and broad, they are nearly perfect for my taste. Of course, it isn’t just the speed that’s important, though a slower pace can lead to a more profound experience while allowing the music’s inner voices to come through cleanly and its counterpoint to be discerned. It’s the relative relationship of tempos from section to section that’s crucial. Eschenbach’s Bruckner might be slow, but it never feels static, precisely because of the subtle variation in tempo within each of the symphony’s four movements. Moreover, the slower tempos in the scherzo and the exuberant finale help solve one architectural problem: how to make a unifying whole of a piece that’s front-loaded, consisting, as it does, of two very long movements followed by two faster ones that are considerably lighter in temperament.
Eschenbach’s approach to Bruckner is both muscular and episodic. He treats each section of each movement like a great block of granite, and he piles one upon the other, slowly, steadily erecting a sonic mass that can overwhelm you with its power. When Eschenbach reaches the climaxes of both the first and last movements, you can hear the mighty organ sound that Bruckner adored and tried to emulate. Elsewhere the sound isn’t as opulent as I might have liked, though the cellos—beginning with that gorgeous opening line, which shoots out like a brilliant arc of daylight over the hushed, shimmering violins—play beautifully throughout. And the brass playing is consistently excellent: bright, resonant, full of heft. The only uncomfortable moment resulted from a missed entrance in the woodwinds toward the end of the first movement that set the music badly astray for several bars.
I’m told Eschenbach intends to perform a different Bruckner symphony with the NSO each season. This is music he clearly feels at home conducting, and the musicians seem sympathetic to both the music and his conception of it. How lucky we’ll be if we can hear more of the same in the future.
The National Symphony Orchestra performs Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 tonight and tomorrow at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets ($10 to $85) are available through the orchestra’s website.