Philharmonic gets Wagner right

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2009

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Most of the time, a concert devoted entirely to one composer is a feast; with Richard Wagner, it’s merely a sampler. Nevertheless, the Boston Philharmonic’s all-Wagner concert last weekend still provided ample sustenance -and, at its heights, some of the Philharmonic’s finest music-making.

The opening, the overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,’’ was an enjoyably brash, in-your-face assortment of exclamation points, conductor Benjamin Zander snapping the end of the baton through the air, flicking on each beat like a light switch. But it was a little strange to see the same sharp gestures guiding the languid Prelude and “Liebestod’’ from “Tristan und Isolde’’; while the orchestra displayed impressively delicate colors, it seemed left to individual players and sections to connect the dots into Wagner’s yearning phrases, with the cellos and oboist Peggy Pearson taking the most initiative.

The concert’s second half brought a brief Zander lecture - a crash course in Wagnerian leitmotif, complete with live examples - followed by excerpts from “Götterdämmerung,’’ the apocalyptic finale to Wagner’s operatic “Ring’’ cycle. Zander relaxed his conducting, showing more breadth and line, and the group responded with marvelous sounds, warm and sweeping. Indeed, the huge orchestra excelled in music of more sonic depth than force; Siegfried’s funeral march was particularly gorgeous, great rolling clouds of dark foreboding.

Bayreuth veteran Linda Watson, a New England Conservatory graduate returned to Jordan Hall, sang both the “Liebestod’’ and Brünnhilde’s climactic immolation scene from “Götterdämmerung.’’ She has the hallmark requirements for Wagner, the richness, the resonant potency, especially in the middle, and the ability to uncork reserves of power. But most impressive was her consistency from register to register. Watson’s “Liebestod’’ fluctuated in its delicacy - in her defense, there’s a reason Wagner gave sopranos almost the entire opera to warm up for it - but her Brünnhilde was a fine and formidable Valkyrie, decisive and soaring.

Everyone involved, in fact, got better as the evening went on, and peaking at the end proved an ideal strategy for Wagner. “Götterdämmerung’’ winds up with the Rhine overflowing its banks while the gods perish in flames, to the strains of some of Wagner’s best music, and, on this concert, some of the orchestra’s best playing. When it’s done right, it sweeps away everything in its path - criticism included.

BOSTON PHILHARMONIC Benjamin Zander, conductor,

with Linda Watson, soprano

Music of Wagner

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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