Friday 3 June 2016

A virtuosic chamber twilight - William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra in Wagner's Götterdämmerung

William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra at the Oak Room in the Hospital Club
William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra
at the Oak Room in the Hospital Club
Richard Wagner Siegfried Idyll, Götterdämmerung arr. Iain Farrington; the Arensky Chamber Orchestra, William Kunhardt; the Hospital Club
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 2 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Brilliant re-invention of Wagner's opera as a piece for chamber orchestra

William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra's latest concert as part of their residency at The Hospital Club, on 2 June 2016, took Wagner's Götterdämmerung as its theme, a not unambitious undertaking for an ensemble of just 20 musicians. First we heard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, the only piece of mature chamber-scale music he wrote, in its original version for just 12 musicians, and then after an interval where we were served themed canapes and cocktails, we heard a potted version of the themes from Götterdämmerung as William Kunhardt read a very evocative narration of the plot of the opera, and finally we heard Iain Farrington's one-hour digest of music from Götterdämmerung scored for 20 musicians, taking us from Siegfried and Brünnhilde's duet in the prologue to the final conflagration.

William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra in Wagner's Siegfried Idyll at the Oak Room in the Hospital Club
William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra
in Wagner's Siegfried Idyll at the Oak Room in the Hospital Club
The Hospital Club is a slightly strange place for a concert, though the Arensky Chamber Orchestra's series is entitled Classical Music Reimagined. But the club itself has (high quality) piped music everywhere so in the bar before-hand or popping out to the loo in the interval you have the cultural disconnect of moving from Wagner to contemporary pop. And the concert is more of a gig, you lurk in the bar before hand and are able to take drinks into the concert venue, the Oak Room. This room is clearly designed to be a casual listening venue but the sheer size of the audience prevented any major re-invention, and though there were tables and sofas, the majority sat in rows on chairs. Perhaps more of a problem for some people would be the way noise and music occasionally drifted across from the bar next door.

Though a substantial size room, the venue was not large for a group of 12 musicians and their performance of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll had a very present quality. After William Kunhardt's lively introduction, with a description of the work's premiere on Cosima Wagner's birthday, I did wonder whether we should have listened from the bar next door so that we heard it at one remove just as Cosima did from her bedroom with the musicians in the staircase hall outside her room. That said, the performers brought a lovely chamber quality to the piece, the six strings interacting very much as a chamber ensemble. Kunhardt's speeds were quite fluid, with a lot of ebb and flow, and where there were climaxes these were quick to rise and quick to die away, very much a highly dynamic performance.

The presentation of the themes from  Götterdämmerung with Kunhardt's narration (holding his text in one hand and conducting with the other) was very effective, especially as his narration was so engaging, though I found the way the music stopped mid paragraph rather frustrating. I did wonder whether some form of narration could not have been incorporated with the final orchestral work, something which could perhaps have been highly effective.

The performance of Iain Farrington's symphonic journey from Götterdämmerung brought the number of players up to 20 (nine strings, single woodwind, trumpet, trombone, two horns, percussion, timpani and harp). Perhaps the minimum that you could use for this music, it would have been nice to have had slightly more strings (eight rather than four violins), but space precluded this. When doing orchestral reductions Farrington does not take the Schoenberg route and add a keyboard instrument such as a harmonium to fill in the harmonies, preferring to take more creative solutions. It was fascinating to hear how recognisable and effective the music was, this was still Wagner's Götterdämmerung but simply written on a smaller scale. The music took us from  Siegfried and Brünnhilde's duet in the prologue, through Siegfried's journey down the Rhine, Hagen's calling of the vassals, Siegfried's wandering off alone during the hunting party in Act Three, his encounter with the Rhinemaidens, his death and funeral march and the final conflagration.

Whilst listening I did rather keep coming back to Anna Russell's famous analysis of the Ring (which is available on YouTube) with her perceptive yet witty comments such as the one about love taking the ginger out of Siegfried and Brunnhilde when comparing the love duet from the Götterdämmerung prologue with the duet at the end of Siegfried.

Yes, there were moments when you were aware that there were just nine string players when ideally there should have been 80, and moments when it was apparent quite how much virtuosity and stamina the young players needed. But there was plenty to enjoy and Kunhardt brought out lots of details, the simple fact of fewer strings meant that the balance was altered and much of the woodwind detail was clearer. And the big moments were still big, so Siegfried's funeral march was stupendously impressive, with you feeling that you were really inside the music. And the Rhinemaiden's music burbled away mellifluously in the woodwind (again I thought of Anna Russell and her dubbing of them Wagner's answer to the Andrews Sisters). It was fascinating to hear how similar some passages were, shorn of the colourful variations of Wagner's orchestration and without the use of voices. This was a big piece for just 20 players, with some highly demanding music, and the ensemble came through with flying colours, so that we could simply sit back and enjoy the way Wagner's narrative unfolded through the interplay of leitmotifs.

This was the premiere of Farrington's arrangement, and I do hope that other group's take it up as it as a highly effective way of presenting the music from Wagner's opera in digestible form. William Kunhardt and the Arensky Chamber Orchestra will be back at The Hospital Club in the autumn.

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