In this performance, the Auckland Philharmonia is joined by members of the Australian National Music Academy as part of an annual collaboration between the two organisations.
Giordano Bellincampi conducts.
WAGNER: Rienzi Overture
These days it’s rare to perform Wagner’s 1840 opera, Rienzi, and even many Wagner fans are unfamiliar with the work. However, until the early 20th century, it was one of his most successful operas. Written with the distinct purpose to take the Paris Grand Opera by storm, it tells the story of the medieval Italian tribune, Rienzi, and the music is mighty in scope and full of the pomp Wagner expected of the Parisian grand operatic style. Yet, it was never received in Paris and Wagner had to wait until 1842 for a premiere in Dresden.
And it was a huge success – but Wagner could never fully understand why. Even on opening night, he was concerned about the long running time – some six hours including intervals – and he spent considerable energy reworking the opera to make it more logistically appealing to his audience. However, the problem had little to do with length but rather Wagner’s changing musical philosophy. Rienzi never fit with the musical language he began to develop in Tannhauser from 1843, and Wagner began to view the opera with some embarrassment – dismissing it in the 1850s as merely “the shape of five acts with five brilliant finales…”
While the full opera no longer sits in Wagner’s canon, the Overture remains as a showcase of Wagner’s skill as an orchestral composer. Opening with a trumpet call, those brilliant finales will appear throughout the overture culminating in the full theatrical glory of a military march.
WAGNER: Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
Wagner may have had reservations about his compositional style in Rienzi, but Tristan und Isolde created a whole new musical language. The now-famous Tristan chord became a signature not just for this work, but Wagner himself. And this was a truly personal opera reflecting his engagement with the philosophy of Schopenhauer as well as the renunciation of his love and desire for the married Mathilde Wesendonck. Intermingling mythology with personal loss, the opera explores the conflict between hopeless infatuation and social obligation – of lovers who can never be together - all held together with Schopenhauer’s principle that any satisfaction life gives us is but a temporary illusion.
The Prelude sets into motion the unresolved discordance of the legendary love story between Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseult. It also introduces the Tristan chord and the ever-shifting harmonic progressions that approach concord but never fully resolve. Satisfaction – be it musical or emotional – can only be temporary, and the orchestra will segue from the prelude into the Liebestod – literally, the love-death. This is the final dramatic music of Tristan und Isolde where Isolde sings of her Enlightenment as she cradles the body of her beloved Tristan. From there she is transformed and passes on into the next life.
MAHLER: Symphony No 5
Mahler wrote the 5th Symphony in 1902 and the work reflects the emotional turmoil and contrasts of the previous year. At only 43, he was pushing himself to the limit with his work as a conductor and composer, and that limit came in February 1901 when he collapsed on the podium after a rehearsal. Immediate surgery saved his life, but Mahler realised how close to death he had been. Later in November, his recovery was hastened by his sudden and whirlwind romance with Alma Schindler. They were married by March 1902, and as Heath Lees writes, “The Fifth Symphony embraces both these worlds. It is about life and death on the one hand, and about love and joy on the other.”
Recorded by RNZ Concert in Auckland Town Hall, 11 November 2023
Producer: Tim Dodd
Engineer: Adrian Hollay