Daniele Gatti conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra yesterday evening in a concert marking the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth on May 22, 1813. The second half featured mezzo Michelle DeYoung.
The first portion of the program was relatively short and consisted of two excerpts from Götterdämmerung, Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music. The music was powerful enough in itself, but I've heard so many Ring orchestral suites that the omission of the opera's finale from this particular selection made it feel somewhat incomplete.
The second half featured the overture to Tannhäuser, Kundry's Narrative from Act II of Parsifal (featuring Ms. DeYoung), the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, and finally the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (again featuring Ms. DeYoung). Beyond the sheer overwhelming beauty of the Prelude and Liebestod, the importance of Tristan lies in its musical innovation, that is, in the new approach it took to tonality. As the Wikipedia article on Wagner states:
"Wagner's later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif) and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onwards, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, which include the so-called Tristan chord."
Throughout the evening, I had the impression I was listening to an ensemble striving mightily to give Wagner's great music its due but falling a bit short of what could be accomplished by an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic or the Met Orchestra. This performance's greatest strength lay in Mr. Gatti's work on the podium. Having conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth from 2008 through 2011, he was in a unique position to bring new insight to Wagner's complex musical achievement.