WNO Orchestra Conductor Lothar Koenigs

Messiaen and Bruckner: Welsh National Opera ‘Faith’ Season

Steph Power reviews Welsh National Opera Orchestra performances of Messiaen and Bruckner as an introduction to the Welsh National Opera ‘Faith’ season.

It is often said that we live in a secular age. Undoubtedly, in the West today, few people show scant, if any, commitment to organised religion in any form. And yet religion, and faith in a wider spiritual sense, remains one of the most febrile areas of our collective psyche and a major flashpoint in our world; a source of meaning, reassurance and social cohesion perhaps, for those who subscribe to it – and the inspiration for much magnificent art through the ages. But religious faith so often remains a barrier rather than an encouragement to tolerance and understanding of the perceived ‘other’ beyond – or indeed within – communities. As dogma, and the expression of (usually) patriarchal power, religion continues to be as much a trigger for territorial struggle on many levels as it is a channel for hope and the profound questions of human existence. It remains a major source of oppression, war and misery for many people around the world.

Two opera composers who have dared to address fundamental issues of faith and religion – and the philosophical, social and political questions which arise therefrom – are Schoenberg and Verdi; the two pillars, if you will, of Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming ‘Faith’ season, which will see one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, Moses und Aron (in the first UK production since 1976) twinned with Nabucco; the opera that in many ways heralded Verdi’s creative maturity.

For this introductory concert by the WNO Orchestra, conductor Lothar Koenigs chose works by composers with devoutly religious beliefs whose music sought to express rather than interrogate the notion of faith: Messiaen and Bruckner. Both were Catholic and both, as it happens, were brilliant church organists, which informed their music in important ways. Interestingly, neither are known as opera composers; indeed, of the two, only Messiaen wrote for the operatic stage, but his remarkable, gargantuan single opera, St François d’Assise (premiered in 1983), is still – scandalously – yet to receive a full production in the UK.

Welsh National Opera Orchestra Conductor Lothar Koenigs Messiaen and Bruckner
Welsh National Opera Orchestra Conductor Lothar Koenigs

L’ascension is an early piece in Messiaen’s overtly spiritual, yet strongly modernist oeuvre. It was written in 1932-3 – around the same time that Schoenberg completed as much as he ever would of Moses und Aron – though the Messiaen is perhaps better known in its subsequent 1934 re-working for solo organ. It is cast in four ‘meditations’ rather than ‘movements’ in a symphonic sense; each conveying in radiant, abstract tones some aspect of Christ’s ascent to heaven.*

However, it was outright patience rather than meditative transport which was initially invoked at St David’s Hall, due to a delay of well over half an hour – longer than the piece itself – waiting for a deputising player to arrive. The inevitable fluster took its toll on the opening brass which wavered before settling. Their sound, when it blossomed in tandem, was thankfully glorious, with many points of rapturous beauty throughout the orchestra as the piece unfolded; here with Stravinskian bite, there with ringing overtones and a rapt stillness. In the fourth meditation, the strings’ emergent, searing harmonies provided a thrilling complement to those divine fanfares of the first and third. Overall though, the performance never quite achieved the transcendence that it might have, nor the ecstacy that led one prudish early reviewer to comment on the work’s ‘impure atmosphere’. There were some thin, not quite blended textures in quieter passages, and a tailing-off of certain phrase-endings was just enough to revoke the sense of being pulled inexorably aloft.

After the interval, Koenigs set to with renewed purpose for Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. Nicknamed the ‘Apocalyptic’ (but not by Bruckner), many consider this the composer’s greatest achievement – though its history and reception, like much of Bruckner’s symphonic work, has been bedevilled by the so-called ‘Bruckner problem’ of its existing in numerous different versions and editions (here we heard the Haas of 1890). Bruckner famously had other problems too; not least the precarious balancing of mystical leanings with crippling personal neuroses and the secular ambition which drove him to Vienna. Once there, however, he struggled to be accepted by an establishment hostile to his musical hero Wagner; so audible an influence in the huge, grandiose symphonies (Wagner tubas and all in the 8th) to which he eventually devoted himself after composing a number of fine religious choral works.

Koenigs resolved to sweep all this aside and focus on the work’s ‘sublime journey from dark to light’, to paraphrase the programme note. Of course, abstract music is an opaque vehicle for religious – or any extra-musical – ideas. But sentiment is another question entirely, and this music hefts some mighty emotions with or without any supposed dedication to a higher spiritual force. But the enormous size of the edifice Bruckner created carries its own difficulties; his block-like thematic writing – and, indeed, orchestration (with instruments added and subtracted like organ stops) – can prove resistant to linear shaping and forward momentum. And so it proved here at times, particularly where the chosen tempo was on the slow side, as in Koenigs’ second movement for instance, and in a somewhat stop-start approach to phrasing (to stretch the organ metaphor).

That said, this performance had many qualities to recommend it; not least in the way that Koenigs drew out what, for me, is a key to Bruckner’s 8th in terms of its sheer, resonant sound. For Bruckner was Viennese in a more Schubertian sense if you will; that is, although he clearly utilised traditional principles of sonata form and so on, his structural techniques and motivic development did not necessarily adhere to Beethovenian models (though he hardly deserved Brahms’ famous criticism as a musical ‘boa constrictor’ – something that would never have been levelled at Schubert). Rather than look for ways to paint Bruckner as either solidly Viennese on the one hand, and/or Wagnerian on the other, as scholars are often tempted, better I think to see his music as a unique attempt to bridge sacred and secular, old and new, extrovert vastness and private reticence, with the sound itself being the key to his expression.

On paper, the score seems to me ponderous and repetitive – even uninventive. But in concert – for this quality can really only be encountered live – those apparently pedestrian dots can leap off the page to create music of blazing light. Here, Koenigs, assisted by largely excellent playing across the orchestra, succeeded in touching some proto-spectral heights. The Adagio was particularly full and sonorous in tonal colour; a truly physical coup for any orchestra, let alone a pit orchestra on a very late-running schedule.

Perhaps it was the transparency of Koenigs’ approach which helped, but on balance this evening, I found myself more sympathetic than I often am to Bruckner’s gigantic and ultimately troubled quasi-mystical world. This season’s productions at WNO offer a more enticing prospect still – and Koenigs will be in his element with the Schoenberg, which promises to be a truly extraordinary experience.


* Performances of L’ascension are rare in Wales, but like buses to heaven, two seem to have come along together this spring. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jac van Steen, will be performing the work alongside Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at St David’s Cathedral Festival on May 29.


St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25 April 2014

Messiaen – L’ascension
Bruckner – Symphony No. 8

Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs