The Mahler Players / Leakey

Inverness Cathedral

It would be bold to attempt to predict where the ambitious Tomas Leakey might next lead his Highland chamber orchestra, The Mahler Players.

The conductor has already tackled about half of the symphonic repertoire of Gustav Mahler before moving on to Richard Wagner for the group’s first CD, an arrangement of the composer’s late sketches by Matthew King, entitled Richard Wagner in Venice: A Symphony, teamed with the Siegfried Idyll.

It was King, in partnership with Peter Longworth, who supplied the re-orchestration for this weekend’s concerts of Tristan und Isolde in Inverness and Strathpeffer, with a luxury line-up of vocal soloists.

Opening with the orchestral Prelude to Act 1, the performance included all of Act 2 and finished with the opening of Act 3 and the ravishing Liebestod. Of the voices out front, only Frederick Jones, singing Melot, was not a seasoned Wagnerian, with Peter Wedd as Tristan, Lee Bisset as Isolde, and the venerable Sir John Tomlinson as Konig Marke. Laura Margaret Smith, who was a late replacement as Brangane, came into the role with seasons of chorus work at Bayreuth under her belt alongside her adventurous experience of singing new work in Scotland.

Wedd and Bisset have mutual hinterland in the roles and it showed, although the fresher partnership of the opening scene with Brangane and Isolde had already revealed the depth of characterisation that enlivened this concert performance. These were beautifully measured performances, finding a fine balance with the instrumentalists in the cathedral acoustic.

Tomlinson has the finest entry line, though – the sceptical “Tatest du’s wirklich?” [“Have you indeed?”] directed at the untrustworthy Melot. The bass gave us a far from ruthless King Mark, his disappointment in the disloyalty of the others almost palpable, and the rich power of Tomlinson’s voice deployed only sparingly.

King and Longworth’s editing job preserved the emotional heart of the narrative as well as the musical heft of the score. There was no hiding place for these players, required to perform full-on for much of the near two hours of music. Leakey was across all the detail as conductor, and with some very fine individual performances, from the brass fanfare that starts Act 2 to its conclusion, he shaped the central section of the evening perfectly.

We should really have applauded the Act’s end, but, after a pause to tune, the cor anglais solo from the start of Act 3 and Bisset’s glorious partnership with the orchestra in the Liebestod completed the programme. There was no real reason to have expected more integration of that closing part with what preceded it, but that is how high Leakey and his band set the bar.

Keith Bruce

Picture: conductor Tomas Leakey