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24 May 2006
Orchestral Excerpts from Wagner Operas
Among the plentiful selections of orchestral music from the operas of Richard Wagner, it is rare to find recordings that truly stand out, and this recent release of performances conducted by the late Klaus Tennstedt merits distinction.
Taken from the 1992 Proms concerts by the London Philharmonic, these live recordings
from that season demonstrate the famed conductor’s master hand at presenting
familiar works with energy and style.
The pieces included on this CD are the prelude to the opera Die Meistersinger
von Nürnberg; the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhaüser,
along with the “Venusberg” music from the latter opera; “Dawn
and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” along with “Siegfried’s
Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung; and the concert
version of the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre.
As familiar as these excerpts are, the performances preserved here are quite
vivid and immediate with regard to the quality of the sound and, more importantly,
the interpretation Tennstedt contributed to these performances.
The level of quality found in this CD is hardly unusual for Tennstedt, who
left a number of solid recordings of various works that remain engaging. Most
of all, Tennstedt’s legacy includes performances that are memorable for
solidly musical reasons. Without resorting to artifice or innovation for its
own sake, Tennstedt brought a certain vitality to familiar works like these
by not sacrificing the musical line to sheer effect. At times Tennstedt would
bring out details that may be less distinct in more routine performances of
works like these. Yet the descending line of the upper strings at the end of
the first section of the “Venusberg” music reinforces the transition
to the more expressive middle section that offers a signal to the perceptive
Likewise, Tennstedt’s treatment of the familiar overture to Rienzi
stands out for the way in which the drama emerges in this interpretation, which
is notably slower than some of the more familiar recorded versions of the piece.
By approaching this overture in this manner, Tennstedt brought out some details
that contribute to the sense of drama implicit in the score. The gradual crescendo
toward the full orchestral statement of the principal theme is noticeable and
thus highly effective. At the same time, the slower tempos help to accentuate
the drum rolls that are critical for the way they suspend the pulse of the work
– an effect Mahler would use to a similar end in the last movement of
his Second Symphony. At the same time, the careful tempos found in this performance
of the Rienzi overture allow the orchestra to shape lines. Thus, in
this piece and the other examples a vocal quality emerges from these exquisite
orchestral pieces from Wagner’s operas, such that the interpretations
reflect the nuances that are in the score, but difficult, at times, to achieve
in other circumstances.
Those familiar with Tennstedt’s fine recordings of Mahler’s symphonies
will appreciate his similar command of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in
these pieces by Wagner. They exhibit the level of performance mentioned in the
program notes, in which the critic Hugh Canning is quoted as referring to the
“exalted” quality of music-making in these performances. Released
by the London Philharmonic’s own archives, this is one of the Orchestra’s
own releases, and not a recording made through a commercial agency. It is laudable
that the London Philharmonic has brought out such a fine set of performances
that stem from a single season, rather than selections from various years which
might involve some variance in execution and sound quality.
Granted, this is Wagner presented in concert and in excerpt, with the selections
presented out of the context of the operas and music dramas to which they belong.
Even so, performances like these have been instrumental in bringing the music
to a wider audience and also in attracting audiences to the full versions of
the works to which they belong. The quality of these performances certainly
communicated the music effectively, as evidenced by enthusiastic applause retained
in the recordings conveys the intensity in this recent release of some exceptional
James L. Zychowicz