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Recordings

 Wagner: Orchestral Hightlights from the Operas
24 Jan 2008

Wagner: Orchestral Hightlights from the Operas

As much as Richard Wagner espoused opera reform in his theoretical writings by bringing to his works for the stage a closer unity between music and text, his actual means of doing so at times involved the use of orchestral forces that sometimes overwhelmed the sung word.

Wagner: Orchestral Hightlights from the Operas

London Philharmonic Orchestra. Klaus Tennstedt, conductor.

EMI Classics 0946 3 91008 9 7 [DVD]

$21.99  Click to buy

With the veritable lexicons of motives that occur in his overtures and preludes, as well as thematic summaries in various interludes, the famous orchestral excerpts performed in concert communicate some aspects of the operas well. Yet under the baton of a solid Wagnerian likethe late Klaus Tennstedt, the music takes on added dimensions that convey the passionate expression found in the scores. This is already evident in the legacy of recordings that Tennstedt left, and this recently released DVD of a concert of the London Philharmonic on tour at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, on 18 October 1988, captures some of the dynamic aspects of the conductor on the podium.

While Tennstedt’s involvement with Wagner’s music is evident in the recordings that are already available, a concert video like this helps to document the artist interacting with his orchestra. Through a combination of shots that varying in size, this film shows the orchestra as a whole, various sections, and also close-ups of the conductor himself, in works Tennstedt was regarded highly as one of the finest interpreters of his time. As familiar as this music can be, a master like Tennstedt contributes nuance to the well-known overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhaüser with the subtle variations in tempo. At times the intensity emanates from the podium, with Tennstedt’s baton almost vibrating in his hands. Elsewhere, it is the facial expression that brings about the appropriate response, as in the evocative Bacchanale that follows the Overture in this concert. The fine sonics of this recording demonstrate the unified playing that Tennstedt did not demand, but drew out of the exceptional players of the London Philharmonic.

With an earlier work like Rienzi, the elements of grand opera emerge clearly in Tennstedt’s interpretation. Here the broad strokes are necessary, as the longer themes that Wagner used in this relatively early opera are stylistically removed from the idiom he would use in Tannhaüser or, later in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. With some of the longer note values and sustained pitches that are characteristic of Rienzi Tennstedt creates some tension that evoke the charged situations in the opera. Familiar in the concert hall, the overture to Rienzi receives a solid interpretation with Tennstedt, who makes the most of the score without overly emoting.

Yet it is in the excerpts from Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen that Tennstedt seems to have been in his idiom, and the selections included in this concert represent his music-making very well. With “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music,” Tennstedt connotes the sense of the scene painting that is a crucial element in the opera Götterdämmerung, from which they are taken. While maintaining decorum, Tennstedt brings out an almost raucous jubilation that stands in contrast to the somber and intense tone of the “Funeral Music” that follows the hero’s murder. Here the London Philharmonic plays passionately while rendering the score with an almost classic precision.

After such intensive music, Tennstedt included two further selections, the overture to the comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the final piece on the concert, the famous “Ride of the Valykyries” from Die Walküre. Well known as it is, the placement of the “Ride” at the end of the program precludes any kind of encore – what could possibly follow that would not be anticlimactic. And it is appropriate for the video to end with the visage of Tennstedt in freeze-frame, an image that remains in memory long after hearing this well-played concert of the London Philharmonic on tour in Japan. The liner notes include Tennstedt’s comment that he is not on the podium just to “beat time,” and the craft that he brought to his work as conductor is evident in this filmed concert.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

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