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Recordings

05 Jul 2013

Great Wagner Conductors from DG

As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.

Great Wagner Conductors

A review by Joseph Newsome

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 1148 7 [4CDs]

$24.49  Click to buy

With recording dates that range from 1927 to 1962, the consistent excellence of the recorded sound is remarkable even for Deutsche Grammophon. Not unexpectedly, sound reproduction is not as detailed or expansive in the earliest recordings in this compilation, but the music of Wagner is brilliantly served both by the original recordings and by the mastering of Lennart Jeschke.

Discs One and Two are devoted to the conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch (1888 - 1965), still regarded by many critics as the undisputed Wotan in the Valhalla of Wagner conductors. Much of Maestro Knappertsbusch’s career was devoted to conducting Wagner, and his 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal —recorded by John Culshaw for DECCA—remains a touchstone of Wagner interpretation. From November 1962 recording sessions with the Münchner Philharmoniker emerged the featured performances of the Overtures from Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser ; the Act One Vorspiele from Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Parsifal; the Siegfried-Idyll , and the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. From 1927 or 1928 recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker come performances of the Acts One and Three Vorspiele and the Tanz der Lehrbuben (Dance of the Apprentices) fromDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg; the Walkürenritt ( Ride of the Valkyries) from Die Walküre; the Act One Verwandlungsmusik (Transformation Music) from Parsifal; and the Venusberg (Bacchanale) from Tannhäuser. One of the most interesting opportunities offered by these selections is that of comparing Maestro Knappertsbusch’s 1927 or 1928 performance of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with the 1962 performance. Clocking in at 10:55, the later performance is more than two minutes longer than the earlier recording, which has a duration of 8:34. Timings are of course somewhat deceptive when comparing recordings of these vintages, especially considering that side lengths remained limited in the early days of electrical recording. These constraints led to cutting music and perhaps adopting speeds before the microphones that were rather quicker than those that would have been employed in the theatre. Not unlike Herbert von Karajan, Maestro Knappertsbusch exhibited an increasing expansiveness of approach as his career progressed. Despite the difference in durations, the two recordings of the Meistersinger Act One Vorspiel are surprisingly similar: brass fanfares are given the prominence they deserve, but the inner voices and colorations of Wagner’s cleverly-deployed counterpoint are also completely evident. All of the excerpts conducted by Maestro Knappertsbusch explore the ‘inner demons’ of the music. In the Fliegende Holländer Overture, a sense of mystery is pervasive without being overwrought. The Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde tingles with emotional immediacy. The Act One Verwandlungsmusik from Parsifal has audible senses of wonder and spiritual fervor. The Rienzi Overture is a rarity in the repertories of most great Wagner conductors, but Maestro Knappertsbusch’s pacing of the piece reveals fleeting glimpses at Wagner’s mature style, confirming that the opera was an important step in the composer’s musical development. Maestro Knappertsbusch’s reputation as a Wagnerian is perhaps sufficient to justify his prominence in this collection of the work of great Wagner conductors. The excerpts on offer here that were recorded under his baton justify that reputation.

The third disc celebrates the Wagner conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 - 1954). To Maestro Furtwängler went the accolade of conducting the first commercially-issued Ring Cycle, taken from concert performances recorded for broadcast by RAI Roma in 1953. He was also contracted to conduct the first complete Ring recorded in studio, but at the time of his death only Die Walküre had been recorded. All of the performances conducted by Maestro Furtwängler in this compilation were recorded ‘live’ with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the ensemble of which he was named Principal Conductor in 1922. Recorded eight years into Maestro Furtwängler’s tenure at the helm of the Philharmoniker, the Act One Vorspiel from Lohengrin is as ethereal as the sound quality allows, the string tone mostly free from distortion in the highest register. An aspect of Maestro Furtwängler’s conducting from which today’s Wagnerians could learn much is the way in which flexibility of rhythm is put to telling use in passages of greatest dramatic emphasis, the hairpin turns in rhythmic profile serving the composer rather than earmarking the idiosyncrasies of the conductor. Maestro Furtwängler’s command of rubato is masterful, and he displays even in the Act One Vorspiel a cognizance of the fact that, its Teutonic dramaturgy notwithstanding, Lohengrin is in many ways an Italianate score, with the preponderance of 4/4 time and the concerted Act Finales. Taken from performances recorded in Berlin’s Titania-Palast on 19 August 1949, accounts of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger and the Trauermarsch (Siegfried’s Funeral March) from Götterdämmerung reveal Maestro Furtwängler at the zenith of his abilities as a Wagner conductor, the great melodic arcs of both selections built upon sturdy foundations of richly-textured sound. Also recorded in the Titania-Palast, the performances of the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde date from 27 April 1954, only seven months before Maestro Furtwängler’s death. Lacking nothing in terms of energy, these selections find the conductor pushing the music slightly too hard: missing are the ambiguity and disquietude that simmer in Maestro Knappertsbusch’s recordings of the same pieces, as well as in Maestro Furtwängler’s complete recording of the opera with Ludwig Suthaus and Kirsten Flagstad. The account of the Tannhäuser Overture was recorded in Rome on 1 May 1951: Maestro Furtwängler displays a clear knowledge of where the music starts and ends, and his pacing of the performance ideally conveys the journey between those two points. A few days before the Tannhäuser Overture was recorded in concert in Rome, on 25 April 1951, the Philharmoniker played the Karfreitagszauber (Good Friday Spell) from Parsifal in what seems an unlikely venue: Alexandria, Egypt. This excerpt from Parsifal is an especially welcome selection, the paucity of recorded evidence of the conductor’s way with the score rendering it tremendously valuable. Maestro Furtwängler conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1936 and 1937, assuming the mantle of Richard Strauss, who had conducted the opera on the Green Hill in 1933 and 1934, and returned to the opera for five performances at La Scala in 1951. Wagnerians and admirers of the conductor’s artistry have long clung to rumors that at least one of the La Scala performances was recorded: some contemporary sources suggest that one of the Parsifal performances was intended to be transmitted live over Italian radio, but in the event a recording of the 1950 RAI concert performances conducted by Vittorio Gui was broadcast—thankfully so, as that broadcast facilitated preservation of Maria Callas’s performance of Kundry under decent recording conditions. In the performance recorded in Alexandria, Maestro Furtwängler brings great weight of tone to the Karfreitagszauber, the sound being constructed in layers with the sureness of touch of a true master. Somewhat perplexingly, Maestro Furtwängler’s conducting of Wagner repertory is often compared to similar efforts by his contemporary Arturo Toscanini, who conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1931. It is often said that Maestro Furtwängler strove to create magnificent cacophonies of sound, whereas Toscanini pursued leaner orchestral timbres and stricter rhythm. These selections reveal that Maestro Furtwängler possessed his own unique concept of rhythmic pacing which enlisted adaptability of the beat as a vital component of effective interpretation of the music of Wagner. Even when the recorded sound does not permit the listener to enjoy a complete appreciation of the dynamic ranges and sheer power of sound that Maestro Furtwängler sought, it is apparent that he was a Wagnerian of phenomenal importance.

Selections on the fourth disc are divided among three undoubted masters of Wagner repertory who, to Twenty-First-Century observers, might nonetheless seem slightly out of place in company with Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler. Düsseldorf-born Karl Elmendorff (1891 - 1962) is deservedly remembered by Wagnerians for having conducted the first studio recordings of Tristan und Isolde in 1928 and Tannhäuser in 1930, as well as for having presided over memorable performances at Bayreuth, where he was a frequent presence from 1927 until 1942. His work did not earn him the adulation enjoyed by Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler, however, and he is increasingly overlooked as the years pass. In June 1941, he recorded orchestral excerpts from the Ring with the Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin and the Staatskapelle Berlin. With the former ensemble, he recorded theEinzug der Götter in Walhall (Entry of the Gods into Valhalla) from Das Rheingold and the Walkürenritt and Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) from Die Walküre. With Staatskapelle Berlin, he recorded Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey) from Götterdämmerung. All four selections reveal an unquestionable skill with shaping Wagnerian phrases, the Walküre and Götterdämmerung numbers in particular bristling with energy but never veering out of control. Victor de Sabata (1892 - 1967) is now perhaps most remembered for his conducting of Verdi and Puccini repertory, but it is worth noting that, owing to the complex dynamics of European politics, Maestro de Sabata was an Austrian citizen at the time of his birth in Trieste. His sensibilities were decidedly Italianate in the tradition of Toscanini, in whose footsteps he followed when he conducted Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1939. It is with the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde that Maestro de Sabata is represented in this compilation. Recorded in April 1939, less than four months before he débuted at Bayreuth, the pieces are superbly played by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Maestro de Sabata’s disciplined but impassioned conducting wringing every ounce of emotional impact from Wagner’s music. Eugen Jochum (1902 - 1987) belongs to the Kapellmeister tradition that has unaccountably taken on negative connotations in the years since the beginning of the era of ‘star’ conductors. Like Maestro de Sabata, Maestro Jochum made his début at Bayreuth conducting Tristan und Isolde, but it is primarily as an advocate for Anton Bruckner’s Symphonies that Maestro Jochum is remembered. In this compilation, Maestro Jochum is honored with the inclusion of 1951 recordings of the Vorspiele from the First and Third Acts of Lohengrin with the Berliner Philharmoniker and 1957 performances of the Act One Vorspiel and Karfreitagszauber from Parsifal with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Maestro Jochum perhaps lacked the larger-than-life charisma of his Wagnerian counterparts, but he was second to none in preparedness, musicality, and knowledge of the repertory. His readings of the selections from Lohengrin and Parsifal are appropriately complementary: poise and careful attention to the nuances of Wagner’s phrasing reveal the similarities of the structures and sound worlds of these excerpts despite Lohengrin and Parsifal occupying opposite ends of Wagner’s artistic career. The subtle but bracing vitality of Maestro Jochum’s conducting reminds the listener that traditions persist because there is inherent validity and power in the approaches that they perpetuate.

It has become all too common for the Wagnerian efforts of conductors to prove either anonymously inept or damagingly idiosyncratic. Perhaps the greatest fallacy that has pervaded the music of Wagner across the generations is that it requires a specialized approach that borders on proselytism. Though Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtwängler are admired for setting standards by which other conductors of Wagner’s music are still measured, their trend-setting also extended to the music of Mozart and Beethoven. During his tenure as Principal Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Elmendorff was celebrated for his conducting of wide-ranging operatic and symphonic repertories. The legacy of Victor de Sabata is immortalized by the 1953 studio recording of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, still recognized as one of the greatest operatic recordings ever made, but he was also acclaimed for his conducting of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Respighi. Eugen Jochum was an idiomatic, intelligent conductor of a varied repertory who, in his career as a Wagnerian, presided over the 1954 Bayreuth début of Birgit Nilsson as Elsa in Lohengrin. In short, all of these eminent Wagnerians were also respected for their work beyond the Wagner canon. This observation is critical to understanding why these five conductors towered over their contemporaries as interpreters of the music of Wagner. To these five men, Wagner’s music was not an exalted institution to be quarantined and approached with special reverence. These conductors understood the position that Wagner occupies in the development of Western music and, rather than regarding his works as antiseptic, pseudo-religious experiences, approached Wagner’s music as a fantastic menagerie of creatures, their life drawn from the common genetic ancestry of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and Schumann and their destinies devoted to influencing all the music that followed. No man is an island, it is said: these five conductors helped to row Wagner to shore, where his music became an integral part of the musical landscape both in the world’s theatres and on records.

Joseph Newsome


Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883): Great Wagner Conductors—Orchestral Music from Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer,Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and Parsifal; Berliner Philharmoniker, Münchner Philharmoniker, Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Karl Elmendorff, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugen Jochun, Hans Knappertsbusch, Victor de Sabata [Various recording venues and dates; Deutsche Grammophon 479 1148; 4CD, 301:01]

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