The Gramophone Choice
Lohengrin – Prelude. Tannhäuser – Overture. Siegfried Idyll. Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funeral March
Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Wilhelm Furtwängler
Testament mono SBT1141 (61' · ADD) Recorded late 1940s. Buy from Amazon
This is, as they say, something else. Lohengrin’s Act 1 Prelude opens the disc of studio recordings, the only item of five with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The way the Swiss brass crescendos on the up-beat to the climactic delivery of the hymn must rate among the most elating of all Furtwängler moments. Why this and the Tannhäuser Overture have never been issued before remains a mystery, as probably do all the reasons why, in the latter piece, the Vienna Philharmonic sounds on fire for Furtwängler and on duty for, say, Knappertsbusch in 1953 (once available on a Decca LP). Siegfried’s Rhine Journey evolves in one seamless sweep, barring the split-second but disconcerting rhythmic hiatus at the moment of take-off (4'51"). And mercifully, Furtwängler doesn’t tag on the trite concert ending (as did Reiner and Toscanini), giving a chance to wonder at the uniquely resonant low brass sounds of the VPO.
Then on to the Funeral March, every dark sound fully charting the depths, every phrase carrying special import and, as in the Siegfried Idyll, the occasional passage reminding us of standards of tuning of the day. The latter account, Furtwängler’s only recording of the piece, engages rather than diverts and charms, with Vienna string-playing typically sweet and rapturous, and ‘Siegfried, Hope of the World’ tensely built to an almost delirious climax. Depth, presence and a naturally achieved clarity characterise all these recordings, and 78 sources only occasionally make their presence felt.
Der fliegende Holländer – Overture. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude, Act 1; Prelude, Act 3. Parsifal – Prelude; Good Friday Music. Tristan und Isolde – Prelude; Liebestod
Anja Kampe sop Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLL7517 (73’ · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Conductor, orchestra and recording team have gone to subtle lengths (including the use of two recording venues) to make a Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’ concert really work on disc. Like Rattle at the Royal Opera House before him, Elder has (re)calculated the crucial silences and the balancing of the brass and wind choirs in the Parsifal items to give them lift and presence outside the acoustic halo of the Bayreuth pit for which they were intended. The Meistersinger Act 3 Prelude makes use of ‘period’ string portamentos (the score’s influence on Elgar’s Second Symphony becoming even more apparent), while the same opera’s Act 1 Prelude and the Tristan excerpts show clear touches of Elder’s work with original-instrument bands, eschewing Karajanesque symphonic gloss (and its ‘big’ 1970s sound) for the sake of increased mobility and presence of important inner part-writing.
Anja Kampe is a clear, word-conscious, passionate Isolde, closely in tune with the ‘house style’ of these interpretations, while the final pages of this Liebestod (after the voice finishes) are attended to with a Boulez-like detail and fascination. Only the Dutchman Overture falls somewhat in between two stools – not quite the development of Der Freischütz that you might have expected after Elder’s cunning reading of that score for ENO, nor the all-out nautical thriller provided in very different ways by Klemperer or Solti.
This is not a disc which blows you away at first hearing but one that repays careful and repeated listening. The recordings are in every way the handmaid of the performances.
‘Symphonic Syntheses by Stokowski’
Parsifal – Symphonic Synthesis from Act 3. Das Rheingold – Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla. Die Walküre – Magic Fire Music; Ride of the Valkyries. Tristan und Isolde – Symphonic Synthesis
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / José Serebrier
Naxos 8 570293 (74’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
It would be hard to imagine a more sumptuous disc. Stokowski, in these ‘symphonic syntheses’, enhances Wagner’s already opulent orchestration with shrewdly added instrumental lines and with the vocal parts usually given to the strings. Then at times he thins the orchestration down for more transparent textures. José Serebrier conducts the Bournemouth SO in thrilling performances, passionate in a genuinely Stokowskian manner, and is treated to orchestral sound of demonstration quality.
Stokowski’s aim was to provide more satisfying orchestral items in concerts than the popular ‘bleeding chunks’. So in the most ambitious item, on Tristan, we have between the Prelude and Liebestod a rich orchestral version of the Love Duet. Where the end of the duet builds up to that chilling interruption from King Marke, Stokowski has it lead seamlessly into the equivalent passage in the Liebestod. It works superbly.
The selection starts excitingly with the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla and it is good to find Serebrier splendidly adding an anvil when Donner brings his hammer down. The Parsifal synthesis is limited to music from Act 3, thus ignoring the Good Friday Music. From Die Walküre comes the Magic Fire Music and, most excitingly, the Ride of the Valkyries. This is the finest of Naxos’s Stokowski discs to date.
Der Ring des Nibelungen – orchestral highlights. Coupled with Siegfried Idyll
Staatskapelle Dresden / Donald Runnicles
Warner Apex 2564 68043-4 (74’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Recorded live, this is a splendid collection of orchestral highlights from The Ring (Ride of the Valkyries, Forest Murmurs, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March, etc), with a suave reading of the Siegfried Idyll. Terrific sound.