It is somewhat difficult to critique historical recordings.
They have obviously stood the test of time, or they would not still
be of interest. Since early recordings are dominated by the core classical
and romantic repertoire, we have the advantage of hearing interpretations
that are far less removed from the composers themselves. Toscanini,
for example, was the personal friend of Puccini and Verdi, which lends
his interpretations of their works a degree of authority that cannot
be achieved by younger musicians. Karl Muck, born in 1859, would have
had the opportunity to hear Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner perform their
own music, or at least to have heard performances that were under the
supervision of the composers.
It is wonderfully revelatory then to listen to these
performances of Wagner excerpts as led by a conductor whose career was
centered on the works of Wagner and Bruckner. After hearing these recordings,
I for one, hope that our present crop of conductors will take the time
to give these fascinating renditions a good listen.
Although in his later years, he became somewhat notorious
for overly grand tempi in Wagner, Muck does not allow this already highly
charged music to become over-ripe. These performances are solid and
well grounded, and on the whole, amazingly straightforward. I found
myself wanting a bit more gravitas in Siegfried’s Funeral music, but
on the whole, these readings land squarely in the domain of "exactly
what is needed." More rousing pieces such as the Flying Dutchman
overture and the Meistersinger prelude rip right along with all the
vigour one could want. I found the Siegfried Idyll to be utterly charming.
Muck was a demanding taskmaster, and would not stand for any kind of
inferiority from his players, recording engineers, or other collaborators.
This perfectionism shows in these clean, well-articulated performances.
I have, for some years now been a fan of historical
recordings. Their novelty alone is enough to capture my attention, but
as an amateur historian of recorded sound, I am ceaselessly amazed at
just how much information is contained in the grooves of those old records.
These discs, prepared by Mark Obert-Thorn are absolutely outstanding
as concerns the quality of the sound, the reduction of noise and the
fidelity to the original engineer’s efforts.
The praise of Naxos is to be sung again for bringing
us this fantastic library of historical discs, mastered by the world’s
leaders in the field of preservation and restoration, and all at a price
that makes it well worth the risk of purchase. If Naxos continues to
plumb the archives and release this fine a product, then I see no need
to spend the full price that other historical specialty labels charge
for the same recordings.
For Wagner fans and history buffs alike, this is a
must-have disc, along with Muck’s lengthy Parsifal excerpt also available
from this label (8.110049-50), which contains the only extant recording
of the famous Bayreuth bells that were lost in WWII. Recommended without