Rightly or wrongly, I tend to dismiss on sight
cheap-looking CDs purveying chunks of Wagner’s orchestral music,
especially those where no orchestra is credited on the cover.
‘Never dive into murky waters’ being an adage which holds true
in a variety of situations. However, you should have no such concerns
regarding this disc.
It is true to say that the distributor (Classic
Collection) will not garner a reputation for generosity based
on the single sheet, flimsy, piece of paper in the jewel case
(to call it a liner note would be to gild a non-existent lily).
It carries no note whatever of the music, the composer or musicians.
Bad luck if you are dipping a toe into Wagner’s waters and wanted
to do so informed about the musical realm you were about to enter.
Look elsewhere, would be my advice. Nor do they go to the top
of the class for spelling (Forest murmers, indeed?).
Wagner’s so-called "bleeding chunks"
are a competitive field - even in the budget price bracket. Starry
names abound here: Karajan, Solti, Szell and Klemperer with the
likes of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, Cleveland Orchestra
and the irreproachable 1960s Philharmonia providing the goods
in splendid readings which all wear their years lightly. So, is
David about to be mauled for having the temerity to take on these
orchestral Goliaths? Not a bit of it.
The demise of Collins Classics meant their catalogue
falling into that netherworld of unavailability: a pity in the
case of a recording like this one. Recorded I think in the 1980s
(the sleeve note, such as it is, giving no indication), in wonderful
digital sound, Yuri Simonov leads the Philharmonia in undeniably
inspired readings of these pieces.
The disc opens with the Act I prelude from Parsifal.
My immediate point of reference here is the superlative Karajan
performance, with the BPO, taken from his full recording of the
opera (DG, 1980). The sound drawn from the Berliners in his recording
is truly hors concours, transporting the listener to that
mystical, medieval world of divine love and redemption. Simonov’s
interpretation is also beautifully conceived, long-breathed and
ineffably paced. The Philharmonia respond eloquently to every
nuance of this music, summoning up Wagner’s distinctive sound
with real conviction. The string section shimmers, creating the
musical equivalent of a heat haze while the brass players provide
the awe-inspiring depth of nobility the work demands. The Berliners
also recorded the piece under Furtwängler (in 1938, now on
an EMI Références 2 CD set) which, despite its age,
shows clearly what set him apart from other interpreters in this
music. The phrase ‘Holy Writ’ cannot be avoided here. The whole
prelude is satisfyingly shaped and Simonov’s reading (at 14’26"),
perhaps surprisingly, comes in a shade more leisurely than either
Karajan (14’14") or Klemperer (here a uncharacteristically
sprightly, though by no means rushed, 13’05" with the same
orchestra in 1961 on EMI). Still, in fairness, timings are of
little consequence in this prelude. What matters is does it move
you? Does it leave you yearning to hear the entire opera? Simonov
ticks both the boxes and with a flourish.
The mood shifts by track 2, as dark thunder clouds
obscure the mountain tops as we are set upon by a squadron of
behelmeted Valkyries in the ubiquitous Ride of the Valkyries from
Die Walküre. A piece which I thought, owing to its over-exposure,
had lost some of its inherent ability to set our pulses racing.
Not so here. With the vaulting rhythm magnificently conveyed,
the brass are fittingly resounding and the strings play with abandon:
their lithe, coruscating downward scales slashing through the
music’s fabric helping engender a near-hysterical level of tension
Balm is applied to our fevered brows by track
3 with the arrival of the Waldweben (Forest murmurs) from Act
2 of Siegfried. Languorous and becalmed in a bucolic setting,
the Philharmonia’s distinguished woodwind section have a field
day with the birdsong, underpinned by gently swelling strings.
The wind soloists work together summoning up a kaleidoscopic evocation
of nature. The whole piece is imbued with great tenderness and
beauty. As for the competition here, Klemperer, Szell and Boult
(on EMI with the LPO) all offer satisfying alternatives, but Simonov
stands alongside in terms of finesse and refinement.
In Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (from Götterdämmerung),
the Philharmonia chart with an impassioned assurance the eponymous
hero’s epic passage from Brünnhilde’s fire-besieged rock
to the Gibichung castle. This reading is actually Dawn and the
Rhine journey, weighing in as it does at 12’52" and is brilliantly
handled. Again, the pacing is judicious, allowing the full majesty
of the music to take its grip on the listener’s consciousness.
The Philharmonia seem to revel in showcasing their jaw-dropping
virtuosity - and well they might! Listen as they build the music
to a breathtaking climax, with brass chorales so vivid and present
the listener could bite a chunk off them, before unleashing the
full might of their orchestral ferocity (track 4, 5’30").
The horn calls would, I am sure, have earned the approval of the
spectral Dennis Brain (that `Siegfried of the Horn’ as Beecham
dubbed him), were he to hear them. Such wonderful solo contributions
make it all-the-more aggrieving that no credit is given to the
players responsible. Alternative performances which should find
an honoured place in any collection must surely include Furtwängler’s
phenomenal reading with the VPO from 1949 (Testament), Szell’s
impressive outing with the boys from Cleveland on budget priced
Sony and Karajan’s refurbished offering with the Berliners from
his complete 1960s Ring cycle (also available in highlight format).
For novelty value alone, I would also include the foundation-rocking
Decca ‘Phase 4 stereo’ recording with the LSO under a vigorous
Stokowski, where Barry Tuckwell’s solo horn almost sits in your
lap, such is the brilliant, but ludicrous, 1960s overmiking! Regrettably
no longer in the catalogue, it is well worth keeping an eye out
for second hand.
Siegfried’s funeral music is astonishingly well
played and conducted. The marmoreal splendour of the scene is
brilliantly caught, with the recording venue (again, sadly missing
from the sleeve), adding a wonderful sense of spaciousness to
the acoustic: the whole orchestral sound superbly haloed. The
digital recording, unlike many hailing from the new recording
method’s infancy, is full-bodied, wide ranging and formidably
detailed. The tragic grandeur of the hero’s laying-to-rest is
marvellously conveyed from the very opening bars and while no-one
can oust Georg Szell in my affections, Simonov’s reading is its
equal in almost every way. The sound is, naturally, an improvement
on the CBS/Sony disc which is now beginning to show its age a
little (though I understand an SACD is now available, which may
well counteract any slight misgivings in this field).
The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan is another
exquisitely drawn performance with the sublimely wistful strings
etching deep the notions of spiritual and temporal love. Simonov,
once again, guides his players with an unerring grasp of tempo
and together they deliver an interpretation of rare beauty. Herbert
von Karajan will, in the minds of many listeners, justifiably
stand astride these pieces, if not the whole Wagnerian oeuvre,
as its ultimate interpreter. His many recordings of the Prelude
and Liebestod, for instance, stand testimony to this opinion.
They are intoxicating, peerlessly played and of such elevated
understanding as to render other interpretations all but superfluous.
Whilst Simonov may not have the insight Karajan brought to these
pieces - and unless one had lived and breathed with them for fifty
years as he had that is scarcely surprising - the Philharmonia
under his guidance give us a recording of great delicacy allied
with a purity of intonation which can make one radically rethink
Even at mid price this CD would make an excellent
purchase, but its budget price tag renders it a worry-free option.
Anyone wanting Wagnerian orchestral music in spectacular digital
sound, under the guidance of an intuitive and responsive conductor,
need look no further. The disc is well-filled and the bloom on
the recording makes this music-making, which is of a rare order,
an unalloyed pleasure. Yes, the dealers’ shelves are groaning
under the weight of Wagnerian highlights discs, but I would contend
that few would give you such enduring pleasure for so little financial
The CD jewel case is presented in an entirely
unnecessary cardboard slipcase, while any attempt at liner notes
- which can do so much to put magnificent pieces like this into
context - have been eschewed. I have lost count of the instances
when I have heard Wagner dismissed by the uninitiated as "heavy-going".
A CD like this should convince those doubters that he is anything
but: epic, magisterial and awe-inspiring this unique sound world
handsomely repays all who immerse themselves in it. What a pity
that the fledgling listener couldn’t have had his/her initial
interest rewarded with an accompanying booklet. After all, isn’t
that how most of us started out on this long and gratifying road?
Richard Lee-Van den Daele