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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Richard WAGNER (1813-1833)
Orchestral music from Parsifal, The Ring and Tristan

Parsifal: Act I Prelude
Der Ring des Nibelungen: Ride of the Valkyries; Forest murmurs; Siegfried’s Rhine journey; Siegfried’s funeral music
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Philharmonia/Yuri Simonov
licensed from Collins Classics DDD
CLASSIC COLLECTION 99887 [67.30]


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www.joanrecords.com

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 throughout.

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 preconceived notions.

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 outlay.

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



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