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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg: Finale (excerpts) (Act III) (1868) [17:01]; The Flying Dutchman: Chorus of Norwegian Sailors and Girls (Act III) (1843) [12:36]; Tannhäuser: Procession into the Hall of Song (Act II, scene 4) (1845) [6:18]; Lohengrin: Bridal Procession (Act II, scene 4) (1850) [6:27]; Rienzi: The Messengers of Peace (Act II) (1842) [11:27]; Parsifal: The Journey to Montsalvat (Act I) (1882) [23:50]
Soloists and Chorus of the Royal Swedish Opera
Göran Eliasson [tenor, David (Mastersingers) and Steersman (Dutchman)]
Lars Cleveman [tenor, Rienzi]
Marianne Hellgren Staykov [soprano, Messenger of Peace (Rienzi)]
Lennart Forsén [bass, Gurnemanz (Parsifal)]
John Erik Eleby [bass, Titurel (Parsifal)]
Royal Swedish Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
rec. Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, Sweden, 14-20 March 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557714 [77:49]


Putting together a CD of excerpts from the operas of Richard Wagner is tricky at best.  Finding an excerpt of both appropriate length and consistent dramatic interest is a particular problem since in Wagner’s later operas there is rarely a cadence that lends itself to being “the end” of an excerpt; thus the need for a nearly twenty-four minute excerpt of Parsifal.  Also, there are many instances when the tonal framework of a scene is not in sync with the dramatic action of the opera.  Those listeners who have heard of Wagner’s philosophical concept of opera as a “total art work” may wonder whether or not a CD of excerpts from Wagner’s Music Dramas is not a decidedly “un-Wagnerian” concept.  To those devoted Wagnerites I would say, do not despair, Leif Segerstam and the Royal Swedish Opera have put together a beautifully executed program that will be equally enjoyable for either the novice or the seasoned Wagnerian. 

Wagner himself was a well known publicity hound, and would likely have jumped at the chance to reap the benefits of a CD such as this one.  With so many orchestral Wagner choices on the market, it is refreshing to find a release that takes advantage of the consistently high quality material that he wrote for chorus.  It seems to me that this is the perfect vehicle with which one could introduce a friend or acquaintance to Wagner’s music.  Each excerpt is musically exciting, there is singing involved - which is not always the case with CDs called “so-and-so without words” flooding the market - and the performances are uniformly excellent.

The musical problem of ending each excerpt is handled in a variety of ways, depending on the dramatic situation, but always with good taste and what seems to be an earnest concern for the integrity of the music.  For example, the end of the Sailor’s chorus from the Flying Dutchman sounds as if the orchestra simply stops while in the middle of a modulating passage (not on a tonic chord) leaving the listener in suspense, much like the sailors who are waiting for an answer from the Dutchman’s ship.  In the final section of the excerpt from Lohengrin, comes a classic Wagnerian moment in which the orchestra ends a long cadential passage with a chord other than the tonic. This allows a seamless transition into the next dramatic situation. Maestro Segerstam substitutes a tonic chord at the end of the passage to give the listener the appropriate sense of finality for the excerpt.

Unfortunately, the program notes offer no discussion of how or why certain musical choices were made.  The booklet begins with an essay titled “Wagner and the Royal Swedish Opera” provided by Stefan Johansson, the “Head of Dramaturgy at the Royal Swedish Opera”, in which there is an account of the “Swedish Wagnerian tradition”. This lines includes such legendary names as Birgit Nilsson, Torsten Ralf, Set Svanholm, Kerstin Thorborg, Gösta Winbergh and many others.  Although this essay is well written and very informative, it seems to have little to do with the specific contents of the CD at hand.  Of course if this was an historical release including performances by any of the names mentioned in the essay, it would be a welcome addition to the release. However, as it stands, the essay reads more like a marketing gimmick than a program note.  After this, there are a number of shorter items including basic background information and a plot synopsis for each opera. This is ably provided by Gunilla Petersén, the “Programme Editor at the Royal Swedish Opera”.

James Wintle

see also Review by Robert J Farr


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