The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a long Wagner tradition.
In particular this was fostered by two previous Music Directors, Fritz
Reiner and Sir George Solti, noted Wagnerians both. However, until I read
the notes accompanying this CD I was not aware that the orchestra had
included music by Wagner (A Faust Overture) in its very first concert.
This was conducted by the CSO’s founding conductor, Theodore Thomas who
was himself a long-standing Wagner enthusiast. As this CD shows, the tradition
is being carried on very effectively by the orchestra’s current Music
Director, Daniel Barenboim. This is unsurprising since Barenboim has conducted
a good deal of Wagner in the theatre, including appearances at Bayreuth.
He has also recorded several operas, including a complete Ring
These reissued performances come from fairly early
on in the Barenboim/Chicago partnership (he succeeded Solti at the start
of the 1991-92 season). However, he had conducted the orchestra before
then as a guest and it’s evident that a good rapport between podium
and players had already been established, enabling Barenboim to exploit,
to the full, the virtuosity of his band.
The partnership produces an energetic and exciting
‘Ride of the Valkyries’. I particularly liked the way Barenboim ensures
that the underlying string rhythms are cleanly articulated as this gives
the all-important forward momentum to the piece. The recording is well
balanced so that the brass section, whilst powerful, doesn’t dominate
‘Forest Murmurs’ is distinguished firstly by a seductive
carpet of string sound. Later on there is some fine solo work from various
quarters and I’d single out for special mention the short, rapt violin
solo (track 2, 3’16"). From 3’47" onwards, the wind players
suggest bird song beautifully. Overall, a most atmospheric performance.
The remainder of the programme is drawn from the climax
of the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung. In the opening ‘Dawn’
music, starting from quiet stirrings Barenboim builds the texture impressively
until we reach an imposing, sonorous dawn. As the anonymous note-writer
puts it "there is no sleeping through a Wagnerian daybreak"
to which I would add: certainly not in Chicago! The Rhine Journey itself
is appropriately urgent and impulsive and the waters of the Rhine roll
Most Wagner anthologies which contain ‘Siegfried’s
Funeral Music’ include just the funeral march. However Barenboim begins
earlier with the music which accompanies the hero’s dying words so we
get an extra four minutes of music before the cortège is formed.
I’m not entirely sure I see the point of this. The Funeral Music itself
is most impressive; arguably you need an orchestra with the power of
the CSO really to deliver this music to its full effect. Barenboim paces
the music admirably and the CSO brass pours out a thunderous funeral
oration. One of the most awesome passages in the entire tetralogy is
done full justice here.
The programme ends with ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation
Scene’ for which the orchestra is joined by Deborah Polaski. She is
an ardent heroine and she gives full vent to Brünnhilde’s emotions.
She is supported powerfully by the CSO and Barenboim conducts with sweep
and passion. All concerned build and then maintain the tension very
strongly. As Brünnhilde approaches her end Barenboim achieves the
right balance between grandeur, tragedy and apocalyptic drama and the
final catharsis is powerfully but not hysterically done.
This issue offers consistently impressive playing,
good sound and a bargain price tag. Though the catalogue contains many
CDs of Wagnerian "bleeding chunks" this one is well worth
considering by any collector wanting a good quality collection like