> Richard Wagner - Overtures and Preludes [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger con Nürnberg – Prelude to Act I
Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Funeral Music, Act III
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude to Act I
Der Fliegende Holländer – Overture
Tannhäuser – Overture (Dresden version)
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act III
Siegfried Idyll
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Karl Muck
Recorded 1927-29
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110858 [75’43]


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This reissue neatly complements Naxos’s realisation of Muck’s 1927/28 recording of Parsifal (coupled with the Good Friday Music with Kipnis and conducted by Siegfried Wagner and the 1913 Orchestral Suite, hardly vital but worth having, conducted by Alfred Herz in 1913 – Naxos 8.110049/50).

This constitutes the bulk of Muck’s relatively small but distinguished discography – doubtless some of the Boston recordings are still available; his 1917 discs there were the first major orchestral recordings in America. Karl Muck sported a natty set of duelling scars, it’s said, the legacy of his Heidelberg youth and his physiognomy prompted many a scandalous allegation that he was Wagner’s illegitimate son. This romantic profile was hardly breached even by his more scatological and splenetic rostrum outbursts or by his addiction to nicotine – he smoked five packs a day (surviving despite the fury and the cigarettes to the age of eighty). Arrested and interned in War-hysterical America (at one stage he was even accused of attempting to blow up Longfellow’s birthplace) he spent the bulk of 1918 incarcerated in Georgia, a signally bizarre fate for a man who had been principal conductor of the Berlin State Opera and who had conducted the Russian premieres of the Ring in 1889.

It’s tempting to see in Muck’s astutely objective readings a kind of anti-Romantic, proto-Toscaninian interpreter. Certainly even an observer as elevated as Weingartner analysed Muck’s performances and judged him to be the most conscientious conductor he’d known – which is not, obviously, the same thing as inspired or revealing – but does reflect admirable qualities in Muck’s musicianship that these recordings bear out. His measured and long breathed approach is not devoid of rhythmic impetus – far from it; Toscanini himself could be a notoriously slow Wagnerian at Bayreuth – and Muck’s Parsifal, as preserved on disc, is notably buoyant and flexible, its forward motion sounding overwhelmingly right. The excerpts presented here are, again, indicative of Muck’s assiduous intelligence. Orchestral sonorities are most impressive; ensemble discipline is high, contemporary performance practices such as mass portamenti notably absent, strings clean-limbed. Tempi are well chosen; Lohengrin is especially successful, never over pressed and the nobility that emerges from Muck’s performance is untainted by grandiloquence and easy bluster. Conductor of Parsifal at Bayreuth for nearly thirty years, Muck’s Wagnerian roots were deep, his championing authoritative and unquestionable. These impressive sounding readings – in equally sonorous transfers – still have much to offer to those interested in performance style, Wagnerian conducting practice and clarity of musical understanding.

Jonathan Woolf

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