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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (excerpts)
Die Walküre: The Ride of the Valkyries [5’22"]
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [8’25"]
Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [11’36"]
Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Procession [12’57"]
Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene* [20’12"]
*Deborah Polaski (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Recorded in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in October 1991
WARNER CLASSICS ELATUS 0927-46734-2 [60’02"]


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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 cycle.

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 the textures.

‘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 past majestically.

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 this. Recommended.

John Quinn

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