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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overtures and Preludes
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Act one prelude (recorded 1927); Götterdämmerung - Siegfried’s funeral music (recorded 1927); Tristan und Isolde - Prelude to Act I (1928); Der Fliegender Holländer - Overture (1928); Tannhäuser – Overture, Dresden version (1928); Lohengrin - Prelude to Act III (1929); Siegfried Idyll (1929)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Karl Muck
All recordings made in the Berlin Singakadamie, except Lohengrin and Siegfried Idyll, which were made in the Berlin Philharmonie
Mark Obert-Thorn, remastering engineer ADD

It is somewhat difficult to critique historical recordings. They have obviously stood the test of time, or they would not still be of interest. Since early recordings are dominated by the core classical and romantic repertoire, we have the advantage of hearing interpretations that are far less removed from the composers themselves. Toscanini, for example, was the personal friend of Puccini and Verdi, which lends his interpretations of their works a degree of authority that cannot be achieved by younger musicians. Karl Muck, born in 1859, would have had the opportunity to hear Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner perform their own music, or at least to have heard performances that were under the supervision of the composers.

It is wonderfully revelatory then to listen to these performances of Wagner excerpts as led by a conductor whose career was centered on the works of Wagner and Bruckner. After hearing these recordings, I for one, hope that our present crop of conductors will take the time to give these fascinating renditions a good listen.

Although in his later years, he became somewhat notorious for overly grand tempi in Wagner, Muck does not allow this already highly charged music to become over-ripe. These performances are solid and well grounded, and on the whole, amazingly straightforward. I found myself wanting a bit more gravitas in Siegfried’s Funeral music, but on the whole, these readings land squarely in the domain of "exactly what is needed." More rousing pieces such as the Flying Dutchman overture and the Meistersinger prelude rip right along with all the vigour one could want. I found the Siegfried Idyll to be utterly charming. Muck was a demanding taskmaster, and would not stand for any kind of inferiority from his players, recording engineers, or other collaborators. This perfectionism shows in these clean, well-articulated performances.

I have, for some years now been a fan of historical recordings. Their novelty alone is enough to capture my attention, but as an amateur historian of recorded sound, I am ceaselessly amazed at just how much information is contained in the grooves of those old records. These discs, prepared by Mark Obert-Thorn are absolutely outstanding as concerns the quality of the sound, the reduction of noise and the fidelity to the original engineer’s efforts.

The praise of Naxos is to be sung again for bringing us this fantastic library of historical discs, mastered by the world’s leaders in the field of preservation and restoration, and all at a price that makes it well worth the risk of purchase. If Naxos continues to plumb the archives and release this fine a product, then I see no need to spend the full price that other historical specialty labels charge for the same recordings.

For Wagner fans and history buffs alike, this is a must-have disc, along with Muck’s lengthy Parsifal excerpt also available from this label (8.110049-50), which contains the only extant recording of the famous Bayreuth bells that were lost in WWII. Recommended without reservation.

Kevin Sutton

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