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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overtures: Rienzi, King Enzio, Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden love), The Fairies, Christoph Columbus, Faust
Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Rahbari (conductor)
Recorded at the Teatro Cervantes, Malaga, Spain, 2nd to 4th April 2002 DDD
NAXOS 8.557055 [59’ 06"]

On encountering a disc entitled "Wagner's overtures", one immediately expects to see such favourites as Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and so on. Not so in this case, as Naxos have here assembled quite an unusual selection of Wagner’s earlier overtures, including Rienzi, Faust, King Enzio, The Ban on Love, The Fairies and Christoph Columbus. The combination of the extremely capable Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra under their principal conductor Alexander Rahbari is already known to the CD market for their recent recordings of two Puccini operas, also for Naxos.

Rienzi, which opens the CD, and is probably the best-known of the overtures gathered here, is based on the 1835 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, seen by some as a pioneer of the science fiction novel. Some of the recent Wagner opera productions seem to reflect this association! Rienzi was Wagner’s first major success, yet the composer was still feeling his way, and the work was but a shadow of the great things yet to come. He was living at that time in Paris, and had intentionally set out to write a French-style opera after Meyerbeer as an audience-pleaser. The overture reflects some of the weaknesses in the score, and to counter this necessitates a passionate and committed performance, which we certainly get here on Naxos.

The other works on this disc are of an even earlier vintage. Wagner wrote the Overture to King Enzio not long after leaving Leipzig University at the age of 18. At this time he was obsessed with Beethoven, even writing a piano transcription of his 9th Symphony, of which he arranged performances in the 1840s when it was still seen by many to be unplayable. King Enzio is a play with a rather similar plot to Fidelio, and the overture has definite Beethoven overtones. It shows the young composer with a good grasp of dramaticism and orchestration, and is here given an exemplary performance.

Die Liebesverbot (Forbidden love), the next work on this disc, is based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Shakespeare had also proved to be a great influence on Wagner but unfortunately his influence in this work did not extend to ensuring the work's success. The first couple of performances were fairly disastrous, with almost empty houses and last-minute cancellations after the tenor was attacked by the prima donna’s jealous husband! In fact, the premiere performance played a large part in bankrupting the Magdeburg Opera Company! The overture itself is not a poor work, and has definite promise. As with all the pieces on this disc, the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra give an accomplished and dedicated rendition.

The next two overtures Die Feen (The fairies) and Christoph Columbus are also very early works, competently written and proficiently played. Die Feen, although not performed until after Wagner’s death, was his first complete opera, with his own libretto, based on a play by Gozzi and greatly influenced by Weber. Christoph Columbus, on the other hand, was a play written by Wagner’s friend and near-contemporary, Theodor Apel, who, obviously with a vested interest, facilitated the work’s performance by assisting with generous financial contributions.

The final work on this disc, Faust, is all that remains of Wagner's attempt to emulate Berlioz in the field of the tormented and doom-laden dramatic symphony. It is a reworking of the first movement of his abandoned 1839 Faust Symphony, and has a lugubrious air similar to the Flying Dutchman, yet without the all-important notion of eventual salvation. By 1855, when this work was written, Wagner had already established himself as the most innovative and forward-thinking operatic composer of the 19th century, and to my mind, this short work is much the most successful work on this CD. It gives the Malaga Orchestra and Alexander Rahbari the chance to play a truly mature Wagner work, and they do it magnificently, rounding off a highly successful and unusual, albeit slightly heavy, disc. It would have been very welcome to hear the orchestra playing, in addition, some more familiar Wagner overtures and, at just under one hour on this disc, there is plenty of room for another overture.

Although a couple of the works played here are also available on other CDs with conductors as great as Bohm, Klemperer, Stokowski, Beecham and Toscanini (and it is difficult competing with such names, especially with the outstanding orchestral forces they will have available), you will not find this compilation anywhere else, so for Wagner devotees the disc is a must!

Em Marshall


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