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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries [05:53], Rienzi: Overture [12:25], Der Fliegende Holländer: Overture [10:53], Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music [21:23], Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [09:58]*, Parsifal: Act 1: Prelude [14:21]
Franz Lechleitner (tenor)*
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Recorded in Vienna, June 24th 1950 (Parsifal, Siegfried, Rienzi), May 6th & 7th 1953 (the remainder), original Decca recordings
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0332 [74:37]
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On the rare occasions when I have been able to hear a Decca post-war 78 or early LP on modest equipment – the sort of equipment on which the average man would have heard it back in those days – I have been struck by how lifelike and vivid it sounded. All the more surprising, then, that people of my generation had to get to know these recordings with the seedy-sounding strings of their Ace of Clubs incarnations, not to speak of the fuzzy artificiality of the "electronically enhanced stereo" of their Eclipse successors. Nor have Decca’s own more recent efforts always been happy, their attempts to extract a frequency response that isn’t really there resulting in an unpleasant stridency in, for example, the Erich Kleiber "Rosenkavalier". I should add that I am speaking of early Deccas in general, not these particular ones which I don’t remember hearing before.

Whatever system Archipel have adopted – they call it "Hi-end restoration technology" – the results are pretty good. The brass in the opening "Ride of the Valkyries" leap out of the speakers – it’s a thrilling sound in itself. The strings are not exactly silky, but they are certainly not seedy either and have a convincingly full-blooded quality. In short, the recordings belie their years remarkably and take me back to the days of my teenage listening when loud meant bloody loud and damn the neighbours!

In my teenage years, though, I may not have been so responsive to Hans Knappertsbusch’s patient unfolding of these scores. Indeed, a little later, I remember how dismayed we students were when, following our complaints that the university library copy of "Parsifal" was worn out (what we really wanted was to hear it played faster), the librarian, bound by economics, simply bought a new copy of "Hans-dead-slow-Knappertsbusch", 1951.

Tempi are slow, certainly; the Valkyries do not whip and goad their steeds, they soar majestically above a sea of detail, the rhythmic propulsion coming from within the music, not applied from without. Rienzi has dignity and nobility wherever the tawdry music allows (the introduction, obviously, but a surprising amount of the rest); Senta sings dolefully but the Dutchman’s vessel is soon riding out a surging seascape. Slow, then, but never heavy. The pilgrims at the start of Tannhäuser have joy as well as dignity to their step and the Venusberg music packs a great punch.

About the Siegfried "Forest Murmurs" I am not so sure. After so much orchestral music Lechtleitner’s rather voice, reedy in piano and barking in forte, was an unpleasant intrusion and he is recorded far to close. Surely Siegfried himself should be murmuring against the variegated orchestral backdrop, and this is only possible when he is on stage, behind the orchestra, not up front, obscuring it, as here. Since this passage can now be heard in the context of Knappertsbusch’s Bayreuth "Ring", only completists will want this.

The spell having been broken, I found the Parsifal prelude too slow, the phrases just sitting side by side. In the theatre it no doubt came off – the official Bayreuth Parsifals under Knappertsbusch from 1951 and 1962 are legendary and at least four other performances are available from various sources. Here we are reminded, for the first time on this CD, that Knappertsbusch didn’t always find it easy to warm up in the studio. Still, the first four tracks of this disc more than justify purchase, for they overwhelmingly reflect the genius of the composer in remarkably good sound.

Grouches? Well, I have to say that, in the cases where I have an alternative performance under Furtwängler, it does seem to be a tad more overwhelming still. Without hustling the music, Furtwängler often manages to take to the air while Knappertsbusch keeps his feet firmly, if splendidly, on the ground. How spoilt for choice people were in those days!

The other grouch is the presentation, if a mere track list, recording dates and a photo of the conductor can be dignified by this term. The only other information vouchsafed is that the recordings are "issued from the original sources". I am sure Archipel have no intention to mislead, but some innocent people are going to think "original sources" means the original masters, yet I’d stake my life that Decca does not hand these over readily to Tom, Dick, Harry or Archipel. Presumably they mean original copies of the LPs, and they’ve certainly made a good job of it, but why can’t they take a look at the sort of annotation offered by Naxos and Living Era and follow suit?

Christopher Howell



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