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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi: Overture (1842) [12:00]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I (1850) [8:58]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III (1850) [2:58]
Parsifal: Prelude to Act I (1882) [13:27]
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I (1865) [10:42]
Eine Faust-Overtüre (1840) [11:52]
Die Feen: Overture (1833) [10:56]
Kinderkatechismus (1873) [2:24]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act I (1868) [9:11]
Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music [21:56]
Der fliegende Höllander: Overture (1841) [10:32]
Symphony in C Major (1832) [41:55]
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta (Rienzi); Wiener Philharmoniker/Zubin Mehta (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Meistersinger); Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti (Tristan); San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Faust, Symphony); Concertgebouw Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Tannhäuser, Feen, Holländer); Wiener Sängerknaben with members of the Wiener Philharmoniker (Kinderkatechismus).
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, June 1966 (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Meistersinger); October 1961 (Tristan), March – April 1968 (Kinderkatechismus); Royce Hall: University of California, Los Angeles, USA, April 1973 (Rienzi); Concertgebouw: Grote Zaal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, September 1979 (Tannhäuser, Feen, Holländer); San Francisco, October 1982 (Faust, Symphony). ADD/DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8283 [78:56 + 78:39]

This well filled pair of discs replaces Australian Eloquence's previous single-disc compilation of Wagner's overtures and preludes conducted by Sir Georg Solti and Horst Stein (Decca Eloquence 460 510-2 - nla).
The obvious question when faced with a release like this is, do I really need yet another compilation of Wagner preludes and overtures? The answer in this case is yes, for two reasons. Firstly, this compilation features a few unusual and relatively rare works. The expected bleeding chunks of the Ring are conspicuous by their absence, and the Tristan prelude appears sans Liebestod. In their place are the overture to Wagner's early opera, Die Feen, a couple of early pieces of concert music, namely Eine Faust-Overtüre and the Symphony in C Major, and a tiny song composed for the home. The second reason to acquire this release is that all but the last of these rarities and a couple of other tracks are conducted by Edo de Waart, one of the most exciting and most underrated of contemporary Wagnerians.
Let's deal with his recordings first. The Concertgebouw recordings included here are old favourites of mine. I have long worn out my Philips cassette of these taut, urgent performance of the overtures to Die Feen and the Flying Dutchman and the music from Tannhäuser, so it is wonderful to welcome them back to CD.
Raymond Tuttle's otherwise excellent, if necessarily brief, liner notes make no mention of Die Feen. Wagner wrote it at the tender age of twenty as his first full opera. The themes and the story itself are consistent with those of Wagner's mature operas. Lohengrin and Tannhäuser in particular loom large on the horizon. A human king falls in love with a fairy, but is forbidden to ask who she really is. Of course, his curiosity pushes him to ask the unaskable question, and their love is tested for the rest of the opera until all is resolved and the king joins his fairy love as an immortal. The overture to Die Feen leaps from the speakers, in a fresh, lively performance. This is early Wagner and shows very much his debt to Weber, but it is distinctive nonetheless, with a catchy, leaping, gushing melodic line in the strings that stays with you.
De Waart generates great heat in the Tannhäuser music. He is less affectionate in the overture than others – Tennstedt for example – and takes more headlong tempi as a result, but with no loss of colour or passion. He is dreamier in the Venusberg Music, though. His account of the overture to the Flying Dutchman is urgent and windswept, with proud and portentous trumpets and horns cutting through the orchestral textures like a cold wind. Throughout, the playing of the orchestra is simply spectacular, with the winds forward in the mix and especially characterful. The early digital sonics still sound great.
The other de Waart items are both new to me and new to disc. Eine Faust-Ouverture is a Wagnerian tone poem, in the Liszt tradition, which makes it unusual. Wagner's inspiration to write it came from his attendance at a performance of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, a debt he never acknowledged, preferring to cite Beethoven's Ninth as his guiding light. He initially intended a Faust symphony, but contented himself with this overture, which would have been the first movement. This is darkly dramatic music, shot through with climbing violin lines reminiscent of the overture to Die Feen, building to a huge climax around the 8:50 mark and then fading blissfully away. There is more than a little Weber and Berlioz here, but this is still involving and, more importantly, memorable music.
The final de Waart recording is the Symphony in C, Wagner's only contribution to the genre. It is very much the work of a cocky 19 year old, assimilating the influences of Beethoven, Mozart and even - softly be it stated - Mendelssohn. The first movement opens with a succession of proud tutti chords, leading into a broad and thickly orchestrated sostenuto introduction, which gives way to a bright – and slightly trite – allegro con brio. The andante brings shades of the second movement of the Eroica though it never really develops into a funeral march. It is perhaps a little overlong to sustain its material, but becomes more interesting as it begins to build chromatically from about half way through. The third movement is perky and almost Mendelssohnian in its verve and skittishness, though the orchestration is much thicker than you would expect from Mendelssohn. This movement contains some of the most striking music in the symphony and de Waart and co give it maximum impact, hitting accents hard and caressing the contrasting lyrical passages. The finale is of a similar character and, though a touch derivative – it sounds a bit like Mozart re-orchestrated by Schalk in between rehashing Bruckner symphonies – when performed with such brio as it is here it is impossible not to enjoy it.
The symphony does not belong with the best of Wagner, but it is fascinating nonetheless, as it demonstrates the confidence and skill of the young composer and gives insight into his development as a composer, including the early influences he left behind. De Waart's conviction is persuasive and makes a strong case for this symphony. In fact, he and his San Francisco orchestra deliver stunning performances of both the symphony and the Faust overture. The orchestra plays, and blends, beautifully and the performances are recorded in clean clear digital sound. You could not really ask for more.
Clearly, this album is a must-have for Wagnerians for the de Waart recordings alone. But as well as de Waart's complete Wagner recordings for Philips, this release includes the substantial bonus of Mehta's complete Wagner recordings for Decca. Except for the Los Angeles Rienzi, all of these have appeared on Eloquence before: the overture to Meistersinger as a coupling for Mehta's Bruckner 4 (Decca Eloquence 461 356-2); the overture to Parsifal with Mehta's superb Vienna Bruckner 9 (Decca Eloquence 461 357-2); and the two Lohengrin preludes as fillers for Mehta's Mahler 4 (Decca Eloquence 467 235-2). All of these discs have been deleted by Eloquence, so it is nice to have these Wagner recordings restored to the active catalogue.
The Vienna recordings sound rich and warm and are really quite lovely. Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic have made some wonderful recordings together, not least the Bruckner 9 referred to above, and these Wagner performances are fluid, well played and carefully shaped. Both Lohengrin preludes are very good, the first distinguished by gossamer textures and the second bright and pacy, though the woodwinds do not sound fabulous in the gentle second subject. The Parsifal prelude is shimmeringly beautiful and this reading of the overture to Meistersinger is sturdy and celebratory.
As for Rienzi, the Los Angeles Philharmonic turns in a good performance, cleanly played but a little foursquare. The contrast with the Vienna Philharmonic in the other Mehta contributions – a darker, richer-sounding ensemble with heroic horns and silky strings – is not flattering, though the LA brass are a match for their Viennese counterparts. The 1967 sound perspective for the Vienna recordings is also more sympathetic, making the later LA recording sound flat and brash by comparison.
To be honest, you are unlikely to reach for these Mehta recordings in preference to, say, your favourite Szell, Klemperer or Tennstedt albums. These three generally outdo him in drama, grandeur and passion respectively, but Mehta – especially in the Vienna recordings – conjures a sensuous sound that is very much his own, and is well worth hearing.
Solti's contribution to this compilation is more problematic. The prelude to Act I of Tristan is taken from his recording of the opera, excerpts from which - including the prelude to Act I - have previously been reviewed in these pages. While the recording of the opera as a whole has been controversial, the prelude is fairly decent, but I agree with my colleague Göran Forsling that it is “almost restrained” and, without either the entire opera or at least the Liebestod to follow it, I find the prelude unfulfilling - as, of course, Wagner intended. Eloquence would perhaps have been better off retaining Horst Stein's recording of the Prelude and Liebestod from its previous Wagner compilation instead - not an ideal version, but a more satisfying musical experience overall. Putting aside issues of completeness, the Vienna Philharmonic plays well for Solti, but there is no lingering, and little teasing out of those tonally ambiguous harmonies. If you are violently opposed to excess of any kind, this may be the reading for you, but it is too straight-faced for me. Give me Tennstedt (EMI or LPO) or Karajan (EMI or Deutsche Grammophon) any day.
Two very full discs, then. But there is still one more item. Squeezed onto the end of the first disc is a tiny choral piece that was completely new to me. It does not really fit with the rest of the programme of big orchestral overtures, preludes and a symphony, but collectors will want it, for completeness and as another glimpse into the role music played in the private sphere of Wagner's life. The piece is a “children's catechism for Kosel's birthday”, Kosel being none other than the composer's wife Cosima. It was first performed by the Wagner children on Christmas Day 1873 and later revised to replace the piano accompaniment with a chamber ensemble. Like that other famous piece of intimate music, the Siegfried Idyll, this piece references the Ring, this time picking up at its close the dying sounds of Götterdämmerung. The solo treble in this performance is quite emphatic in his delivery but sings sweetly enough, more so when the small chorus joins him, though all singers are a little too closely miked. The playing of the chamber ensemble drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic is sweet-toned and secure and though the recorded sound is a little too brightly lit, it still sounds well.
If you are serious about your Wagner, this double CD set is an essential purchase.
Tim Perry


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