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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser overture (1845) [15:24]
Lohengrin prelude to Act 1 (1850) [9:17]
The Flying Dutchman overture (1843) [11:03]
Rienzi overture (1837) [12:17]
Parsifal prelude to Act 1 (1882) [10:11]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Hiroshi Wakasugi (Tannhäuser and Rienzi)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Otmar Suitner (Lohengrin)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Franz Konwitschny (The Flying Dutchman)
Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Kegel (Parsifal)
rec. venues not stated, 1960 (The Flying Dutchman), 1973 (Lohengrin), 1977 (Parsifal), 1985 (Tannhäuser and Rienzi)


Experience Classicsonline

Orchestras and conductors have been recording Wagner – his overtures or those infamous “bleeding chunks” – ever since the dawn of recording.  So, with many decades worth of accounts already set down and preserved for posterity, any new entrants to the crowded field need to be pretty confident of their artistic credentials to justify the venture.

Let’s be frank. These recordings do not offer any earth-shattering performances that will have you ditching Furtwängler, Stokowski, Klemperer, Karajan, Ormandy, Tennstedt or any other idiosyncratic choice of your own - for me it’s the long-forgotten Max von Schillings on the Preiser label. 

But that’s not to say that these accounts are not worth a mention.  On the contrary, each of them offers interesting, well-played and well-recorded music-making that will certainly not disappoint – and may actually delight – a purchaser. 

Of the four conductors involved, it is the least known but most recently recorded, Hiroshi Wakasugi, a Japanese who spent the 1980s largely working in Germany - both East and West - and Switzerland, who makes possibly the strongest impact.  His Tannhäuser and Rienzi overtures are characterised by careful phrasing and deliberate tempi: even Otto Klemperer – never known as a speed merchant – takes significantly less time over each of them in his splendid accounts from the early 1960s that have now been collected together as one of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century (EMI 5678932).  But Wakasugi’s speeds entirely suit these particular pieces and the Dresden players respond superbly to his direction. 

Herbert Kegel and Otmar Suitner both spent most of their professional careers behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, so neither man acquired the high profiles that their musicianship would probably have gained them elsewhere.  Even when Kegel’s recordings were marketed in the west, it was done in a comparatively low profile manner.  Appearing seemingly out of nowhere on the super-budget Capriccio label, his wholly admirable complete set of Beethoven symphonies, for instance, looked simply too good to be true and went, at the time, largely unregarded.  Meanwhile, in 1990, the same year that stanch communist Kegel committed suicide as the Berlin Wall was coming down, Otmar Suitner gave up his post as head of the (East) Berlin State Opera and, shortly thereafter, was forced by illness to bring his conducting career to an end.  Thus he too, in spite a rather higher profile in the west thanks to recordings on Denon and even Deutsche Grammophon, never achieved his due recognition. 

Their tracks on this new disc demonstrate, though, that each man was far more than merely competent on the conductor’s podium.  Of course, the musical intensity of the Lohengrin and Parsifal preludes pose very different – and arguably greater - musical challenges than those faced by Wakasugi in his allocated repertoire.  But the extra years of experience clocked up by Kegel (b. 1920) and Suitner (b. 1922) mean that each gets right to the heart of the appropriate idiom. 

From a generation earlier, Franz Konwitschny spent almost all his career in the top echelons of East German musical life, leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1949-1962), the Dresden Staatskapelle (1953-1955) and the Berlin State Opera (1955-1962).  With such a workload – and with a taste for excessive alcohol that supposedly gained him the nickname Kon-whisky – it is perhaps not surprising that he lived the shortest life of any of the conductors under consideration here.  Readers familiar with his 1960 EMI recordings of The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser (both sadly let down by some poor singing) will need no convincing of his rare merits as a Wagnerian: never a flashy interpreter, his interpretations are characterised by care, restraint and sophisticated orchestral colouring.  As in all tracks on this disc, the orchestra plays very well indeed and the recording belies its age. 

You will have gathered that, in spite of its rather short measure at less than 60 minutes of music, I enjoyed this disc a great deal.  The four conductors represented may not be particularly big names in the 21st century but all are well worth hearing.  By all means keep your CDs of Klemperer, Solti or Karajan (or even von Schillings!), but if you are looking for a sound – and even, at times, inspiring – account of these pieces, you could certainly do a lot worse than consider this one.

Rob Maynard


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