Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi Overture [11:33]
Tannhäuser: Overture [14:47]; Prelude to Act III [8:18]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I [9:57]; Prelude to Act III [3:01]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act I [10:58]; Dance of the Apprentices and Entry of the Masters [6:52]
Parsifal: Prelude to Act I [13:07]
Der Fliegende Holländer: Overture [10:49]
Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla [8:13]
Der Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries [2:55]
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [8:28]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [6:08]; Siegfried’s Funeral March [7:39]
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod [15:48]
Siegfried Idyll [17:51]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 1960-1961
EMI CLASSICS 6318272 [79:16 + 78:55]

I only heard Klemperer conducting Wagner live once, in the Royal Festival Hall when he was recording Der Fliegende Holländer. It left a tremendous impression and I have seldom heard the composer conducted with such passion and understanding. It remains a matter of infinite regret that EMI did not record more complete Wagner operas, or even more whole Acts; Testament have Act 1 of Der Walküre and there are some earlier live recordings from his time in the 1940s in Budapest but that is all apart from Der Fliegende Holländer. They did however record the series of orchestral excerpts that are collected on these two very well filled discs. It is perhaps best simply to be grateful that these exist rather than to continue pondering what else might have been.

At one time there was a seemingly unending demand for “bleeding chunks” of Wagner to include in orchestral concerts, including the regular Wagner nights at the Proms. Such brief delights as the “Chorus of the Flower Maidens” and “Procession of the Grail” from Parsifal, or the “Shepherd’s song” from Tannhäuser were heard regularly, although if you were very (un?)lucky you might get something like Morena’s “Souvenirs de Bayreuth”, a grand and wholly tasteless selection from all Wagner’s mature operas in chronological order. Fortunately we are spared these on the present discs which concentrate on the usual Overtures, Preludes and other more satisfactory extracts such the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried’s Funeral March. All are given superbly lucid performances in recordings which allow both the depth of the orchestra’s tone and the complexity of the orchestration to be fully displayed. They are about half a century old but I would doubt whether anyone interested in these discs primarily for the music-making on them would have any concerns about the quality of the recording. In particular improvements in the last fifty years have not always matched the care for balance we find here.

The brief but interesting notes on the performances by John Lucas rightly draw attention to Klemperer’s long experience of conducting Wagner, right from his first Lohengrins when he was only 24 and including all the mature operas before he was 30. This certainly shows in his immense care and understanding over pacing, phrasing and balance. Despite his reputation these performances in general are not unusually slow but the speeds chosen always allow sufficient time to articulate the music and to balance its various musical strands properly. Klemperer was not one of those conductors who tried to obtain always a thoroughly blended sound in the wood wind and brass; on the contrary he encouraged the individuality of the instruments to appear. The Overtures to the two earliest operas here - Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer show this particularly well, and both are unusually exciting as a result.

One especial delight here is the Siegfried Idyll, played with solo strings as at the first performance, and not unduly indulged with the slow speeds which many modern conductors prefer. Its sheer beauty of tone and clear musical narrative make it worth the price for the set on its own. These are recordings that should be on the shelves of any admirer of the composer whatever dark thoughts may keep surfacing about the Wagner that Klemperer was never given the opportunity to record.

John Sheppard

Should be on the shelves of any admirer of the composer.