Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act I Prelude [9:52]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [11:45]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Funeral March [6:41]
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod [14:53]
Siegfried Idyll [20:08]
Staatskapelle Berlin, Cologne Radio Orchestra (track 5)/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. live 7 May 1953, unspecified venue, Cologne (track 5); 11 November 1959, unspecified venue, Berlin (tracks 1-4)
DYNAMIC IDIS 6569 [63:17]

Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the giants of Wagnerian interpretation in the 1950s. He lead multiple Ring cycles at Bayreuth, at least three of which are available on compact disc, thanks to bootleg copies of radio broadcasts. He also recorded Parsifal for Philips. His resumé, were I to extend it to its rightful length, would take up much of this review; suffice to say that Knappertsbusch still rightfully maintains a formidable reputation in this music. He also, though, remains known for his powerful, even fearsome, stage presence and his aversion to rehearsals, which he often delegated to assistants.

This collection of live recordings, taken, says the cover, between “1959 and 1953” (!), makes a good introduction to Knappertsbusch in Wagner’s orchestral excerpts and interludes. The first four tracks, bringing together extracts from three different operas, are from a 1959 concert in Berlin featuring the Staatskapelle Berlin. The prelude from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg demonstrates Knappertsbusch’s penchant for tempi which seem to be just right – but which are maintained with granitic steadiness over the course of the piece. The result is that, to my ear, the work begins well but actually decreases in energy over the course of the second half, up until a coda in which the music finally snaps out of its slumber.

“Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”, by contrast, unfolds beautifully, and better shows off the excellence of the Berlin horns and brass generally - notwithstanding a trumpet flub at 4:58. This is a performance which is, indeed, at times luminous. The funeral march is even better; a touch on the quick side but thrilling, with a heroic climax. Only the ending feels slightly perfunctory.

My favorite performance on the disc is that of the “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Here is a Prelude sculpted in one massive emotional arc; Knappertsbusch’s unflagging control actually works well married to this passionate, even histrionic music. Not for this conductor indulgent rubato (the timing is just 14:53 against, say, Rudolf Kempe’s 18:20 with the Vienna Philharmonic): instead, Wagner’s phrases propel themselves forward. I think especially of the brilliant way in which Knappertsbusch handles the striving theme which the cellos introduce at 1:37. On each of its following appearances (3:00, 4:54, 5:10, 6:13), it provides the music an extra push forward without actually stepping out of line from the initial tempo.

The Staatskapelle Berlin handles the precarious opening well and contributes to the effect simply by sounding full, rich, and, even through the constricted sound, impassioned in a very Wagnerian way. The Liebestod is rather faster than the Prelude, but I like it: the contrast is like night and day, the ending joyful and simple too. This is likely to become one of my favorite readings of this work, and it shows off Knappertsbusch at his very best.

The Cologne Radio Symphony’s outing here, a live Siegfried Idyll from 1953, differs from the rest of the album in two ways: the string section is not quite as full as its Berlin counterpart, and quite a few of the audience have a cough. But one thing does remain the same, Hans Knappertsbusch’s sensitive approach to the music, and the Cologne woodwind section does get to demonstrate their excellence with the series of solos about halfway through. I do find the first half of this work a little dull even in the best of readings, but Knappertsbusch builds up the different layers of orchestral sound beautifully in the second half, and then brings everything to a very satisfyingly calm ending. Even the coughs in the audience seem to have been cured by the peaceful closing bars.

The main disappointment here is the sound; the remastering, by Danilo Prefumo, has removed whatever surface noise, pops or other irritations there may have once been, and the hiss is easy to forget once one’s ears adjust, but the sound of the orchestra itself is quite constricted too. An audiophile friend once warned me that noise reduction techniques often have a deleterious effect on the vibrancy and fullness of the sounds which are preserved. Here, one wishes the timpani would register more powerfully in the funeral march, or the trombones, and that the violins would have a little more bloom, even if it meant more surface noise. Turning the volume up beyond my usual limits does help somewhat.

For a marvelous Tristan prelude, however, I do recommend this disc. At midprice, this issue (released by IDIS, an imprint of Dynamic) is a risk-free way of discovering the art of Hans Knappertsbusch or taking in good live Wagner from the 1950s. If the contents are tempting, do not hesitate.

Brian Reinhart