Richard WAGNER (1818-1883)
Parsifal - an Orchestral Quest (arr. 1993 by Henk de Vlieger (b. 1953)) [45:56]
Overture and Venusberg Ballet Scene from Tannhäuser [19:53]
Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin [3:28]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, August 2009
CHANDOS CHSA 5077 [69:38]


Anyone who remembers Järvi and the RSNO’s recording of The Ring: an Orchestral Adventure will know what to expect here. Henk de Vlieger has made something of a name for himself with his arrangements of Wagner’s operas: he has completed versions of The Ring, Parsifal, Tristan and Meistersinger to date. His aim seems to be to create an orchestral impression of each opera. His foundation stones are the purely orchestral moments (in this case the Act 1 prelude and the two moments of “Transformation music”). To these he appends carefully arranged excerpts from the rest of the opera. Sometimes he gives the vocal lines to the orchestra – most memorably here the low strings who play the line of the Grail Knights in the feast scene of Act 1. Sometimes he just recreates the atmosphere, such as in the early part of the Flower Maidens’ scene. He broadly keeps the narrative structure of the opera but, despite what we are told in the booklet note, I don’t think he’s so much trying to tell the story as to evoke a mood. For example, we go straight from the Act 3 transformation music into the transcendence of the final scene, evoking a rapid transition which is evocative enough in its own way. De Vlieger’s approach isn’t for everyone and it won’t convert the purist, but it offers an alternative to somewhat unsatisfying “bleeding chunks”. He hardly ever meddles with Wagner’s scoring so his approach is undeniably respectful, though some of the transitions between sections feel a little forced. I suspect his approach is more aimed at those who already know the operas but want to approach them in a different light, rather than total newcomers. If you come to this with an open mind then you’ll find more to enjoy than to criticise, but what of the performances here?

The most striking thing about the opening is the pacy manner in which Järvi approaches the score. The prelude, which Wagner intended to hang shimmering in mid-air, moves at a fair crack, leaving too little time for contemplation or meditation. Even the great climax of the “faith” theme seems to disappear after it has barely arrived. This rapid approach has the more serious side-effect that the big climaxes often sound fuddled and the all-important bells in the Grail Hall sound clogged and indeterminate. The orchestral playing is undoubtedly fine throughout, nowhere more so than in a lovely account of the Good Friday music - gorgeous winds here - but in this account of Parsifal I didn't feel that I was given enough time to stop and stare, not even in the transcendent final pages where the RSNO are at their finest.

There is a similar problem with the Tannhäuser overture which rattles along at a fair pace too. This helps to generate excitement in the Venusberg music and the orgiastic aspect of the Bacchanal works very well, but it is less helpful for generating the weighty reverence of the opening section. There is little sense of buoyancy or swell for the great restatement of the Pilgrims’ theme on the trombones, despite some meltingly beautiful string playing in the previous bars. Towards the end of the piece, once all energy is spent, there is a lovely feeling of fragrant stillness as the music winds down to a halt. Going straight from this to the energy of the Lohengrin prelude is quite a shock, but it is here that the speed and energy of Järvi’s reading works best. There is a real celebratory rush here, rounding off the disc brilliantly. The brass sound fantastic in the final refrain.

Recorded sound is superb throughout and the packaging provides a brief comment on all three works. It’s worth exploring for novelty value, but Järvi’s excitable speeds will produce disappointment for many.

Simon Thompson