This is an excellent programme of Wagner’s orchestral music.
Edo de Waart is a confident guide with a deep understanding
of Wagner’s language. The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland
has a surprisingly full, red-blooded sound throughout, and the
Exton sound is good - with a caveat. The musicianship here is
consistently fine, so the program grabs attention not necessarily
by being spectacular and entirely new as by doing what it does
It’s a mark of the supreme musical skill of de Waart and his
orchestra that each of these selections is so individually rendered:
the Meistersinger prelude appropriately jovial, luxuriously
appointed, striding forward briskly and confidently; the pliant
but not too sweet violins in the first Lohengrin prelude,
the climax of which is very well-sculpted; the Parsifal
prelude, capturing both its spiritual warmth and its sense of
a search for some place - or, rather, grail - long lost.
No particular selection really “jumps out” as being spectacular
or uniquely brilliant - and the Lohengrin Act III prelude
can be had with more panache - but each is really well-done
in its own right. The pacing in Tannhäuser is perfect, broad
enough to have real emotional heft, but never slack. I am especially
impressed by the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod, played
with such warmth and tragic passion that it’s hard not to be
swept up. In the prelude, too, one hears de Waart’s skill at
handling his orchestra, with the trumpet touched in like a warning
echo at the very climax, over the rising sea of the strings.
A main motivation for buying the disc will inevitably be the
sound: Exton is known for its high-quality acoustics, and like
most (all?) of its releases this is a hybrid SACD. I haven’t
got an SACD player, but in headphones this disc sounds very
good indeed: part of me wishes the lower brass had more heft,
but part of me is glad to have a Wagner album in which every
orchestral section is more or less equal in the balance. The
only caveat is that on some tracks - especially Meistersinger
- the timpani have a bizarre presence in the sound picture.
It sounds as if the mikes have managed to capture not the resonance
of the drums but the actual act of hitting the surface — so
the sound which results, rather than the usual satisfying boom,
is a light, rubbery thwack. This would be less irritating if
the thwacks didn’t manage to pierce through the orchestral picture
every time they occur. Suffice to say you will never be as conscious
of Wagner’s timpani writing as you will be when hearing this
That flaw is enough to prevent my highest recommendation, but
it’s not sufficient to dissuade me from liking the disc altogether.
Collections of the Wagner orchestral music which do so well
by both the opulence of Meistersinger and the stark tragedy
of Tristan are not easy to find, and if you have SACD
equipment or top headphones, this would be an especially satisfying
release. Just beware of those wayward timpani.