Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Prelude to Act I; Lohengrin - Prelude to Act I [19:15]; Lohengrin - Prelude to Act III [1:31]; Parsifal - Prelude to Act I; Der Fliegende Holländer – Overture; Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Liebestod; Tannhäuser - Overture
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland/Edo de Waart
rec. 25-29 August, 2003, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland Studio, Hilversum, The Netherlands. full price

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 so well.

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 disc.

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.

Brian Reinhart

Only a hitch in Exton’s sound can detract from these lavish performances.