Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Symphony in C major (1832) [34.05]
Symphony in E major (orch. Möttl) (1834) [19.10]
Huldigungsmarsch (1864) [5.16]
Kaisermarsch (1871)* [8.51]
Rienzi: Overture (1842) [11.16]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 19 August 2010* and 21-22 March 2011
CHANDOS CHSA 5097 [79.14]

Wagner had a soft spot for his teenage Symphony in C – he revised it towards the end of his life – and quite rightly so. It was his conscious tribute to the spirit of Beethoven, whose symphonies so much influenced the trend of his later work. It opens with a series of bald chords separated by pauses which hark back to the opening of the Eroica and then continues into a series of rhythmic movements which in many ways recall the Seventh. Ironically enough Järvi, who plays all the movements very quickly, underplays the Beethovenian overtones and the result sounds more like an undiscovered symphony of Schubert – a good one, though. The last movement bubbles with joie de vivre at Järvi’s headlong speed, but the opening detached chords which return at the end tend to run into each other. This may have been what Wagner intended, but one suspects it is more the result of the reverberant acoustic. There is very little in the way of performance tradition with this symphony, but one feels that Wagner might have preferred a heavier and more weighty account. Wakasugi with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on Denon takes more time in every movement, and the result is more Beethovenian in style even though the orchestral playing is not so polished as here - and is given a rather muffled and over-resonant recording.
If there are few other recordings of the Symphony in C, there are even fewer of the fragmentary Symphony in E. The later work was long thought lost and was only acquired by Cosima Wagner after her husband’s death. She asked Felix Möttl to orchestrate the sketches, but the score then disappeared again after an auction in 1913 and the current whereabouts of the manuscript are not known. Listening to the work one can see why Wagner abandoned it. The first movement sounds very like a re-tread of the Symphony in C with some of the thematic material very similar indeed. The form is more loose-limbed and one can hear the young composer chafing at the restraints imposed by symphonic form. Järvi’s performance makes more of the piece than Wakasugi did on his Denon recording. There is also a recording by Sawallisch with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but that only gives us the completed first movement. Wagner only wrote thirty bars of the Adagio second movement but these last over five minutes in this recording at Järvi’s very slow speed; over a minute longer than Wakasugi. Möttl does not appear to have made any attempt to expand or complete the sketch, which drifts away on a pattern of repeated notes of the type familiar from the Siegfried Idyll and was obviously about to lead into some new material.
There are two other rarities here in the shape of the two marches Wagner wrote during the period he was working on the later stages of the Ring. They are dedicated to two royal patrons in the shape of Mad King Ludwig and the first Kaiser Bill. These are not great works by any means, but both have Wagnerian fingerprints which make them rather more than the worthless occasional pieces they could so easily have been. The Kaisermarsch later had a choral final section – based on Ein feste Burg – added to celebrate German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, but we are not given this here. Wagner seems to have regarded it as a removable addition, and startlingly the booklet informs us that at one stage he even contemplated replacing Ein feste Burg with God save the Queen for a London performance. The orchestration of the Huldigungsmarsch was completed by Joachim Raff, but sounds authentically Wagnerian – presumably Wagner oversaw and approved the result. The music is less bombastic than in the later Kaisermarsch. Wagner seems to have thought more of King Ludwig than the Emperor Wilhelm, and wrote better music for him. He had originally intended the later work to be a funeral march before he was instructed to write something more militaristic – and as always he needed the money. We are hardly blessed with a choice of recordings of either of these works, so Järvi’s performances are valuable in their own right and the orchestral playing has all the needed panache. There are rival readings by the LSO under Marek Janowski but the sound in this new SACD release is superior.
The most familiar piece on this CD is the overture to Rienzi, which has been recorded innumerable times. It is again an early piece, but the opening is a remarkable feat of imagination by Wagner with its long-held trumpet note swelling and fading to produce an unmistakably martial effect – and incidentally proving that music can convey meaning and emotion without the aid of harmony. Järvi gives Rienzi’s beautiful prayer plenty of time to expand and make its effect, and the jolly war songs swagger convincingly despite a very slow tempo at the beginning. The trumpet doubling of the prayer melody on its return sounds vulgar, but that is entirely Wagner’s fault. Järvi lavishes plenty of expression on the phrasing and the result is something better than the mechanical imitation of French grand opera that we frequently hear in this music.
This is in short a most valuable release which enshrines excellent performances and recordings of some very rare music indeed. The orchestral playing and the splendid recording in the symphonies makes this a clear first choice for those two works, and the other items make a valuable bonus.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A most valuable release which enshrines excellent performances and recordings of some very rare music indeed.