Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Symphony in C major, WWW29 (1832) [34.05]
Symphony in E major (orch. Möttl), WWW35 (1834) [19.10]
Huldigungsmarsch,WWW97 (1864) [5.16]
Kaisermarsch,WWW49 (1871)* [8.51]
Rienzi: Overture, WWW104 (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 SACD [79.14]

Wagner’s little known efforts at symphonic writing have received only a handful of recordings, and this was my first hearing of these works. I came to the recording with foggy recollections of Romantic Music History lectures characterizing these works as immature juvenilia, displaying scant evidence of Wagner’s later compositional genius. After my first listening, I quickly came to appreciate that such characterization was unfair, and, perhaps more importantly, incorrect. 

The Symphony in C Major, written in 1832, is clearly modelled on the symphonies of his beloved Beethoven. The first movement opens with explosive chords, followed by woodwinds and brass calling to one another over tremolo strings. This introductory material soon leads into a vivacious Allegro, its fanfare-like theme brashly proclaimed by brass and strings. Wagner’s writing exhibits a fondness for constantly shifting orchestral timbre, sudden dynamic contrast, and intriguingly differentiated textures. The following Andante features some lovely melodies, richly harmonized, while the Scherzo is surely the most playful music Wagner ever penned. The finale brings the expected counterweight to the first movement, explosive right from the start. Energetic syncopated writing and a lilting joyfulness bring Mendelssohn to mind; how Wagner would hate that.
The liner-notes are informative and interesting, but overly apologetic about the music’s derivative nature. As author Emanuel Overbecke notes, “the atmosphere is entirely Beethovenian”. The same can be said of several composers: Franz Schubert and Ferdinand Ries immediately spring to mind. Writing after Beethoven’s death each struggled to find his own individual voice. Surely that does not negate the value or interest of their compositions? At this point Wagner was intent on becoming the next great writer of symphonies, not operas. It is a foolhardy exercise to judge the worthiness of Wagner’s symphonic music based on how much it reveals aspects of the mature compositional voice we know from the operas. Rather, the question should be whether the symphony is enjoyable and interesting enough for repeated listening. Will repeated listening offer up new things to discover and appreciate? Does it express some spiritual and emotional truth to which we can connect? To all these questions, I answer a resounding “Yes”.
The Symphony in E Major proved less enjoyable, perhaps because its manuscript was left largely incomplete. As Overbecke explains, it was considered lost, but was “then rediscovered, and acquired in 1886 by Cosima Wagner who asked Felix Mottl to orchestrate the music.” The manuscript - which was auctioned in 1913 and whose whereabouts today are unknown - consisted only of sketches for the first movement and 30 bars of an Adagio. It is pleasant music, but does not exhibit the same imaginative fire found in the C Major Symphony.
Huldigungsmarsch and Kaisermarsch are festive occasional pieces, with plenty of nationalist tub-thumping and martial brass writing. Interestingly, Huldigungsmarsch, which consists of four progressively faster sections, exists in two versions. The first, completed by Wagner, is for military band; the second version, performed here, is for full orchestra. Wagner began its orchestration, but then, on the advice of conductor Hans von Bülow, asked composer Joachim Raff to complete it. Its writing bears more than a passing family resemblance to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
The most notable feature of Kaisermarsch is its use of Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg. It was originally to be orchestral only, but Wagner decided to add a sacred text, to be sung by everyone in attendance, and chose Luther’s famous hymn for the tune. The integration of the tune into the music is masterly, and I only wish, though it was surely cost prohibitive, that the performance could have included singers. Nevertheless, the performances of both marches leave little to be desired, played, as here, with obvious relish and genuine enthusiasm.
Somewhat daringly, this CD of little known works also includes a performance of the Rienzi Overture, of which there are 18 recordings currently listed at Luckily this is an excellent performance which I found entirely convincing. Its solemn beginning moves at a livelier tempo than is the norm these days. The Allegro episode features resplendent orchestral playing, especially from the brass.
The recording is up to Chandos’ usual high standards. The orchestral sound is caught in a large acoustic, adding warmth without any loss of clarity. The normal stereo sound layer is splendid, but the SACD brings an extra opulent richness that serves this music well. Greeted with enthusiasm.

David A. McConnell

Greeted with enthusiasm.