Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Orchestral excerpts 1
Der Fliegende Holländer: overture (1843) [11:35]
Das Rheingold: Entrance of the gods into Valhalla (1854) arr. Zumpe [7:48]
Die Walküre: Wotan’s farewell and Magic fire music (1856) [15:29]
Siegfried: Forest murmurs (1871) arr. Hutschenruyter [7:57]
Götterdämmerung: Dawn - Siegfried’s Rhine journey - Siegfried’s death - Funeral march (1874) [26:32]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, WA, USA; March 1986 (Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung), 21 October 1987 (Der Fliegende Holländer) and 19 and 20 February 1992 Die Walküre and Siegfried)
NAXOS 8.572767 [69:21]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Orchestral excerpts 2
A Faust overture (1855) [10:45]
Lohengrin: Act 1 prelude (1848) [11:09];Elsa’s dream (1848) [7:37];Act 3 prelude and wedding march (1848) [3:35]
Parsifal: Act 1 prelude (1882) [14:52];Act 3 prelude (1882) [5:30];Good Friday spell (1882) [11:13]
Alessandra Marc (soprano) (Elsa’s dream)
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, WA, USA; 21 October 1987 (Lohengrin Act 1 and Act 3) and 19 and 20 February 1992 (A Faust overture and Elsa’s dream)
NAXOS 8.572768 [64:41]
Gerard Schwarz’s Rimsky-Korsakov mini-series with the Seattle Symphony on the Naxos label won widespread and entirely justified acclaim (see here, here and here). Now the same company has reissued these Wagner tracks that were originally recorded for the Delos International label more than 20 years ago. I notice that these discs are labelled Seattle Symphony Collection, suggesting that this is a Naxos sub-brand in the making and, by the time you read this, a third Wagner volume - with music from Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde and once again featuring Alessandra Marc - should be available in the series.

No matter how often denounced, the practice of extracting so-called “bleeding chunks” from Wagner’s operas remains commonplace. On the one hand, those familiar pieces appeal to listeners who might agree with Rossini’s observation that “Wagner is a composer who has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours”. At the same time, on the other, they offer irresistible opportunities for orchestras and conductors to show what they can do with such vivid benchmark scores.
An impressive account of the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer makes a positive opening statement. High on drama, it is very nicely judged and well balanced. Schwarz’s superb control of dynamics is enhanced by the intensely fine sound engineering for which Delos was well known.
Disc one then majors on music from the Ring cycle and a consistent musical viewpoint quickly becomes apparent as Schwarz plays down the theatricality in favour of a more measured and deliberate approach. Thus, in Das Rheingold, the rainbow bridge is crossed in a very stately fashion and with markedly less bombast and grandiloquence than usual; Wotan’s farewell is delivered with impressive, weighty gravity in Die Walküre, though I do wish that the flames of the Magic fire music had flickered and danced with just a little more perky liveliness; and similarly, in Siegfried, the forest “murmurs” could be rather lighter and less deliberate, though that does improve somewhat as the performance moves on. In fact, it is the extensive sequence from Götterdämmerung that suits Schwartz’s well-upholstered approach best. Siegfried certainly doesn't undertake his Rhine journey in top gear, but the more relaxed approach gives us more time to enjoy the riverbank detail, as it were. The hero's funeral march, on the other hand, bringing the disc to a close (no fiery immolation?) seems to buck the trend by putting the emphasis on march rather than funeral. It lacks, therefore, quite the last ounce of profound tragedy that, most notably, Reginald Goodall delivers, either in his complete recording of the opera for EMI (my aged copy is on CMS 7 63595 2) or, even more thrillingly, in the disc of highlights that he recorded for Chandos (CHAN 6593).

Moving on to the second disc, the same characteristics are often in evidence. A Faust Overture is powerfully done, with Schwarz exploiting a characteristically wide dynamic range to invest this occasional and rather overblown score with, perhaps, more than its due.
The Act 1 prelude to Lohengrin moves along nicely but lacks the ultimate degree of ethereality. As a consequence, the eventual peroration at 7:09 doesn't have the emotionally overwhelming effect that it ought. Similarly, Alessandra Marc’s beautifully sung account of Elsa's Dream is somewhat forthright and direct in tone, though given that her character is recounting a dream rather than living it - and is, in fact, pleading for her very life at the time - that is, I suppose, fair enough. The famous Act 3 prelude goes whizzing along as ever and the subsequent wedding march is also a success.
The same direct approach is apparent in the Parsifal tracks. While the writer who penned a brief paragraph on the disc’s back cover quite correctly asserts that this is “some of the most transcendent music Wagner ever wrote”, the recordings under consideration remain resolutely earthbound and scale no great metaphysical heights. The Good Friday Spell music comes off best.
If the interpretations are essentially unremarkable, two features of these discs can be singled out for particular praise. First is the playing of the orchestra. To pick a few random examples, the Das Rhinegold track demonstrates rare sensitivity and finesse in all sections, while the Siegfried music allows the winds, in particular, to shine. The brass and lower strings acquit themselves very well indeed in the extracts from Parsifal. The second area for praise is the recording. As already mentioned, Delos employed a crack team of engineers and they have achieved a near-ideal balance of depth and transparency, revealing all sorts of felicitous detail in these dangerously dense scores while maintaining throughout a sound that is consistently warm and never clinical. There is absolutely no hint of the age of these recordings on the new Naxos pressings.
At their price, these discs are certainly well worth acquiring, especially if sound quality is of primary concern. While the performances may lack the visceral theatrical thrill that, say, George Szell offers in his 1960s recordings - music from theRing cycle and others appeared on Sony SBK 48175 and from Lohengrin, along with A Faust overture,on Sony SBK 62403 - they are never anything less than entirely sound interpretations that will offer a great deal of pleasure.

On the matter of presentation, Keith Anderson’s booklet notes are typically useful, though I do wonder whether a single uninterrupted Parsifal paragraph of no fewer than 66 lines might be considered a little user-unfriendly. Miss Marc’s words are given more usefully in both German and English. I wonder, though, whether I am missing something with the art design. The cover photography on the first volume - an impressionistic image of rocks in a river, I presume - is appropriate and quite evocative. That said, what on earth is the abstract (?) volume 2 cover image all about?
Finally, still on the issue of presentation and marketing, you may have noted that Delos founder Amelia S. Haygood and Naxos’s Klaus Heymann both chose the names of Greek islands for their labels. That still leaves at least a couple of thousand others available for consideration by anyone thinking of starting up a new recording company. I cannot resist, though, announcing the title that I’ll be using if I ever start up a label that reissues LPs.
As you’ve probably already guessed, I’ll be naming it after the felicitously named Greek island of Spinalonga.
Rob Maynard
Will offer a great deal of pleasure.