Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Orchestral Excerpts - Vol. 3
Tannhäuser (1843, rev.1861): Overture and Venusberg Music [22.35]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Act Three Prelude, Dance of the Apprentices and Entry of the Masters [12.05]
Tristan und Isolde (1865): Act One Prelude, Brangaene’s Warning, Act Three Prelude and Liebestod [28.46]*
Alessandra Marc (soprano)*: Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, March 1986 and February 1992*
NAXOS 8.572769 [62.26]
“Orchestral excerpts - 3” proclaims the title of this Wagner collection. In fact there are ten minutes of singing and this is not just another collection of Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’. A serious attempt is made here to construct three orchestral sequences from three Wagnerian operas which make some sort of musical sense. The fact that the attempt does not entirely succeed does not make it any the less praiseworthy.
The linking of the Tannhäuser overture to the Venusberg music which constitutes the opening scene of the opera is a procedure with considerable precedent. There can be two different ways of doing this. Either you play the whole of the original overture and then append the ballet music as a second track - which is what Wagner actually approved in Paris, and Solti does in his Vienna recording released as part of Decca’s luxury reissue of the Ring - or you can cut the final section of the overture and lead directly into the ballet music - which is what Wagner recommended in later performances of the ‘Paris version’. The problem with the latter is that the ballet music, substantially rewritten by Wagner some twenty years after the first performance of the opera, is in his post-Tristan style and can tend to overwhelm the more classical style of the rest of the score. Those who lead directly from the overture into the ballet, as Solti and Sinopoli do in their complete sets, give the overture a more substantial and ‘beefy’ Wagnerian sound especially in the grandiose statement of the Pilgrims’ March, which balances the styles less anachronistically. What Schwarz does here is to scale back the romantic effusions of the Venusberg music to match a more classically oriented approach as shown by his relatively brisk approach to the Pilgrims. This really does neither Wagner’s earlier nor later styles any favours. If the climax of the Love Duet in Tristan is a depiction of coitus interruptus, the climax of the Venusberg music is surely Wagner’s depiction of a full orgiastic orgasm. Not here; it is simply too polite. It is not helped by the sensuous unaccompanied chorus of the sirens being replaced by a nicely played but far too decorous woodwind transcription.
After the Venusberg has faded into the sensuous distance, we are abruptly brought - with far too short a pause - into the gloomy reflections of the Meistersinger Act Three Prelude. There has been a tradition for some years of constructing a Meistersinger suite from the Third Act Prelude, followed by the Dance of the Apprentices, proceeding through the orchestral passage which leads to the Entry of the Masters, but substituting for the latter passage the whole of the Overture. This at least has the merit of bringing the work to a conclusion that Wagner himself would have recognised. Schwarz instead proceeds through the Entry of the Masters (with its diminuendo conclusion) and simply adds the last few bars of the opera to form a conclusion. This lacks the balance of the longer ‘suite’ and the ending feels disconcertingly abrupt. Given the length of this CD we could have had the whole of the Overture in the more usual fashion.
With Tristan und Isolde Wagner himself sanctioned the idea of conflating the opening Prelude and the closing ‘Verklärung’ - as he called what we nowadays refer to as the Liebestod - to form a sort of microcosm of the whole drama. He even wrote a quite extended passage of music to link the two passages, which seems to have fallen into total disuse since 1945 at least - Newman in his Wagner Nights describes it as ‘usual’ before that time - but which was revived for the Proms this season and shows revealingly how Wagner envisaged the whole package working. More usually nowadays, especially when a singer is available, we are given the whole of the Prelude and the whole of the Liebestod without any linking passage; this too works quite well. Here however we are given two further passages between the usual two excerpts. Brangaene’s Warning is a bleeding chunk indeed, starting and stopping quite arbitrarily; and the Act Three Prelude - which should fade away upwards into the atmosphere as the shepherd’s pipe is heard from offstage - instead curls back down again in the violins to lead into the Liebestod, which is surely a betrayal of Wagner’s carefully calculated intentions.
So none of these three sets of excerpts is ideal textually but one feels that they might have been better served if the performances had been more convincing. The orchestral playing is fine, but it never has the really romantic Wagnerian sound - it is at its best in a passage like the lightly scored Dance of the Apprentices, but nobody is going to buy a CD for the Dance of the Apprentices. Even here the balance relegates the important glockenspiel part to a rather unconvincing tinkling background.
Schwarz is an efficient and reliable conductor, but one never feels that his heart is really in the music; the first part of the Tristan Prelude maintains a Goodall-like glacial nobility, but it then accelerates too abruptly towards the climax in a manner that feels applied rather than organic. Alessandra Marc is an excellent singer, thankfully free of the gusty tone production which afflicts too many Wagnerian sopranos today. She sings with expressiveness, delicacy and a real feeling for the text but she is not helped by a very forward balance. This is just about acceptable in the Liebestod - although it obscures some orchestral detail - but is quite simply grotesque in Brangaene’s Warning where in the opera the off-stage voice is accompanied by a delicate filigree of divided strings which weave their counterpoint around the voice. Here the string lines are relegated to the background and the whole point of this beautiful episode is lost.
One is most grateful to Naxos for their reissues from the Delos back catalogue. These have included many invaluable and superb recordings not only of American music but of real rarities which have fully reflected Schwarz’s adventurous programming in Seattle in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, one cannot help but feel that this is a recording which could well have been left to gather dust on the shelf. Except for fans of Alessandra Marc this cannot be recommended over the many superb collections of Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’ from the likes of Klemperer, Karajan, Solti and their successors, many of them now available at bargain prices. One plus point, however: we are given texts and translations of what Marc sings, and the anonymous translations attributed to ‘Naxos’ are really very good in coping with Wagner’s flowery expression.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
One cannot help but feel that this could well have been left to gather dust.
see also reviews of Volumes 1 and 2 by Rob Maynard