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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Hans Knappertsbusch Conducts Wagner
see end of review for details
Günther Treptow (tenor), Franz Lechleitner (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Knappertsbusch
rec. 1950-59
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 7093 [79:12 + 75:16]

Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) is often cited as the greatest of the post-war Wagner conductors to work at Bayreuth. Although he rarely appeared outside Germany, he endeared himself to British audiences by his total refusal to bow to the Nazi regime; he was a favourite with orchestras too, because he famously hated rehearsing, preferring to depend on mutual trust and communication during the performance itself.
 
His Bayreuth Parsifals are legendary, and we have three tantalising extracts here. The sound is not great - very thin and squeezed in the higher registers of strings and woodwind - but the pacing of the Prelude to Act 1 gives an immediate insight into his qualities. He learned his craft under Hans Richter at Bayreuth, and this is ‘old school’ Wagner; majestic, unhurried, yet full of expressive intensity.
 
The Parsifal extracts are followed bySiegfried Idyll, Wagner’s sublime birthday present to Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried. Listening to the opening, which is a kind of prologue to the main body of the work, I was finding Knappertsbusch’s approach worryingly indulgent - so free with the rubato, holding back at the end of each and every phrase. Then, when the music moved into its true first section, it began to flow in the most wonderful way, and this blossomed into a deeply felt and wholly idiomatic reading. When I then listened to it for a second time, it all simply made sense. A performance to treasure, with the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic - the orchestra in all of these performances - playing with the utmost sensitivity. A passionate and powerful version of the Tristan Prelude is followed by a perhaps rather stolid account of the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg music to complete CD 1, which contains tracks from 1950 to 1955.
 
CD 2 begins with a splendid and dramatic rendering of the Flying Dutchman overture. I have rarely heard the opening more thrilling, despite the primitive sound. The music is so evocative; the ghostly ship breasting the stormy sea, the wind howling through its rigging - all this, plus the more romantic or ebullient moments, come through superbly. The Meistersinger Prelude to Act 1 was a surprise -really brisk and business-like, leading directly into curtain-up and the opening chorale.
 
The remaining items are true ‘bleeding chunks’, although the Ride of the Valkyries has its own perennial blood supply. This is not really Forest Murmurs on track 8; the work of that title is a short purely orchestral piece strung together, quite successfully, from the music in Act 2 of Siegfried where Siegfried encounters the Woodbird. All we have here is a straightforward extract, complete with Siegfried’s own comments and interpolations - admittedly in the fine tenor voice of Franz Lechleitner. In the context of the opera, this is fine, but makes little or no sense as a free-standing item, lovely though the music is. The two Götterdämmerung items work much better; there are rough edges and imprecise ensemble but the music has tremendous certainty of direction, as well as wonderful individual playing from the VPO’s woodwind and brass.
 
All in all, these discs generously repay repeated listening. These are emphatically not immaculate studio recordings by modern standards; but music is being made here, at a high emotional and aesthetic level.
 
Gwyn Parry-Jones 


Details
CD 1
Parsifal (1882)
Prelude to Act 1 [14:15]
Transformation Scene [4:21]
Flower maidens’ Scene [9:20]
Siegfried Idyll (1869) [19:01]
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Prelude to Act 1 [10:07]
Tannhäuser (1861)
Overture and Venusberg Music [21:30]
CD 2
Der fliegende Holländer (1843)
Overture [10:29]
Rienzi (1842)
Overture [12:21]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Prelude to Act 1 [9:08]
Prelude to Act 3 [6:45]
Die Walküre (1870)
The Ride of the Valkyries [5:47]
Siegfried (1870)
Forest Murmurs [9:52]
Götterdämmerung (1872)
Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [12:32]
Siegfried’s Funeral March [7:34]


Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Wien, 14-15 and 23-24 June 1950 (Parsifal Prelude and Transformation, Rienzi), 11 September 1950 (Parsifal Act 3), 1 April 1955 (Siegfried Idyll), 6-7 May 1953 (Tannhäuser, Der fliegende Holländer, Die Walküre), September 1951 (Die Meistersinger), 24 June 1950 (Siegfried); Sofiensaal, Vienna, September 1959 (Tristan und Isolde), 3-6 June 1956 (Götterdämmerung)