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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg-Prelude [9:59]
Siegfried-Idyll [17:46]
Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey [9:42] Siegfried's Funeral March [8:17] Immolation Scene [18:30]
Petra Lang (soprano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
rec. Palace of Arts, Budapest, Hungary, January 2012
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 32713 [64.21]

The CD booklet starts well by eulogising that ‘Iván Fischer is founder and Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This partnership has become one of the greatest success stories in the past 25 years of classical music. Intense international touring and a series of acclaimed recordings for Philips Classics, later for Channel Classics have contributed to Iván Fischer’s reputation as one of the world’s most visionary and successful orchestra leaders.’ Unfortunately the booklet doesn’t end so well because it misses most of the start of the Immolation Scene in both text and translation.
 
To know how good they are in this repertoire you would need to have seen Iván Fischer and the BFO perform one of their Wagner programmes during their very well-received tours to European cities other than London. They have not performed a major concert of this composer’s works in the UK since, I believe, the two nights with Petra Lang at the Barbican in 2004; she is also his soloist on this CD. In fact Wagner performances are often more associated with the conductor’s elder brother, Adam, who has conducted the Ring at Bayreuth and in Budapest where he is involved in an annual Wagner Festival.
 
How many recordings of the exact same ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner have there been - possibly only the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is missing. Is there anything that makes this new release especially important. Well, perhaps it is because it features Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde for the first time on CD. Lang is already well known as perhaps the best Ortrud and Kundry of her generation and though renowned - even if only nominally now - as a mezzo soprano, she has recently started to perform Brünnhilde on stage. She has also recorded this role with Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in both Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung and these will be released on PentaTone as part of their forthcoming complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. There can have been few more womanly and warmly sung versions of the Immolation Scene. Here, a great musical intelligence is at work allied with a voice of astonishing range. Listen to how it goes from top to bottom during the phrase ‘des hehrsten Helden verzehrt’ (‘in splendour and radiance on high’) and the Lieder-like intimacy she brings to the section ‘Alles, alles … Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!’ (‘All things, all things … Rest now, rest now, O God!’). In this she shows her deep understanding of the text. In the more heroic final sections, Lang’s feisty Brünnhilde hovers on the edge of hysteria. She is very convincing as a transfigured woman who will willingly commit Sati and immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Someone utters Hagen’s desperate final ‘Zurück vom Ring!’ (‘Give back the ring!’), the BFO’s conflagration of the gods is incandescent, and these gripping final moments with the world being cleansed and striving for peaceful renewal, pack quite a punch.
 
If this recording tries for the perfect balance between soloist and orchestra in the ‘Immolation Scene’ and perhaps may not always achieve it, there is no problem in their other purely orchestral items. There listeners can wallow in the BFO’s luxuriant strings, the burnished unforced brass and plangent woodwind. The ensemble plays throughout with a great beauty of tone. The Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a perfect showcase for this wonderful orchestra and their conductor’s joint Wagner credentials. It builds a joyous head of steam that makes me eager to hear Fischer conduct the entire work in the opera house. The ’Siegfried-Idyll’ is one of the most ravishing I have heard and at times - even in this version for full orchestra - it is given a diaphanous, phantasmagorical performance that brought to mind Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
 
The rest of the tracks on this new CD are wonderful, with the over-familiar, excerpts from Götterdämmerung played with no intervening pauses. There is the traditional quick glimpse of ‘Dawn’ before Siegfried sets off, seemingly on a speed boat, down the Rhine. Given that it is so truncated this is an irredeemable ‘bleeding chunk’. Thankfully ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ (not really ‘March’) builds to a powerful climax as Fischer and his wonderful musicians meld the myriad motifs, including those associated with Siegfried, the sword Nothung, and his task in the overall scheme of things, intoned by the brass, into a musical eulogy for the slain hero. Notwithstanding the outstanding ‘Immolation Scene’ that follows, this alone would be suitably fitting for Wagner himself were Wagnerians honouring the 130thanniversary of his death rather than celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth.
 
This is an outstanding Wagner CD on three incomparable counts: Iván Fischer, Budapest Festival and Petra Lang.
 
Jim Pritchard
Jim Pritchard’s reviews of concerts, opera and ballet can be found at Seen and Heard International.