This pair of discs brings together two extraordinary Wagner talents and shows them at their best, though by the end I found myself praising the orchestra slightly more than the conductor. Christian Thielemann's Wagner credentials are beyond dispute and the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper are ideal partners for him. In fact, it is almost as though this concert, recorded live in the Musikverein in 2004, has been planned to allow them to show off exactly how great they can be with this music. The kaleidoscopic colour of the orchestral playing and Thielemann's skill in controlling the unfolding grandeur of Wagner's paragraphs seem to fit together so well it sounds as though they have been doing this for decades.
Thielemann coaxes a beautiful sound out of the strings for the first appearance of the main theme in the Rienzi
overture, broad, noble and full. It is then as though he finds a new gear for the quicker second section, which bursts onto the scene with triumphal grandeur and showcases some splendidly grandiloquent playing from the brass. Those strings are on similarly lovely form for the opening of Lohengrin
, but the most impressive thing about this prelude is the way that Thielemann controls its onward sweep, unfolding in one great exhalation and climaxing in a transcendent brass moment that here sounds more like a chorale than in any other recording that I have heard. That masterful pacing is also evident in the Tannhäuser
overture, though what is most impressive here is the extra injection of energy that the outer sections get. The pilgrims’ music sounds energetic and quite pacy, so that the Venusberg section seems to flow out of it rather than acting as so great a contrast.
Thielemann takes a few more liberties elsewhere, though. The Dawn scene from Götterdämmerung
benefits particularly from his sense of pacing, but he slows up once the sun is up, and the brass climax is cut curiously short. The Rhine Journey
itself is perhaps a little too expansive for my taste, but this expansiveness lends the Funeral March
undeniable power. The Tristan
prelude doesn’t climax as it quite should, though both it and the Liebestod are redeemed by truly transcendent playing from the strings. After its triumphal opening the Good Friday Music
turns into something of great peace and beauty, with beautiful strings and some expert contributions from the winds. Thielemann seems to be pulling our leg with the Meistersinger
overture, though, starting off at an incredible lick and then pulling off an outrageous rallentando
for the last two minutes. Here again, though, the orchestral playing won me over, but this time it was the brass, which gleam throughout, especially the trombones and tubas which bring out Wagner’s counterpoint magnificently.
Such a heavy diet of Wagner would normally be an unusual choice for a whole concert, but that sense of immediacy gives this set something extra that lifts it beyond the mediocre. It won’t challenge the granitic - and more comprehensive - pair of discs from Klemperer on EMI, but it’s worth checking out if you want to hear how Thielemann approaches the music. The sound quality is good for a radio recording, but nowhere near as impressive as you would get from a studio session from the Musikverein. The applause is retained at the end of each excerpt and there is a little annoying audience noise but not much.
Previous review: Michael Cookson