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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Great Orchestral Works
Rienzi: Overture (1843) [11:28]
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Lehmann
Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music (1861) [21:12]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Lohengrin: Act I - Prelude (1850) [9:50]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Lohengrin: Act III - Prelude (1850) [3:09]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Die Walküre: Act I - Prelude (1854-6) [3:54]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Götterdämmerung: Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey (1869-74) [11:49]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude (Act I) and Liebestod (1857-9) [18:08]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Der fliegende Holländer: Overture (1841-60) [10:29]
Die Walküre: Walkürenritt (1854-6) [5:49]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Parsifal: Act I - Prelude (1878-82) [14:04]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Parsifal: Karfreitagszauber (Good Friday Music) (1878-82) [10:32]
Siegfried Idyll (1870) [17:30]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Funeral March (1869-74) [9:10]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Overture (1862-7) [9:37]
Württemberg State Orchestra, Stuttgart/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. Munich, Vienna, London, New York, Berlin, Stuttgart, 1938-1960
MAGDALEN METCD 8023 [79:33 + 77:15]

This sort of set has an obvious documentary importance in preserving the work of noted artists. It's also valuable for making us reconsider our reflexive impressions of artists and their performances.
 
Hans Knappertsbusch, for example, famously disdained rehearsals - not entirely unreasonable, I suppose, if you regularly work with the Vienna Philharmonic - which could make for sloppy, approximate performances. In fact it's hard to square that image with this 1953 recording of the Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music. The opening clarinet-and-bassoon chorale is clean, smooth and impeccably balanced. The woodwinds' dotted rhythms in the main Allegro are crisp and buoyant. When, after some rambling, the Venusberg arrives, the "romantic" music seems too fast - one wants it to have more space - but the clarinet-led chorale at 17:11 is airy and expressive and the passage at 19:34 is quite tenderly phrased. No, not the conductor of legend at all.
 
Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, the polarities of endless debate, similarly prove more complex, interesting artists than their stereotypes would allow. Furtwängler, the supposed Teutonic mystic, brings clear textures and an astounding sense of direction to "Siegfried's Funeral March", even among the simultaneous Leitmotivs. Those who dismiss Toscanini as a soulless martinet will be surprised, in his third-act Lohengrin Prelude, at how the bracing opening gives way to a relaxed, lilting rendition of the "B" section. They may even admire his flexibility in the lyrical melodies of the Siegfried Idyll.
 
Other selections find these conductors reverting to type. The Dutchman Overture more nearly conforms to the Knappertsbusch stereotype, with its slurry runs and imprecise co-ordinations. Furtwängler's mystical side comes across well in a dark, concentrated 1954 rendition of "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey", less so in the Parsifal Prelude. The beclouded definition may well inhere in the 1938 recording, but the soft-edged attacks - even in the brass chorales - are clearly the conductor's doing.
 
With the Toscanini items, it's swings and roundabouts. The Tristan Act I Prelude is wonderful and the taut attack at 1:46 would do any German specialist proud. However, the Liebestod sounds aimless: perhaps the conductor missed having a soloist. The Siegfried Idyll, as suggested, is sensitive, but the sonority never blooms as it did on a half-speed mastered Italian Victrola LP, in electronically simulated stereo, at that. Even Toscanini can't make that patchwork called the Good Friday Music sound like a coherent concert-piece.
 
Two conductors who might, in this company, seem lesser lights offer very fine performances. Fritz Lehmann, in 1954, brings the Rienzi Overture to vibrant life. The unison violins intone the introduction's broad theme with solemn dignity, minus the usual heavy-syrup overlay. The main Allegro is fast and light, lending an unexpected grace to both the second theme - actually a repackaging of the earlier, slow theme - and the third, martial one. Ferdinand Leitner offers a joyous, rather than stodgy, Meistersinger Prelude. There's an uncertain patch just before the strings' downward scale at 1:36, and the second oboe is missing in action at 5:19; otherwise, the playing is confident. The recapitulation, with each of the three themes moving in its own, purposeful direction, is particularly effective. 

I'm not entirely sure what Otto Klemperer is doing here. He's better remembered as an orchestra builder than as a Wagnerian. That said, his studio recording of the Lohengrin Act I Prelude, once past a tentative start, is expressive and firmly shaped. The climax arrives with a slight thud; the brass get there first. The juxtaposition of the two Lohengrin preludes, however, may shatter your preconceptions about audio engineering. Toscanini’s monaural record sounds more vividly present than Klemperer's stereo. 

Beware the "bleeding chunks" syndrome. The orchestral prelude to Walküre, taken from Knappertsbusch's Decca recording of Act I, isn't really a stand-alone piece. It just stops in mid-thought. The end of "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" hangs on a half-cadence. Toscanini, at least, plays his Lohengrin selection with a concert ending.
 
The sound quality, as indicated, is variable, but satisfactory. Only one side-join sticks out, at 9:56 in Knappertsbusch's Tannhäuser, where the wash of a cymbal crash abruptly disappears.
 
I suspect new Wagnerians, in particular, will find this well-filled set indispensable.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
  
… and a further perspective … from Rob Barnett 

James Murray - the motive force behind Magdalen - does things with flair. That shows once again with this crammed-full 2 CD historical set which runs exuberant riot through Wagner's orchestral gems.  

The Rienzi overture derives from a 1954 DG in which Fritz Lehmann conducts the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. It's not short on hefty grandeur and whipped excitement but is rather muffled at the treble end. Allowance must also be made for some discreet surface noise. The Decca-originated Tannhäuser pieces from Vienna come to our ears from steady and sturdy Knappertsbusch. The sound is so much better yet is one year older than the Lehmann. Another step-change in audio technology can be heard with Klemperer's 1960 Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude. This shines with ardour and splendour.
 
Travel back in time again, this time to 1951, for the wild and grittily passionate indeed almost furious Toscanini Prelude to Act 3 from Carnegie Hall. Stereo and Knappertsbusch met in 1956 for Die Walküre from which we hear the Prelude to Act 1. This is ruthlessly controlled and impressively tense music-making. Again it sounds good.
 
The HMV mono from 1954 of Furtwängler in the Dawn and Siegfried's Journey (Götterdämmerung) is again a shade distant and with a hint of smeary distortion when the music wells up beyond forte. There is no doubting however that when the music erupts it erupts whole-heartedly.
 
We encounter a rather nicely lithe recording - quite up close and personal - when it comes to the RCA Toscanini 1952 Act 1 Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
 
Knappertsbusch again in Vienna casts his indomitable and sturdily muscular spell in the Fliegende Holländer overture and Ride of the Valkyries - bothfrom 1953; full-blooded mono recordings too.
 
Back to Furtwängler and 1938 Berlin for a glowing Parsifal Act 1 Prelude. This casts an extraordinary spell which makes its sixty-plus years an irrelevance. The Toscanini Good Friday Music seems almost prosaic in such company. The same conductor is however in finer form for the Idyll though it feels fast. Back to Furtwängler for Siegfried's Funeral March. This is tense and gruffly atmospheric.
 
We started with Lehmann. Also from what is perceived as the second rank comes Ferdinand Leitner who closes disc 2 with a fine-sounding Meistersinger overture. In the hands of DG the strings sing and gleam. When playing en masse they lose some of their lustre but none of their weight. Dating from two years before the Lehmann this Stuttgart session produces noticeably superior results.
 
The two discs fit neatly into a single width case with a 16 page booklet in which James Murray profiles the music and the conductors. Full discographical details are supplied. 

As far as I can see everything in this set is mono apart from the 1960 Lohengrin smidgeon from Klemperer. 

Overall then this is an enviable historical conspectus of great Wagnerian recorded interpretations predominantly from the 1950s. It’s a confection for Wagner buffs in which familiar and unfamiliar from more than half a century ago jostle to remind the listener of past glories that are not to be forgotten.
 
Rob Barnett
 


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