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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Symphony in C [42:56]
Tristan und Isolde: Nachtgesang und Liebestod (arr. Henk de Vlieger) [15:05]
Siegfried Idyll [19:32]
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart
rec. 8-10 June 2010 (Symphony and Idyll), 16 April 2013 (Tristan), Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Studio 5, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Richard Wagner’s Symphony in C is a spot-the-Beethoven game. The opening chords actually remind me of Schumann, but from then on, it’s a Beethoven festival: the Leonore-ish main theme, a transition from intro to allegro cribbed from Beethoven’s First, a slightly funereal andante which is like Beethoven’s Seventh without the tunes or structure. At first you’ll think “the slow movement’s not modelled on the Seventh that much,” but then repetitions of the main theme get stacked up by each group of string players, and the resemblance becomes clearer. The scherzo is like a heavier, stouter version of the scherzo from Schubert’s Sixth.

As a whole, the symphony is for curiosity-seekers. Wagner was right to recognize that symphonies were not his strong suit, although the prospect of a mature symphony, once he’d found his voice as a melodist and orchestrator, will always be tantalizing. This work, though, is the composer well before he found himself, when he was still looking in the tradition of Schumann and Beethoven, hoping to find answers.

The other half of the disc moves far forward into “real” Wagner. The Siegfried Idyll is maybe the best anniversary gift ever given, since Richard hired a chamber group to play it as his wife woke up. I’ve never heard a performance I disliked, but this one is lovely. Henk de Vlieger, who’s known as a Wagner-without-words guru and is responsible for The Ring: an Orchestral Adventure, offers here a short suite based on Tristan und Isolde. Instead of the prelude, we get the Nachtgesang duet, very sensitively arranged for strings and winds, which leads without the slightest hitch into Isolde’s Liebestod. Here the performance falters at 4:15, where the climactic rush of emotion isn’t met by a similar rush either in tempo or in passionate playing. Compare to the far more gripping climax from Karajan on EMI.

For major Wagner fans, this is an important release: the symphony’s a rarity, and the Nachtgesang arrangement really is wonderful. So are Challenge’s sound and booklet. For general listeners, the symphony might not have a lot of appeal, and the letdown at the end of Liebestod is a problem. Make your decision accordingly.

Brian Reinhart