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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Die Feen (1833): Overture [11.26]
Das Liebesverbot (1836): Overture [8.21]
Rienzi (1842): Overture [12.27]
Tannhäuser (1845): Overture [15.57]
Lohengrin (1850): Prelude [9.00]
Tristan und Isolde (1865): Prelude [11.06] and Liebestod [6.22]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Prelude [10.42]
Die Walküre (1870): Ride of the Valkyries [4.54]
Götterdämmerung (1876): Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [12.11] and Funeral March [8.12]
Parsifal (1882): Prelude [12.15]
Philharmonia Zürich/Fabio Luisi
rec. Goetheanum, Dornach, November 2014
ACCENTUS MUSIC PHR0102 [65.42 + 56.33]

For me, and I suspect for many others. Fabio Luisi established his Wagnerian credentials when he took over from the indisposed James Levine for the later instalments of the new Metropolitan Opera cycle of Wagner’s Ring a couple of years ago. At that time critical attention was focused on the merits and demerits of the extravagantly engineered new staging and Luisi’s contribution was perhaps somewhat sidelined. At all events here is a compendium of Wagnerian overtures and preludes, spanning the whole of the composer’s career. This provides us with an opportunity to evaluate the conductor’s approach to the central platform of the German operatic repertory.

The two discs are laid out, perhaps somewhat perversely, in reverse order of composition, beginning with Parsifal and going backwards in time to the early Die Feen. Not in fact precisely in order of composition, since Die Walküre was composed before Tristan und Isolde, even though it was not performed until later. Then again, if order of performance were to be regarded as the principal consideration, Die Feen — not performed until after Wagner’s death — should be the latest of all. No real matter. What is more troublesome is the subject of the endings of those preludes where the music in its theatrical context flows straight into the action, and some form of concert conclusion has to be provided. Wagner himself provided such a conclusion to the Parsifal prelude — it is printed in the full score — but that is not what we are given here, where the music simply peters out as if to lead into the opening bars of Act One and simply stops. On the other hand, we are given concert conclusions to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Ride of the Valkyries which Wagner did not write. The former in particular is a monstrosity which provides an upbeat conclusion to a piece where the whole previous emotional progress is in the other direction. Klemperer, Knappertsbusch and others were surely correct when they adopted the version as found in the complete opera, with its admittedly inconclusive but much more appropriate ending. Similarly an opportunity has been missed here to let us hear Wagner’s own version of the Tristan prelude leading seamlessly into the closing bars of the Liebestod; instead we have the usual concoction of the prelude as in the opera followed by an orchestral version of the closing section of the opera separated by a brief pause.

Apart from this, the preludes and overtures proceed in their reverse chronological order in the expected manner until on the second disc there is a sudden jolt when the listener realises that the overture to Der fliegende Holländer is quite simply missing. There would have been plenty of room for it on the two discs, and its absence is not explained in the three-page interview between the conductor and Fabio Dietsche printed (in three languages) in the booklet. In a set where the inclusion of the highly uncharacteristic overtures to Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot clearly stakes a claim to completeness, the omission is even more inexplicable and vitiates one of the points of the exercise.

Quite apart from these textual considerations, one has to admit that the performances themselves do not do a great deal to command the attention of the listener. They are highly competent, clearly enunciated and generate plenty of excitement where the composer requires it; but they are sometimes undesirably swift, as in Isoldes Liebestod where a speed of this nature would clearly tax any soprano who was singing the role in the theatre. In short the readings lack the sense of visceral punch that Wagner really needs, and which one finds in established sets of recordings of these works by the likes of Klemperer and Karajan from an earlier era. True, these conductors did not give us recordings of the early pre-Rienzi overtures; but they did include the Flying Dutchman, whose absence here really rules the collection out of consideration. Luisi is an excellent conductor whose previous recorded output has included valuable sets of rare Verdi operas; but on the basis of this set, Wagner is perhaps a field with which he has yet to find a real rapport.

Paul Corfield Godfrey