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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Complete Overtures and Orchestral Music from the Operas
Die Feen (1834): Overture [13.22]
Das Liebesverbot (1836): Overture [9.00]
Rienzi (1842): Overture [13.13]
Der fliegende Holländer (1843): Overture [10.37]
Tannhäuser (1845): Overture [15.16]
Lohengrin (1850): Preludes to Acts I [10.37] and III [3.02]
Tristan und Isolde (1865): Prelude and Liebestod [18.20]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Prelude [10.02]
Die Walküre (1870): Ride of the Valkyries [4.49]
Siegfried (1876): Forest murmurs [8.24]
Götterdämmerung (1876): Rhine Journey [12.52] and Funeral March [8.06]
Siegfried Idyll (orchestral version, 1878) [17.01]
Parsifal (1882): Prelude [14.26]; Good Friday Music [11.15]
Hamburg Symphony Orchestra/Alois Springer (Feen)
Luxembourg Radio Orchestra/Alois Springer (Liebesverbot)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Heinrich Hollreiser (Idyll)
St Louis Symphony Orchestra/Jerzy Semkow (Parsifal: Good Friday)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Yuri Simonov (others)
Recording dates and venues not specified
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94937 [3 CDs: 67.30 + 63.26 + 51.13]

Any set that advertises itself as “The complete overtures and orchestral music from the operas” is offering an obvious hostage to fortune. This release is very far from being absolutely complete. The omission of the early concert overtures Rule Britannia and Polonia is excusable, since Wagner himself regarded these apprentice works with disdain and would almost certainly have been horrified by their revival. That said, the concert overture to Faust is a mature work of which Wagner thought sufficiently highly to subject it to revision as late as the 1850s. It really should have been included here. The orchestral music drawn from the operas leaves out a number of pieces that we have been given in other sets of Wagner, including for example the Paris version of the Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser and the Third Act Preludes for Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal. If the excuse for these omissions is that – for example – the Faust Overture does not come “from an opera”, then the inclusion of the Siegfried Idyll, similarly a purely concert work, is peculiar. The real reason would appear to be that Simonov’s two CDs which form the backbone of this set did not include the omitted items. An attempt has been made to approach “completeness” by the addition from various sources of the overtures to the two early operas Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, the Good Friday Music from Parsifal and the Siegfried Idyll. The effort extended no further simply because suitable recordings were not available. Whatever the reason, the claim to completeness cannot possibly be conceded as valid. There would certainly have been room for at least some of the missing items on the discs. The addition of a further CD would have enabled the collection to be truly comprehensive.

The Simonov recordings originally appeared on a pair of full-price Collins Classics CDs, and the first of these was welcomed with enthusiasm by Ivan March both in a review in the Gramophone (published in October 1991) and in the Penguin Record Guide. The second CD seems to have passed by almost unnoticed, and neither appear to have been more than sporadically available since the demise of the Collins label. This Brilliant set describes the recordings as having been licensed from Phoenix Music.

The third CD here derives from the Vox catalogue, but these recordings do not seem to have troubled reviewers at all on their initial release, whenever that may have been. With the exception of Heinrich Hollreiser, none of the conductors or orchestras featured here have anything in the way of substantial credentials as Wagnerians. The Philharmonia have appeared on many great Wagnerian recordings stretching back to Furtwängler’s Tristan und Isolde, and famously recorded many of these operatic excerpts with Otto Klemperer in the 1960s - including some items omitted here. That was many years ago, and very few of the players at that time will still have been active in the 1990s when Simonov made these recordings. The booklet and CDs are completely silent about the matter of recording dates and venues, and I note that when John Quinn reviewed an earlier Brilliant reissue of the second CD for this site back in April 2003 this information was not supplied then either; the other Simonov CD is reviewed here. On the other hand, the playing of the Luxembourg Radio Orchestra in the overture to Das Liebesverbot — given without any of the unnecessary cuts that disfigure some other performances — is distressingly imprecise. The percussion persistently either lag behind or push ahead of the beat at the daringly fast pace set by Alois Springer. He gets better results from the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra in the Weberian overture to Die Feen. The St Louis Symphony under Jerzy Semkow are decidedly more assured in the Good Friday Music from Parsifal. Heinrich Hollreiser produces a definitely Wagnerian sound in the Siegfried Idyll, given here with full orchestral forces although the strings sound scrawny and undernourished in places.

The lion’s share of this box consists of the sessions with the Philharmonia under Yuri Simonov. The sound produced there is luxuriantly Wagnerian indeed with exactly the sort of saturated string tone that the music requires. The prelude to Parsifal which opens the whole collection is very slow and solemn but breathes precisely the incense-laden atmosphere that the music evokes. Simonov deserves additional credit for providing us with the beautifully ethereal concert conclusion which Wagner specifically supplied for performances of the prelude in the concert hall — and included in the full score of the opera — but which is comparatively rarely heard. Klemperer included it in his recording with this same orchestra. Many conductors have preferred instead to finish with the ascent onto high woodwinds which leads in the opera directly into the opening scene, but which fails to provide a convincing conclusion when the music is heard in isolation. Simonov even manages to make the Forest murmurs from Siegfried cohere into a unit, toning down the over-obvious use of the glockenspiel which Wagner introduced to replace the sung voice of the Woodbird when Siegfried understands what it is trying to tell him. The Valkyries here ride with great vigour, helped by a steadiness of pace which allows the swirling counterpoint to come through clearly. The conductor further demonstrates the soundness of his Wagnerian instincts by his decision to dispense with the tawdry upbeat concert conclusion which Humperdinck supplied for Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and which totally contradicts the transition in mood which Wagner has so carefully established in the preceding pages. This leads into a stunningly powerful rendition of the Funeral March although, as so often, the swirling harps at the climax are barely audible. Wagner specifies six instruments here, but since he only wrote two actual harp parts the number of players is frequently reduced. This is furnished with the usual concert conclusion but I must admit to some regret that Simonov in his performance of the Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod gives us, not the linked concert version that Wagner himself prepared but the two extracts played in their entirety - without the voice in the Liebestod. Ernest Newman states in Wagner Nights that the conflated piece was the standard version during the 1930s, but it seems to have fallen into total disuse after the Second World War. I only encountered it for the first time in performance a few years ago. It seemed to me an admirably unified ‘tone poem’ encapsulating the whole opera, and it is clear from the analysis of it that Wagner supplied for King Ludwig that he would have expected performances in the concert hall to take that form. So far as I am aware that version has still not been recorded.

The question of concert endings does not impinge to the same extent on the mainly self-contained items on the second disc. The overture to Rienzi which opens the CD can sound noisy and brash in the wrong hands, but Simonov manages to introduce a good deal of subtlety into the inflection of Rienzi’s prayer at the beginning and is skilful in his integration of the various march themes later on. Indeed, this is one of the most convincing interpretations of this overture that I have heard. Der fliegende Holländer, on the other hand, is not really ear-pinning enough at the start, and at rather fast speeds seems to acquire superficial excitement rather than anything deeper. Tannhäuser is stronger in the stately delivery of the Pilgrim’s Chorus than in the more febrile Venusberg music of the central section. The prelude to Lohengrin, however, taken at a daringly slow pace, is something rather special with the ethereal violins providing a real sense of disembodiment at the start. Simonov scores points, too, for his willingness to allow the music to expand at its own steady pace rather than pushing forward to the climax. After this we have a rather good performance of the Lohengrin Act Three prelude with a concert conclusion which truncates the transition into the Wedding Chorus. There's also a well-integrated Meistersinger which correlates the various themes well with each other.

Simonov was responsible for the re-introduction of Wagner to the Bolshoi repertoire during his tenure there. Otherwise he has not seemed to be closely involved with the music of this composer. Nonetheless he is clearly a Wagnerian of considerable skill, rather in the manner of Goodall than of Solti. These are among the best recordings in the catalogue of this repertoire. It is a great pity that he has not been given the chance to record more substantial passages of Wagner, or even complete operas. Record companies could do a great deal worse. When he reviewed the reissue of the second of these discs for this site, John Quinn complained about the lack of booklet notes. Here Brilliant have supplied a five-page brief biography of the composer’s life by Philip Borg-Wheeler which covers most of the basic points required.

Those who are seeking a compendium of Wagner’s orchestral music will find the performances here generally more satisfactory than on a similarly incomplete set conducted by Fabio Luisi which I reviewed a couple of years ago. Those seeking a more modern recording than the old stalwarts by the likes of Klemperer, Karajan and Solti will find here performances which have their own valuable insights. I note however with some surprise that Arkiv currently lists the Simonov discs as being available as a two-disc set on Regis released as recently as December 2013. For prospective purchasers this could be a more attractive option. In this Brilliant box it is just a pity that more material could not have been assembled for the third disc to ‘plug the gaps’, let alone other “orchestral music from the operas” such as The entry of the Gods into Valhalla and the Magic Fire Music, both of which Klemperer included in his recordings with this orchestra. It is odd too that record companies, usually so eager to promote the Wagnerian repertoire, have neglected lesser orchestral pieces such as the Heroic March — the best of the three ceremonial pot-boilers written by Wagner in his mature years — and the Faust Overture.
Paul Corfield Godfrey



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