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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overtures, preludes and orchestral excerpts
Details after review
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. 2010-2015, Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186551 SACD [57:47 + 73:46]

This two-disc set has been issued to celebrate Marek Janowski’s first Ring cycle at Bayreuth. The Warsaw-born conductor, who has held a number of key positions in orchestras and opera houses across Europe, was appointed chief conductor – for life – of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in 2002. Between 2010 and 2015 they recorded concert performances of Wagner’s mature operas at the Philharmonie in Berlin. For Simon Thompson and Jim Pritchard’s verdicts on those sets, from which the present overtures, preludes and excerpts are drawn, see the links at the end of this review.

Pentatone have been here before. A few months back I reviewed a collection of overtures and marches culled from Mikhail Pletnev’s set of Tchaikovsky symphonies and selected orchestral pieces. I suppose such compilations are designed to tempt listeners into buying the big boxes, but in Pletnev’s case it had the opposite effect where I was concerned. Perusing Simon and Jim’s reviews of Janowski’s Wagner I was struck by a thread of equivocation; with the exception of Tannhäuser – a Recording of the Month – it seems that, on balance, these are good performance rather than great ones.

That said, Simon wasn’t ambivalent about Parsifal – recorded in 2011 – which he welcomed as ‘the finest release in the series thus far’. Listening to the preludes to Acts 1 and 3 I was certainly impressed by the rock-solid playing – the full, burnished brass especially – and I marvelled at Janowski’s ability to sustain a long, ravishing line. He’s not one to dawdle, but I had no problem with his pacing here; nor could I fault the conductor’s feeling for shape and tension, which allows the music to bud and flower most beautifully. The recording is pretty good too, with thrilling amplitude and very little noise from the audience.

The previously unreleased recording of the Siegried Idyll – a piece Wagner wrote for his wife’s birthday – is the only stand-alone item here. Janowski’s manner so far – disciplined but characterful – now seems fastidious. Yes, the playing is wonderfully hushed and every strand is in place, but warmth and suppleness are in short supply. Ditto the Intermezzo from Act 3 of Siegfried, recorded in 2013. As all these recordings were made a few years apart the sound is apt to vary; in this case there’s plenty of detail, but the bass seems rather diffuse. And given the chunks are gouged from complete performances rather than presented as stand-alone concert pieces there’s some disconcerting ‘dead air’ between them.

That’s certainly true of the transition between that Intermezzo and Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung, also recorded in 2013. Again that iron grip, combined with the airlessness that so often results from a packed hall, makes for close, almost steely performance. The same goes for Siegfried’s Funeral March, which is high on precision but low on atmosphere. One only has to compare these two readings with those of George Szell and his Clevelanders (CBS/Sony) or, more recently, Gustavo Dudamel and his Bolívars – review – to realise that Janowski simply isn’t epic enough at these nodal points.

In his review of Götterdämmerung Jim talks of the conductor’s ‘fresh … gimmick-free’ approach to Wagner. I’m all for that, but on the limited evidence presented here the conductor has sacrificed scale and narrative strength in the process. Also, the recording is more than just forthright; compared with the Parsifal excerpts the sound here seems flat and somewhat relentless. However, I’ve no such qualms about the overture to Der fliegende Holländer, recorded in 2010; indeed, the sound – and performance – have depth, breadth and, crucially, a thrilling sense of theatre. Even then Janowski doesn’t linger, pressing ahead and building some glorious tuttis.

In general, though, I’m not entirely convinced by some of the balances in this set, which required knob twiddling from time to time. For instance the beginning and end of the act 1 Prelude to Lohengrin, recorded in 2011, are almost inaudible. Oddly enough that adds a degree of distance that’s quite marvellous, although the climaxes here and in the swift, brightly lit Prelude to Act 3 don’t grow as naturally as I’d like. I just wish Janowski would loosen his throttle-hold on the music and let it breathe more freely.

He does that – to some extent, at least – with his more expansive reading of the overture to Tannhäuser, recorded in 2012. This is wonderful, highly imaginative music-making with a sound to match. At last we glimpse a kinder, gentler Janowski, still urgent but also alert to the opera’s affecting blend of pomp and piety. The quieter moments in the Act 3 Prelude are magnetic and there’s a drive, a passion, to Janowski’s readings that I’ve not heard thus far. As for his account of that paradigm-shifting start to Tristan und Isolde – also recorded in 2012 – it flows and flexes as it should. The highly detailed, ‘hear-through’ sound is an added bonus.

Simon was quite critical of this Tristan, both musically and in terms of the singing, but the ardour and sweep of the RSB strings in this opener certainly raised my expectations. That said, Janowski’s foursquare approach to the Act 3 Prelude is somewhat deflating. No such quibbles about his Meistersinger overture, recorded in 2011. There’s sparkle and grandeur aplenty and the full, rich sound is most attractive. Not in the same league as Szell’s sizzler, perhaps, but very enjoyable nonetheless. After that the Act 3 Prelude is an anti-climax, even though it’s glowingly done.

I might have expected an album such as this to contain the crowd-pleasing Ride of the Valkyries and the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, but Pentatone had other ideas. It’s certainly good to hear the less familiar snippets, but I can’t help feeling this this programme doesn’t have the frisson factor of Szell, Klaus Tennstedt – in both Berlin and London – or the splendid Dudamel. However, Janowski has also recorded Wagner compilations with the Dresden Staatskapelle (Eurodisc) and the ORTF Philharmonic (Erato) that might be worth investigating.

Simon described Janowski’s complete Tristan as ‘part good, part not’; that sums up this new set rather well.

Dan Morgan

Parsifal, WWV 111 (1877-1882)
Act 1: Prelude [12:16]
Act 3: Prelude [4:45]
Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103 (1870) [18:35]
Siegfried, WWV 86C (1856-1871)
Act 3: Intermezzo [6:46]
Götterdämmerung, WWV 86D (1871-1874)
Act 1: Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey [9:36]
Act 3: Siegfried's Funeral March [5:45]
Der fliegende Holländer, WWV 63 (1841/1852)
Overture [10:37]
Lohengrin, WWV 75 (1846-1848)
Act I: Prelude [8:40]
Act 3: Prelude [3:17]
Tannhäuser, WWV 70 (Dresden version) (1843)
Overture [13:18]
Act 3: Prelude [7:29]
Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90 (1857-1859)
Act 1: Prelude [10:34]
Act 3: Prelude [4:47]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, WWV 96 (1861-1867)
Act 1: Prelude [8:44]
Act 3: Prelude [6:13]

MusicWeb International reviews of Marek Janowski’s Wagner (Pentatone)
Das Rheingold
Die Walküre

Der fliegende Holländer
Tristan und Isolde
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg



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