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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Symphony in E major (fragment) (1832/34) [17.48]
Symphony in C major (1834) [38.41]
MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Märkl
rec. MDR Studio Augustusplatz, Leipzig 17-19 January 2012
NAXOS 8.573413 [56.29]

If you like Mendelssohn, you will very much enjoy this CD, as it occupies much of the same musical territory. There are hints of Wagner’s reverence for Beethoven, and there is real energy and fire in parts of the writing.

The difficulty is in knowing how to listen to these two pieces. The important thing, I think, is not to be too influenced by what we know of the mature Wagner. A listener looking for hints of the musical giant who composed Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal is likely to be disappointed. But good music speaks for itself, and these are best enjoyed just on their own terms, putting to one side what we know of Wagner’s maturity. After all, the precocious teenager who produced these works did not and could not know what he would be and what he would create in later years. If the youthful Wagner was ignorant of these things, we do justice to these works by listening with ears just as innocent. (It can be difficult to think of Wagner as ever innocent, but there we are!) Heard in these terms there is much here to admire and enjoy. There is nothing which would lead us to regret that Wagner would no longer pursue the path of the great symphonist, nor is there anything here to lead us to rethink our knowledge of nineteenth century symphonic writing. For all that, there is more reason to buy this disc than simply to complete a gap in one’s Wagner collection.

The Symphony in C major seems to have been composed between April and June 1832. The debt to Beethoven is evident, especially the Overture, Consecration of the House, as well as the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies (compare the second movement here with the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony). But evident homage does not detract from the craftsmanship on display. The work was publically performed in both Prague and Leipzig and warmly received at the latter, though Mendelssohn, to whom the score was subsequently sent, seems to have ignored it. It would not be revived until the 1870s, by Wagner himself, though it remained unpublished until after his death.

In some respects, the fragmentary Symphony in E major, from 1834, is the more interesting and bolder work. Notice the influence of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth in the opening movement, but also some elements of Italian bel canto. But this work was contemporary with Die Feen and Wagner seems to have lost any enthusiasm for finishing it, despite the immense promise of the incomplete and rather lovely second movement, an adagio cantabile. The work survived only in short score. After Wagner’s death, Cosima gave it to Felix Mottl to orchestrate and finish – he provided a short conclusion to the second movement.

Performances here are clear and committed. Jun Märkl has the measure of the score, and it is good indeed to be reminded of the depth and musical richness of the various radio orchestras found in Germany – there is no need for this Leipzig (how appropriate!) ensemble to hide its light.

Production values are good. A personal quibble is that I would have preferred to hear the two symphonies in the opposite order. This is not simply because of relative musical merit, but because it would bring out very clearly how Wagner broke off from, and did not return to, the symphonic form. That sudden breach then reminds us yet again of the revolution represented by The Flying Dutchman in 1840 – when Wagner truly became a different composer.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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