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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Concert Overture No. 1 in D minor (1831) [7.25]
Concert Overture No. 2 in C (1832, revised 1873) [9.10]
König Enzio, incidental music (1832): Overture [8.15]
Die Feen (1833): Overture [11.18]
Das Liebesverbot (1835): Overture [8.39]
Christopher Columbus, incidental music (1835): Overture [7.26]
Siegfried Idyll (1870) [19.39]
MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. 2011/12, MDR Studio Augustplatz, Leipzig
NAXOS 8.573414 [71.52]

This CD constitutes a companion issue to the recording by the same performers of Wagner’s two early symphonic essays which I reviewed with considerable enthusiasm earlier this year. If the two symphonies (the one complete, the other unfinished) are rarities on disc and almost unknown in the concert hall, the repertory here embraces some scores which have an even greater scarcity quotient; indeed I can find no trace in the current catalogues of any rival versions of the two concert overtures dating from Wagner’s teenage years, and alternative recordings of King Enzio and Christopher Columbus can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As is well known, Wagner was a comparatively late developer as a composer, especially in an era when childhood prodigies were regularly to be encountered; he himself in later life effectively consigned to oblivion all the scores he had written before Der fliegende Holländer, premièred in the year of his thirtieth birthday. The three earliest scores on the disc under consideration were bound together in one volume, and the composer revised the second of the concert overtures for a performance in 1873; but he decided against publishing any of them, and they did not emerge blinking into the light of day until after his death. It is hard to quarrel with the judgement of any composer regarding his own juvenilia, and all the scores here with the exception of the Siegfried Idyll certainly fall into the category of youthful experiments; but all the same none of them are totally without merit, and I suspect that were it not for comparison with Wagner’s later scores some might well have established a position on the outermost fringes of the repertory.

Mind you, the fingerprints of youthful inexperience are certainly to be found plastered all over the Concert Overture No 1, written in clear imitation of Beethoven (as indeed was the completed C major symphony) but showing a sometimes surprising naivety in its use of sequential patterns which Wagner seems to have supposed constituted the technique of development. The overture to King Enzio, all that survives of incidental music composed for a play by Ernst Rapauch, also shows an obvious debt to Beethoven, with the concluding ‘dying fall’ clearly inspired by the latter’s Coriolan overture although elsewhere Weber’s influence is also to be discerned. The second Concert Overture is rather more conventional (perhaps Wagner’s revisions may have ironed out some of the less finished passages); but none of these scores have the freshness of approach that distinguishes the C major symphony which was written at around the same time.

The two overtures to Wagner’s first two completed operas are rather more familiar fare, and make a nicely contrasted pair: that to Die Feen written in close imitation of Weber (and coming close to out-and-out plagiarism at one point), and that to Das Liebesverbot showing the same lively and bubbling enthusiasm as Rossini. In the latter Jun Märkl sets out at a whizzing pace, and the castanets that are so startling in the opening bars are hardly discernible as an element in the scoring; I suspect that Wagner, when he conducted the opera for a solitary performance in Magdeburg in 1836, might have been rather more circumspect in consideration of his orchestral players. But then it’s all great fun, and the pawky interjections of the ‘Ban on Love’ leitmotif fall neatly into place both when stated in isolation and in counterpoint to the festive carnival music that dominates the score. The overture to the incidental music for Theodor Apel’s play Christopher Columbus is perhaps more prescient of the later composer, although Katy Hamilton correctly points out the points of similarity to Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage overture which Wagner had conducted in Magdeburg in the same month that the score was completed. Here Wagner makes use of no fewer than six trumpets, whose overlapping fanfares anticipate in their effect the dawn music from Lohengrin, not to be completed until over ten years later. Only the concluding triumphant peroration lets the side down, the trumpets now sounding blatant and predictable when compared to their earlier material.

The final track on the disc suddenly winds on the clock by more than three decades, and Jun Märkl concludes the disc with a performance of the ubiquitous Siegfried Idyll, the only purely orchestral essay of Wagner’s full maturity. As is well known, the original scoring was for a chamber ensemble of only thirteen instruments, and major Wagnerian conductors such as Solti and Klemperer championed the work in that version. Others, such as Marriner, adopted a compromise between the chamber and full orchestral versions (and the only difference lies in the number of strings employed), contrasting solo strings in the opening and closing sections with a richer romantic palette in the central passages. Here Märkl seems to adopt a different sort of compromise, using a reduced string section to balance the wind players; but he seems to have been let down somewhat by his recording engineer (Tim Handley), since the strings sound as if they are positioned behind the wind, and the latter sometimes come forward in prominence in a balance that sounds far from natural. Märkl also adopts a very free approach to tempo, exaggerating the relatively minor fluctuations that Wagner indicates in the score; and he breaks into isolated phrases the continuous lines that Wagner seems to require in his massively extended slurs stretching over many bars. But then Wagner in his own writing on the art of conducting recommends the adjustment of pace as a technique to be adopted in all music (not just his own), and the reaction of the listener will inevitably be a personal one, rather than a simple matter of absolutes. In the past I have frequently enjoyed Märkl’s sometimes idiosyncratic approach to familiar scores, as in his Naxos box of Debussy; here I am less convinced. In a live performance the ‘personal touch’ would be welcome, but I suspect that on repeated hearings they might grow wearisome. But then, ardent Wagnerites who wish to explore the rare material on this disc will probably already have multiple versions of the Siegfried Idyll in their collections, and this fresh approach might well be welcome as providing an occasional sense of variety.

Apart from my concerns about the recorded balance in the final track, the sound on this disc is excellent, lively and well observed; and the playing is excellent too, as good as any I have heard in performances of the Feen and Liebesverbot overtures. The notes by Katy Hamilton are informative, and come not only in English but in German translation. The Christopher Columbus should be attractive to more than just Wagner completists, and the first of the two concert overtures – while showing how far the young Wagner had to travel – has a fresh sense of innocence which is appealing. It would make a marvellous conundrum for those putting together musical quizzes, but I would be surprised if anyone guessed who actually wrote it.

Interestingly the major competition for this issue comes from Naxos themselves, in the form of a 2004 CD which also contained the two operatic overtures as well as Columbus and Enzio. This was conducted by Alexander Rahbari with the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra, and its existence may well serve to explain why there has been a delay of five years in issuing this new disc. But the string playing there does not measure up to the skill of the Leipzig forces here, and the recording on this new release is also superior. And the presence of the two early concert overtures should appeal to all Wagnerophiles.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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