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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wagner at Wahnfried
Siegfried Idyll [19:11]
Wesendonck Lieder (arr. Andreas N Tarkmann) [19:41]
Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Christian Thielemann
Recorded at Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth, 25 July 2020

Since March 2020, when the pandemic first hit and our everyday lives got turned upside down, how many times have you turned to one of the consolation prizes that the Covid world has given you and thought: “Oh well, it’s better than nothing”? I’ve made this point before, but it’s the arts-related thought that most sticks in my mind as 2020 draws to a close. Zoom calls with your family: nothing like as lovely as hugging them, but better than nothing. Work meetings using screen software: far worse than doing it face-to-face, but better than nothing. Live streams from opera houses and concert halls: a shadow of what it’s like to be present in the theatre, but better than nothing.

For me, 2020’s biggest disappointment came not in the cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival, which is the part of every year that I look forward to the most, but a much more rarefied event to which I had a rare-as-hen’s-teeth ticket: the Wagner festival at Bayreuth. Any Wagner-lover will know how hard it is to acquire tickets to this most exclusive musical event and, having been on the list for twelve years, 2020 was my turn to attend. True, I had been once before in 2016 and, for all its quirks and flaws, had loved the experience. So I was super-excited to be going again in 2020 for what was, I had told myself, the final time. I booked a full set of tickets (Ring, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Meistersinger), sorted out my hotel and flights, and settled in to wait for the summer. 

We all know what happened next. Both the Edinburgh and Bayreuth festivals got cancelled, as did nearly everything else in the world, thus giving me the quietest summer I’ve had in decades, and I’m still gutted every time I think about it. I know, I know: people have much bigger problems, and if that’s the worst thing I’m complaining about in 2020 then I’ve had a pretty cosy pandemic. I recognise that, but I still grieve the loss of what might have been.

Anyway, this CD captures Bayreuth 2020’s consolation prize and… it’s better than nothing! Christian Thielemann, the festival’s Music Director, assembled a small team of musicians to put on a socially distanced concert in the library of Haus Wahnfried, the home that Wagner built for himself near his ideal theatre. If you’ve been to the house then you’ll know that it’s a lovely room with a gorgeous acoustic, lined with books and wood panels, and it's apparently where The Master composed most of Parsifal. You’ll also know that there is no room for an audience, let alone a socially distanced one: they had to sit outside in the garden, where the sound and video was relayed on a big screen with loudspeakers, and there are some photos in the booklet to show how they did it.

There isn’t much music by Wagner that can be performed in a living room, but if Thielemann’s choice of repertoire was constrained then it was also very fitting. After all, the Siegfried Idyll was originally composed for domestic performance as a birthday present for Wagner’s wife, Cosima, and Thielemann’s musicians perform it in that original version. It works really well on this sensitively produced recording, much better, I think, than the orchestral version, for which I’ve never much cared. There’s a lovely intimacy to it, and you get much more of a feeling for why Cosima so adored the piece. The middle strings really stand out as exceptional in this performance, with the chocolaty viola and mahogany cello interacting with the violins in a way that's nothing short of delightful. The winds gleam as part of the texture, and the horns and bassoon throb gorgeously at the bottom.

Thielemann hand-picked the musicians to be involved in the performance, and you can tell there’s a sense of trust and empathy there that really works. All thirteen of them are named in the CD booklet, and they deserve to be. The conductor shapes the music with unfussy ease, and I loved the gentle sound with which he puts the work to bed in the final pages.

The same forces are used for the Wesendonck Lieder, and the songs benefit from similar transparency, particularly the rushing wheel of time in “Stehe still!” The tortured musings of “Im Treibhaus” sound exceptionally good, too, as does the otherworldly transfiguration of “Träume.” To my ears, however, Camilla Nylund, a Bayreuth regular, has a slightly hooty voice for these songs: she has neither the powerful grandeur of Jessye Norman, nor the pearly beauty of Margaret Price, and while I enjoyed some of her articulation and word-painting, I didn’t warm to the overall sound.

And that brings me to the big question behind this disc: who is it for? There are many other recordings of both works out there. Many music-lovers will already have their favourite Wesendonck Lieder, and I doubt this will replace any. The Siegfried Idyll is more distinctive and, I think, uniquely appealing. Again, however, it’s not a work that’s short of recordings and, at full price and less than 40 minutes, I can’t see this CD having a huge appeal in such a wide open market place. In fact, I suspect it’s aimed squarely at a rather niche market: people who already love Bayreuth and its festival and, even more so, who want to capture a slice of what they missed out on in 2020. In other words, it’s aimed at me and those like me, and I suspect we’re a pretty small group!

So while it’s a lovely disc, and it will have a special place in my heart because of the circumstances in which it came about, I can’t in good conscience recommend it for the general listener. It would make a very niche gift for the Wagnerian in your life, though, and they might appreciate the value of its uniqueness. It’ll never make up for the full festival experience that summer 2020 should have provided, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

(Incidentally, on the off chance that you’re wondering, the box office offered me three options over what to do with the money I had paid for my tickets: donate it to the festival, get a full refund, or keep it as a credit for priority booking in a future year. I chose the third one, of course, so while I might have to spend a few more years on that unforgiving waiting list, there's still hope.)

Simon Thompson

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