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26 June, 2013

Richard Wagner
Recommended Recordings



"I write music with an exclamation point!"

Der Ring des Nibelungen
(Kurt Böhme, Hans Hotter, et al; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus; Sir Georg Solti, conductor)
Modern storage media (CD/DVD) offer both high fidelity and great reliability in the playback of music. Yet only a bit more than a generation ago, the possibilities inherent in the long-playing record inspired John Culshaw, a young producer for Decca, to attempt the most ambitious recording project ever contemplated up to that time--a complete studio recording of the Ring. Though other Rings were issued after this landmark enterprise, none have equaled the Decca Ring in popularity. There are those who prefer live performances, or who feel that the sound and theatrical effects in this recording are overdone; nonetheless this remains the benchmark Ring, as shown by its seemingly endless rerelease schedule. The Ring effort was high profile at the time and helped nail down Sir Georg Solti's status as a "superstar" conductor and authoritative interpreter of the Wagnerian repertory. Another key contributor to the success of the project was the uniform excellence in the casting. Definitive performances given include Neidlinger's nietzschean Alberich, Stolze's whining Mime, Boehme's rumbling Fafnir, along with Nilsson in her prime-more a force of nature than a human voice. The care lavished on the capture of the music was unmatched at the time of the recording, and still leaves this as one of the best sounding Rings even today, when the oldest part (Rheingold) has reached its fortieth anniversary. (review by Christian C. Rix)

Gotterdammerung
(Astrid Varnay, Bernd Aldenhoff, Martha Modl, Ludwig Weber, et al.; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus; Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor)
In the epoch-making summer of 1951, the Bayreuth Festival reopened for the first time since the war. Featuring an unforgettable, youthful ensemble of some of the festival's finest postwar artists, this legendary performance of "Gotterdammerung" sat in the vaults for decades until its recent release. And it was worth the wait, for this is one of the most shattering conclusions to Wagner's "Ring" cycle to be heard on disc.

Lohengrin
(Falk Struckmann; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, conductor)
Lohengrin has a reputation as Wagner's most accessible, grandly romantic opera. It is arguably his saddest as well, reflecting an irreconcilable conflict between the utopian and the actual. Daniel Barenboim once again proves himself among the most astute of today's Wagnerians by tapping into this opera's uniqueness. He avoids the reductive temptation to present Lohengrin merely as a backward glance at the composer's musical roots or as a premonition of the mature music dramas to follow. In fact, there is room for both in the flowing, often brisk tempi favored by Barenboim and in his ripe attention to orchestral color (note how hypnotic are the sinister shadings evinced in the Act II prelude). This set moreover offers the complete, uncut score (including the rarely heard second part of the Act III Grail narration). Peter Seiffert is superb as the swan knight, with an evenly focused, expressive, powerful tenor and radiant high A's; he projects a core of irremediable loneliness that shows deep sympathy with Wagner's vision in this work. Emily Magee portrays a far less satisfactory Elsa, her phrasing too wooden and undifferentiated--and too close in timbre to her nemesis Ortrud, given here a menacing, Lady Macbeth-like intensity by Deborah Polaski. Falk Struckmann is rock solid, if not as psychologically riveting, as her husband Telramund; their scene together in Act II is one of the set's hair-raising highlights. Roman Trekel makes an unusually memorable impression as the stentorian herald, and there's a hint of King Marke in Rene Pape's rather wise but perplexed Heinrich. Aside from some passages of surprising listlessness (notably the Act III prelude), the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra plays with warmth and dramatic urgency. Given the cast shortcomings, this version does not displace Kempe's superlative account, but it makes a significant addition to the catalog. (review by Thomas May)

Lorin Maazel conducts Wagner Vol 2
(Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, conductor)
This second volume of Lorin Maazel's purview of Wagner orchestral excerpts, with the great Berlin Philharmonic, is particularly welcome for its inclusion of music that listeners will not already have in complete recordings of the operas. The CD's centerpiece, the "Siegfried Idyll" of 1870, is notable for its wonderful flexibilities of tempo.

This is playing that indulges romantic rubato--deliberate manipulations of strict tempos by borrowing here and repaying there--that lends the tender work a delightful spontaneity. Even though Maazel deploys larger instrumental forces than Wagner could have used in his original "home" version of the work, a wealth of telling detail comes through. The playing throughout is brisk and bright hued--apt for the splashy "Rienzi" Overture, the dazzling "Lohengrin" Act III Prelude, and the take-no-prisoners "Meistersinger" Prelude. "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" is delectably narrative.

Parsifal
(Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin State Opera Chorus; Daniela Bechly, Sally Burgess, et al; Daniel Barenboim, conductor)
It's a commonplace that Daniel Barenboim has done some of his best directing in Berlin, not Chicago, as this recording of Parsifal with the Berlin Phliharmonic attests. Wagner's score is fiendishly difficult--it's perhaps the composer's most delicate music--and Barenboim's decidedly intellectual temperament is complementary. The soloists (José van Dam, Siegfried Jerusalem, John Tomlinson, and Waltraud Meier) are superb. For me, Meier's startling, toneless gasp at the beginning of the third act--the first human sound after the ravishing orchestral introduction--is alone worth the price of this record. (review by Joshua Cody)

Tristan und Isolde
(Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirsten Flagstad, Rudolf Schock, Blanche Thebom, Josef Greindl, Ludwig Suthaus)
It's not surprising that this sublime performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde has remained on the market for so long: Wilhelm Furtwängler's reading of the tale with Ludwig Suthaus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Kirsten Flagstad is probably definitive. The conductor is peerless at achieving a strong sense of direction throughout the epic length. Carlos Kleiber's controversial version with the Dresden State Orchestra might boast orchestral fireworks (abetted by modern recording technology), but if you're looking for a Tristan where the singing takes center stage, this is the recording to buy. (review by Joshua Cody)

Wagner: Love Duets
( Placido Domingo, Deborah Voigt, et al.;Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra; Anthony Pappano, conductor)
For this pairing of some of the most sublime love music Wagner ever penned--the meeting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde and the doomed "Liebesnacht" of Tristan and Isolde--Deborah Voigt and Placido Domingo are at their white-hot best. Covent Garden's new music director Antonio Pappano leads a thrilling performance that includes the first recording ever of a rediscovered concert ending for the Tristan duet.

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