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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Orchestral Music: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude (Act I); Tannhäuser Overture; Lohengrin – Prelude (Act I); Prelude (Act III); Der Fliegende Holländer – Overture; Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded 22nd September - 1st October and 15th – 19th October 1974 in the Philharmonie, Berlin

Recordings from the high noon of Karajan’s reign with the BPO. These are really thrilling ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner, played by what was surely the world’s finest orchestra at the time, full of power and conviction. These are not ‘comfortable’ Wagner performances; rather, Karajan liked to emphasise the Dionysian side of the composer, an approach which would be a risky one with anything other than a superb ensemble like the BPO.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brilliant ‘Venusberg’ music from the Paris version of Tannhäuser. Listeners who know the more usual form of the overture will be taken aback by the sudden apparent ‘wrong turning’ in its central section, for the music suddenly plunges off at a tangent into a wild Bacchanale, with exotic percussion adding to the decadent atmosphere. Then follows a passage of unbridled sensuality, complete with distant, beckoning women’s voices. Don’t play this music to under-age children.

Before this heady stuff, the disc begins with a rousing and majestic ‘Meistersinger’ overture; then comes Tannhäuser, followed by the two famous Lohengrin preludes – Act I and Act III. The Act III Prelude is a riot, and I’ve never heard it sound more priapic; if you want to know where young Richard Strauss got his inspiration for the horn music in Don Juan, then listen no further! The magnificent Act I prelude, though, is problematic; the string sound of the BPO is really too sumptuous here (bearing in mind that the ethereal opening is marked pianissimo), and the generally superb recording here renders the sound rather glassy and artificial. The performance is superbly paced, and builds to a wonderful climax, but still amounts to, for me, the least satisfactory item on the disc.

The Flying Dutchman overture that follows, on the other hand, is completely stunning, easily the most convincing performance of this work I’ve heard on disc. Conductor and orchestra go for broke, and the result is just – well mind-boggling. You wouldn’t actually be able to cope with the full opera after this, but, if you’re going to record these overtures, this is the way to do it, so that the entire power of the drama comes surging out of the speakers.

Much the same applies to the music from Tristan. The Prelude perfectly expresses the unquenchable passion of this music, and builds to an unbearably intense climax. This is the only way that this ‘telescoping’ of the whole music-drama can be made to work, and the final apotheosis of the Liebestod is simply ecstatic. Great playing, great conducting.

Yes, I felt emotionally drained after listening to this CD – but that’s how Wagner should leave you! People often pooh-pooh Karajan, as if he were a mere technician driving a sort of thoroughbred machine. This is rubbish, for every bar in these performances bears testament to his burning love for and deep knowledge of this great music. If you ever feel the urge to buy a Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’ CD, this is undoubtedly THE one.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Great Recordings of the Century series

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