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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der fliegende Holländer: Overture [11:46]
Tannhäuser: Overture [16:35]
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod [18:22]
Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla [7:16]
Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries [4:53]
Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music [11:00]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [12:40]
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Funeral Music [9:44]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. 2011, Henry Wood Hall, London
NIMBUS RECORDS NI7101 [46:43+45:33]

“The overtures, preludes, and introductions of Richard Wagner … have gained him an honoured place in the concert hall not usually tendered to opera composers and have made him familiar to thousands who have never seen, or may never see, a Wagner opera.”
(From the (uncredited) notes accompanying Georg Szell’s CBS Great Performances CD of Wagner overtures and preludes.)

In the LP era, the record industry seemed to share this opinion, judging by the quite large number of one- or two-disc collections of purely orchestral music by Wagner which were released. That conductors of the calibre of Furtwängler, Walter, Klemperer, Karajan, Szell and Boult contributed to this corner of the catalogue demonstrated that Wagner without voices wasn’t just for the philistines.

The 2-CD set under review, which was first published in 2012 and is now apparently re-issued, represents a welcome return to that tradition. Less welcome is the playing time of each disc, which is of LP rather than normal CD duration. To the music lover, however, concerns about quantity are always subordinate to the question of quality.

The first item in the set, the Dutchman overture, is the least satisfying. The acoustic tends to dryness. There are significant problems of balance. The tympani at the start of the work are too loud. The strings are much too recessed and lack presence, depth and sheen, as is essential in Wagner. Arguably, the conductor paused too long and slowed down too much when the initial stormy passage was over. Was this really the mighty London Symphony Orchestra? I concluded that most of the problems arose from the production and perhaps also the venue, although the conductor, too, must take some of the responsibility.

To put initial reactions to the test, I listened to three reference recordings: the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1949) in a two-CD EMI collection of Furtwängler conducting Wagner; the Philharmonia Orchestra (1960) in EMI/Warner’s boxed set of Klemperer conducting Wagner and Richard Strauss; and the Cleveland Orchestra (1960s) in the previously mentioned Szell CD (now available in a large Sony boxed set containing the conductor’s US Columbia recordings).

All three conductors adopt a vital, unified symphonic approach to performing the work. They are all faster than Butt, and Klemperer is the fastest of them all – not that tempos tell the whole story. (Butt 11:46; Furtwängler 11:23; Klemperer 10:49 and Szell 11:10.) Furtwängler’s mono recording is a splendid example of early high-fidelity with a big, warm, clear, undistorted sound and well-nigh perfect balance, naturally without the remarkable range and clarity of the best modern recordings. Klemperer’s sound, while not as refined as he was sometimes given in this venue (Kingsway Hall) improves on Furtwängler’s by adding the spaciousness of stereo. Szell’s sound combines brightness with plenty of body without exhibiting the harshness or spotlighting sometimes associated with CBS recordings of the period. It’s a touch dryer than the other two recordings, but that could just be the way Szell made his orchestra sound. It’s extraordinary but undeniable that these three old recordings offer better sound than Nimbus’s twenty-first century production for Butt. Artistically, too, they are superior.

Butt’s Tannhäuser Overture brings better internal balance, but the image remains a bit reticent, particularly with respect to the strings. There is a lack of impact at the big statement of the main theme, which commences just before the eight-minute mark. It’s not emphatic enough and the emotional temperature throughout isn’t high enough.

The performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan is rather of a piece with the preceding items: it tends to politeness and lacks sufficient passion.

Butt does better on the second CD (which commences with the Rheingold excerpt) because several of the pieces have quite extended passages of reflective and lyrical music which are appealingly played, although the orchestra remains a bit distant. The Ride of the Valkyries is nicely propulsive, but too lightly played, not abandoned enough.

Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung is the best performance in the set: it has a dark gravity and comes alive at dramatic moments as well.

Overall, however, the performances suffer from understatement and understated Wagner will not do. The engineering tends to underline this characteristic.

Yondani Butt, who passed away in 2014, received many awards for his services to music and after returning to conducting in 2009 made a number of recordings with the LSO, including complete sets of the Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann symphonies. I’m not familiar with any of them, but would hope that this Wagner set isn’t truly representative of his talents. Perhaps the master of Bayreuth simply wasn’t his composer.

Rob W McKenzie

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