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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll (1869) [18:16]
Rienzi, Overture (1838-40) [13:21]
Tannhäuser, Overture, Act I and Bacchanale (1843-45) [22:29]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Prelude (1861-67) [9:48]
Lohengrin, Act III: Prelude (1846-48) [3:26]
Der fliegende Holländer, Overture (1839-41) [11:00]
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I (1846-48) [9:27]
Die Walküre, Act III: The Ride of the Valkyries (1854-56) [5:05]
Siegfried, Act II, Waldweben (Forest Murmurs) (1856-71) [8:28]
Götterdämmerung, Concert version: Siegfried's Funeral March (1871-74) [12:40]
Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod (1857-59) [19:05]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III: Prelude (1861-67) [7:36]
Parsifal, Act III: Karfreitagszauber (Good Friday Spell) (1877-82) [9:55]
MET Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker (Idyll)/James Levine
rec. 1991, Manhattan Center, New York,; Grosser Saal, Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin
ELOQUENCE 484 0636 [78:55 + 72:18]

Nearly fifty years ago, when I was at grammar school, Richard Wagner became (for a very short period) the be-all-and-end-all of music for me. That is, until I discovered Bach, Debussy and as much of British music that was then available. I had been introduced to Tristan and Isolde by a school friend. Then I progressed to the Ring: I was quite simply amazed and blown away by this music. Then something happened. It was at a performance of Götterdämmerung at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. A friend and I got very bored, so at the end of Act I we went for a curry at a nearby Indian restaurant, and then returned for the final ‘Immolation’ in Act III. From then on, I rapidly lost interest in Wagner, his life and his work. I think the truth was that I just couldn’t care less about Alberich, Fafner, Freya and a cast of thousands ‘starring’ in these massive operas. Enthusiasts of Wagner will be appalled at my confession. Forty-eight years of studiously avoiding Wagner opera must seem like a crime. But we cannot like everything by every composer ever to have written a note of music.

On the positive side, I continued to enjoy the ‘purple passages’ from several of Wagner’s operas. Never one for excerpts from symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, concertos and even oratorios, I made an exception for Wagner. Put it this way, the only bit of Tristan that I need to keep me musically sane, is the Liebestod: it is a Desert Island Disc. This is one of the most wonderful pieces of music that I know. But preferably in the orchestra-only version. It is for this reason that I thoroughly enjoyed this splendid 2-CD collection of the ‘juicy bits’ played by the Met Orchestra and conducted by James Levine. For the record, the Berliner Philharmoniker is responsible here for the gorgeous account of the Siegfried Idyll. This work, despite its title, was designed for orchestra, and was never part of the operatic scheme. (I do wish the RW had written a deal more purely orchestral music). This piece of ‘love music’ was dedicated to Wagner’ wife, Cosima, as a birthday gift. It was first played by a scratch band outside the window at their house near Lucerne, Switzerland. It is surely one of most precious non-vocal ‘lullabies’ ever written.

Looking into the track-listings, we find many of the most wonderful moments from ten operas; this would be more than two days of solid listening if one heard the entire works. Here, I can pick and choose what I want to hear. The ground covered by this CD is considerable. All the potboilers are included: The Flying Dutchman overture, the Preludes to Act 1 and Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the inevitable ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (what Wagner compilation would be complete without it) and Siegfried’s ‘Funeral Music’ from Götterdämmerung. An early example of Wagner’s craft is heard in the Overture to Rienzi. Another one of my favourite extracts is the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin where heaven and earth meet in Wagner’s gorgeous score.

The liner notes, written jointly by Hartmudt Fladt and Anthony Burton are excellent and give a good introduction to Wagner’s operatic achievement. All the pieces on this double-CD have been lifted from three discs originally released during the 1990s. These recordings display the energy, enthusiasm and excitement that characterised James Levine’s tenure at the Met (Metropolitan Opera) in New York.

Finally, as I was reviewing these two CDs, I was tempted to ‘have a go’ at one of Wagner’s operas in its full glory. Somewhere I have a DVD of The Flying Dutchman. I may search it out and watch. Maybe I am not lost to Wagner opera enthusiasts entirely…

For anyone who enjoys Wagner’s music, but cannot (like me) invest the time, effort and nous in listening to the ‘full works’ I can heartily recommend this CD. But please be selective: do not listen to it all at one sitting. Wagner, I find, like red wine, in considerable quantities can give indigestion (amongst other things.)

John France

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