Wagner: Overtures (CD review)

Alexander Rahbari, Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557055.

Over the years the folks at Naxos have provided the classical-music public some solid, well performed, reasonably well recorded, and fairly priced discs. The present album, however, isn’t necessarily one of them unless you are specifically looking for something out of the way.

The strongest virtue of this collection of early Wagner overtures is that it offers up some little-known, little-heard music by the composer. Beyond that, I’m afraid it can get a little dicey. Pleasant, but dicey.

The most popular item on the album is the opening work, Richard Wagner’s “Rienzi” overture, the composer’s first big hit as it were, which he premiered in 1842. Maestro Alexander Rahbari and the Malaga Philharmonic give it an appropriately swaggering performance, emphasizing all the pomp and ceremony that Wagner could muster. There is definitely a reason why Rahbari starts the program with this number.

The other four works, though, are not so well known, and for a reason; they aren’t as interesting as the opening piece and certainly not as important as Wagner’s much-later material. Written mostly in the 1830’s, before people even knew who Wagner was, the disc’s early Wagner works show a marked inclination toward melodrama, borrowings from other composers; and, while pleasing enough, they lack the kind of invention we would later expect from Wagner. Nevertheless, they make intriguing mementos of the composer’s past and should be of value to anyone interested in the composer’s early efforts.

After “Rienzi” comes “King Enzio,” which Wagner wrote in 1832 as an overture to a play by Ernest Raupach. Beethoven’s Fidelio appears to have influenced the composer, yet Wagner’s piece seems a pale imitation by comparison. Still, Maestro Rahbari does it justice, I’m sure, in a first-time recording, and makes it seem a moderately engaging piece. “The Ban on Love,” 1836, sounded a bit too insipid for my taste, however, with the exception of some tambourines and castanets in the opening, which are admittedly kind of fun. “The Fairies” overture, 1834, has the promise of Weber but soon leaves that prospect behind and becomes slightly wearisome. “Christoph Columbus,” 1840, another rarity, fares better than most of the other early overtures and gives us some idea of Wagner’s future creativity.

The disc ends with “Faust,” an overture that Wagner began as the first movement of a proposed Faust symphony begun years earlier but revamped in 1855. It’s no “Rienzi,” but it does foreshadow the bigger, better things to come. Franz Liszt liked Wagner’s Faust overture so well he wrote his own, more famous Faust Symphony, encouraging Wagner to do some revising of his own. Anyway, the result in Wagner’s overture is more than listenable and quite engaging by itself.

Although Maestro Rahbari gives each reading a competent, if sometimes seemingly perfunctory, reading, the Naxos engineers do him no favors with their close yet reverberant and somewhat veiled sonics. The Malaga Philharmonic appears to be producing a smaller sound than that which eventually reaches our ears, but thanks to a magnification of the mid and upper bass, the whole thing appears bigger than it should be and a bit muffled. While the result is not exactly akin to throwing a blanket over the speakers, if you happen to have something on hand such as Klemperer’s superb old EMI set of Wagner orchestral music, you’ll immediately hear a greater transparency from the EMI recordings despite their age.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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