Wagner: Orchestral Highlights (CD review)

Yondani Butt, London Symphony Orchestra. Nimbus Alliance NI 6164.

Every time I hear an album like this one of Wagner highlights, I think of the famous line by British music analyst, conductor, composer, and pianist Sir Donald Tovey, who wrote in 1935, "Defects of form are not a justifiable ground for criticism from listeners who profess to enjoy the bleeding chunks of butcher's meat chopped from Wagner's operas." Dedicated Wagner fans, Wagnerites, tend to use the comment to denigrate anyone who enjoys listening to selections from Wagner's operas, arguing that to appreciate fully the composer's work, one has to listen to it in its entirety. Fair enough. Except that there are also a good number of people who find Wagner's operas long-winded and tiring, most of these folks simply enduring with patience the long stretches between what they consider the good parts. I don't suppose either group will ever understand or accept the other's point of view. In any case, what we get here from conductor Yondani Butt and the London Symphony Orchestra are "bleeding chunks," for better or for worse.

I was not familiar with Maestro Butt's work until I heard his recording of the Beethoven Third Symphony in the fall of 2011. I found it surprisingly refreshing; perhaps not in the same league with a Klemperer, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Bohm, or Zinman, but certainly worthy of a listen. So I looked forward with some pleasant degree of anticipation to the conductor's approach to Wagner with the LSO. His readings did not entirely disappoint me, although (or because) they are not particularly traditional interpretations.

Butt opens the album with the Tristan und Isolde Prelude und Liebestod, which may seem a trifle odd a choice for a curtain raiser, its being so quiet a piece of music, yet it works well enough. Admittedly, Butt takes his time with the work, occasionally appearing close to leisurely; however, it's the kind of music that can benefit from a relaxed approach, and even if it never reaches the heights of ecstasy we hear in some other renditions, it is quite lovely in a dreamy, romantic sort of way. Besides, Wagner called the texts of his operas "poems," so it's entirely appropriate that Butt take the composer at his word and make the music sound as poetic as possible.

Next, we hear the Tannhauser Overture. Why not have started the program with it? Who knows. Whatever, Butt's tempos are again on the slow side, so the overture doesn't really get the adrenaline flowing. Regardless, it's a remarkably well-shaped performance and one that perhaps elevates the music beyond the mere showpiece we usually hear.

The third track is the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure, which is just as lyrical under Butt as the previous numbers. As you can see, the first half of the program establishes a pattern for Butt's relatively gentle vision of Wagner. Whether that is what you want from Wagner is beside the point. If you're looking for something more vigorous, more dramatic or emotional, go with Solti (Decca), Szell (Sony), Tennstedt (EMI), Stokowski (RCA), Leinsdorf (Sheffield Lab), Haitink (Philips), Dorati (Decca), Boult (EMI), or Klemperer (EMI).

The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold comes after that. Here, Butt produces a very pastoral effect, soft and light, to introduce us to the grandeur of the closing. Although one might have hoped for a more majestic entrance at the finish, true to his poetic leanings, Butt doesn't quite come through with the power, relying instead on his more lyric course.

Butt closes the program with a balmy, sometimes melancholy picture of Siegfried's Rhine Journey; a reasonably moving and powerfully built account of the Gotterdammerung Funeral Music; and, not surprisingly given all that's gone before it, a fairly easygoing realization of the Ride of the Valkyries.

In all, these performances represent Maestro Butt's very special, very personal vision of Wagner's music. They are unconventional interpretations, to be sure, drawing out the noble, spiritual sentiments of the music, often at the expense of some of the more-familiar, red-blooded meat of the works. While the album may be a good antidote to the plethora of more histrionic readings available, it probably wouldn't function well as a one-and-only Wagner excerpts disc on a person's shelf.

Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, in June of 2011, the sound is quite good, with Nimbus Alliance providing the kind of clean, clear, realistic sound that EMI used to capture back in the Seventies with the LSO. This is natural, well-detailed sound, full, open, reasonably dimensional and dynamic, almost everything you can name that's good. Almost. OK, it's a tad soft and overly smooth, too, with a little less robust a bass as I'd like and a slightly veiled midrange. Still, it's some of the most listenable sound around and a pleasure on the ear.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa