Music of Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss. Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony 88883712052.
You may have seen this on TV. PBS often airs these things during their pledge breaks (so you get to watch them what seems about 800 times a month). Each year the Vienna Philharmonic (under various notable conductors since they have no Principal Conductor) perform two major concerts of international repute: the New Year’s Eve Concert and the Summer Night Concert. The present disc contains eleven items recorded live at their Summer Night Concert 2013, conducted by Lorin Maazel. Its theme was the celebration of the 200th anniversaries of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).
Here, I have to repeat what I’ve often said about these kinds of albums: More important than the music, they are documentations of live events, souvenirs for folks who attended and tokens for those who weren’t there to suggest what all the fuss was about. Yes, they can contain some good music, and, yes, they can be entertaining. But they are not always exemplars of great music or great sound. There are three primary reasons for this: (1) The music is almost always of the briefest, most-popular warhorse variety, which classical collectors most likely already have in abundance in their music libraries; (2) the live sound doesn’t always hold up well compared to that of good studio productions; and (3) listeners have to put up with a degree of audience noise as well as endure an outburst of applause after every track. Of course, listeners who enjoy recordings of live musical events will cherish the album for just these reasons, so one takes pleasure where one will.
Maestro Maazel gets the concert off to a regal start with Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida. The Vienna players perform it with a smooth, lush precision, yet it lacks the expansive grandeur that Karajan brought to it with these same forces over thirty years earlier. When I watched Maazel conducting it on the television broadcast, he looked as though he were falling asleep. Maybe that’s his style; I don’t know. Still, the orchestra does sound gorgeous.
Next up is Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. I found this performance more to my liking than the Aida moments. Maazel seems to understand the theatrical nature of this music and the grandiloquent impact the Prelude can carry. The big climaxes create the excitement the composer intended.
And so it goes, with selections from Verdi's I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Otello, Luisa Miller, La Forza del Destino and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, and Die Walkure. Of these numbers, I preferred the ones with tenor Michael Schade (I Lombardi and Lohengrin; what a wonderful voice Schade has), as well as the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which Maazel conducts with much hushed Romantic fervor.
Oddly, Maazel's Ride of the Valkyries didn't move me the way other conductors’ versions have done, despite the absolutely glorious presentation the Vienna Philharmonic make of it. It seemed more sophisticated sound and fury to me than the dashing, thrilling music I so often hear from others.
The concert ends with a traditional Strauss tune, Long Live the Magyar!, that closes the show in an appropriately rousing manner. I have to admit that it did get the blood stirring, more so than most anything else on the program.
Incidentally, the folks at Sony provide no track timings, neither on the back cover nor in the accompanying booklet. However, my CD player's readout indicates the album contains a healthy 80+ minutes of content, about the upper limit of a compact disc.
Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the concert for Sony in the Baroque park at Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, in May 2013. The sound is fairly close (probably in order to minimize audience noise) yet rich and resonant. Definition is good, if at the expense of the sound being a tad bright and perhaps a bit too sharply outlined, making for some occasional edginess. Because it's an outdoor event, we don't get much in the way of room ambience, so any resonance we hear is probably the result of the acoustic reflectors used around the orchestra. There's not much depth to the image, either, making this more of a hi-fi presentation than a particularly realistic one. Strong dynamics help to reinforce this impression. And a slight background hiss accompanies the softest passages. Don't know why.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: