Wagner: Preludes and Interludes (CD review)

Fabio Luisi, Philharmonia Zurich. Philharmonia Records PHR 0102 (2-disc set).

Do we really need another recording of Wagner orchestral excerpts, as in Fabio Luisi's 2014, two-disc recording of the composer's preludes and interludes? After all, you can find most of this material from such heavyweights in the field as Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, George Szell, Adrian Boult, Klaus Tennstedt, Leopold Stokowski, and others. Does Maestro Luisi and his Philharmonia Zurich bring anything new to the table in the way of performance or sound? Needless to say, the answer is a very personal matter, and it may depend entirely on either your love for Wagner or your devotion to collecting everything of his ever recorded. For me, Luisi's collection is OK, but I wouldn't say it displaces the sets from any of the aforementioned conductors. Let's start with what's in the set.

Disc 1:
Parsifal, Act I: Prelude
Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), Act I: Siegfried's Rhine Journey
Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), Act III: Siegfried's Funeral March
Die Walkure, Act III: Ride of the Valkyries
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), Act I: Prelude
Tristan und Isolde, Act I: Prelude
Tristan und Isolde, Act III: Isolde's Liebestod

Disc 2:
Lohengrin, Act I: Prelude
Tannhauser: Overture
Rienzi: Overture
Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), Act I: Overture
Die Feen (The Fairies), Act I: Overture

As you can see, most of the program includes the old favorites. However, Luisi does finish up the album with music from two early and relatively little-known Wagner works, Das Liebesverbot and Die Feen (his very first opera), and we'll get to those in a minute.

In the booklet notes Maestro Luisi tells us that he chose to record these opera preludes and interludes because "Wagner was a genius not only in the dramaturgical construction of his works, but also because he used the orchestra in a way it had rarely been used in an opera before. One can see an evolution in the language of the orchestra. Over the course of his creative career Wagner came to regard and use the orchestra less and less as an accompaniment to the action, and to give it an increasingly prominent role in the whole artistic creation." Fair enough, if a tad vague on details. But the music's the thing, and here Luisi does fairly well, especially with Wagner's more-subtle moments, as with the opening selection, the Parsifal Prelude, which sounds mostly subdued and atmospheric.

Siegfried's Rhine Journey appears likewise moody and subdued, which may seem an odd way to begin an album of Wagner orchestral music because there are no seriously big thrills here; yet Luisi does set the scenes up nicely and builds to some heavy-duty climaxes.

Then we get Siegfried's Funeral March, which does carry some serious thrills, which Luisi handles at least adequately. Perhaps his sense of propriety holds him back a little, though, because his reading of the segment's biggest moments lack some of the urgency and excitement of competing recordings.

Fabio Luisi
So, how does the famous Ride of the Valkyries come off? Pretty well, actually. It's here, however, that the sound lets it down a bit. The music needs more bass and greater impact than the engineers provide it. Oh, well....

And so it goes, with Luisi emphasizing the music's Romantic mood swings and lyrical qualities over its more overtly exciting or emotional outbursts. Thus, the power of Wagner's music gets somewhat shortchanged. I wouldn't necessarily count this a disadvantage, though, as there are plenty of conductors who give one primarily the throbs of excitement in Wagner. At least Luisi tries to get to the more introspective side of things, even if it does rob the music of some of its pulse.

If any of this makes sense to you, then, it will not surprise you that I found Isolde's Liebestod one of the highlights of the disc. Luisi captures the passion, beauty, and grace of the piece with a fine, flowing ease.

The Lohengrin, Tannhauser, and Rienzi tracks come off comfortably if a bit prosaically. Then the two seldom-heard concluding pieces remind us why people seldom hear them. They seem rather ordinary, if not a little bombastic, compared to Wagner's more-mature output. But Luisi gives them splendid workouts, and the music can be invigorating at the very least.

Producer Andreas Werner and engineer Jakob Handel made the recording at Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland in November 2014. The best thing about the sound, among other things, is its depth of image. You can actually listen into the orchestra and appreciate its front-to-back perspective as well as its left-to-right stereo spread. Yet with a modestly distanced miking the stereo spread remains realistically between the speakers, providing a lifelike seating arrangement for the listener. The hall itself adds to the illusion of realism by providing a soft resonance; not enough to obscure the sound's detailing but enough to offer a little ambient bloom. Quibbles? as I hinted before, I would have liked a deeper bass and a stronger dynamic impact. They would have contributed to an even more-powerful presentation. Nevertheless, what we get is still welcome, if a touch underwhelming.


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

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa