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:

No comments:

Post a Comment

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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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.

Mission Statement

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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa