Wagner: Orchestral Music from The Ring (CD review)

JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.573839.

Since entering the musical stage in the late 1970's, JoAnn Falletta's reputation and popularity have grown in prominence. Today, she is the musical director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, a post she has held for twenty years, as well as director the Virginia Symphony, and she has, remarkably, recorded over seventy albums, mostly for the Naxos label.

Eventually, we knew she'd have to get around to recording Wagner, and on the current disc she offers orchestral music from all four of Der Ring des Nibelungen's music dramas: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. If you enjoy Wagner's symphonic music from The Ring but haven't the patience to sit through the lengthy vocals parts, Ms. Falletta's handling of these scores is about as good as any.

Things begin with Das Rheingold and the "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla." It's grand, glorious music, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Ms. Falletta uses it as a kind of overture. It gets our attention and heightens our expectations. And her Buffalo players are up to the task; they may not yet be in the sphere of a Berlin Philharmonic, but they are a first-rate ensemble.

Next, we get two items from Die Walkure: "The Ride of the Valkyries" and ""Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music," both arranged by W. Hutschenruyter. Needless to say, the "Valkyries" music is among the most famous in all the classical repertoire. If you're old enough, you may remember Elmer Fudd singing "Kill da Wabbit" in the 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon "What's Opera, Doc," or perhaps you'll recall Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) blasting the tune from his helicopters in Francis Coppola's 1979 war film Apocalypse Now. Ms. Falletta imbues the "Valkyries" music with the proper energy it requires and goes on to invest "Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music" with plenty of color, power, and vitality.

JoAnn Falletta
After those items is the lovely "Forest Murmurs" from Siegfried, arranged by H. Zumpe. Here, we get Wagner at his most picturesque, a short tone poem depicting the pastoral beauties of nature. Ms. Falletta does it justice, and, in fact, it is probably the highlight of the disc for me. Her gentle touch and careful phrasing bring the woods to life as well as any conductor I've heard.

The album concludes with three pieces from Gotterdammerung: "Siegfried's Rhine Journey," arranged by E. Humperdinck; "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music," arranged by L. Stastny); and "Brunnhilde's Immolation Scene." Solemn, beguiling, spiritual, and majestic by turns, this is music to inspire, with Ms. Falletta carrying out Wagner's intentions with consummate skill. It's beautifully, excitingly, imaginatively realized.

Of course, there are any number of good recordings of Wagner's orchestral music from The Ring. I especially like Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca), Leopold Stokowski and various orchestras (RCA, HDTT), Erich Leinsdorf and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sheffield Lab), Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI-Warner Classics), and Antal Dorati and the National Symphony Orchestra (Decca), among others. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic can hold their head high in this august company.

Producer and engineer Tim Handley recorded the album at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in May 2017. The sound is a little better than usual for Naxos--clearer, sharper in its details, and better imaged. Typically, the Naxos sound can be rather ordinary, even soft and fuzzy sometimes. Here, it is well defined and moderately dynamic. It is maybe a bit too bright and sometimes slightly harsh in the lower midrange; fortunately, however, such moments are infrequent. It's also a tad narrower across the sound stage than I would have expected, but it compensates with a good depth of field. Overall, the recording serves the music reasonably well.

JJP

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


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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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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa