Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Wagner's operas

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the twenty-first installment, I re-examine the operas by Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883), one of the most famous German composers, taking my original CD's and quite a few I collected in more recent years. Given the nature of these works, and the effort involved (listening to over 50 CD's!), I will not give detailed comments, but refer to the wikipedia links, and my final judgement.

Die Feeen (1833)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Sawallisch (Orfeo, 1984, 2 h 45 min)
[Main soloists: Kurt Moll, Linda Gray, Kari Lovaas, Krisztina Laki, John Alexander]
The Fairies is Wagner's first opera, composed when he was 20 years old. It is very much in the mould of say Carl Maria von Weber, and the lack of musical originality explains why it never made it to the standard repertoire. It does foreshadow some of the later works in its subject themes. Really for completionists only (live recording).

Das Liebesverbot (1834)
Bayerischer Staatsorchester/Sawallisch (Orfeo, 1984, 2 h 35 min)
[Main soloists: Sabine Hass, Pamela Coburn, Robert Schunk, Hermann Prey, Kieth Engen]
The Ban on Love is an early work and only one of two comedies in the Wagner opera repertoire. It is not a lost masterpiece, in fact one could mistake it for a second-grade hybrid of Weber and Rossini, even though at times one gets glimpses of what a great independent composer Wagner would involve into. Like the first effort, this live recording is for completionists only (in fact, I think Die Feen is better than this one).

Rienzi (1840)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Hollreiser (EMI, 1976, 3 h 30 min)
[Main soloists: Rene Kollo, Siv Wennberg, Nikolaus Hillebrand, Janis Martim, Theo Adam]
This dramatic tale of rebellion in medieval Rome was Wagner's first big success, even though he denounced it later - it is rarely staged or recorded nowadays. The overture does get programmed separately and is indeed the most successful part of the opera, which follows the grand opera tradition of the time. Although better than its two predecessors, I still cannot rank this higher than "not required" - the jump in quality to the next one (one year later) is stunning.

Der fliegende Hollaender (1841)
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Sinopoli (DG, 1991, 2 h 15 min)
[Main soloists: Bernd Weikel, Cheryl Studer, Placido Domingo, Hans Sotin, Peter Seiffert]
ORF Symphony Orchestra and Budapest Radio Chorus/Steinberg (Naxos, 1998, 2 h 18 min)
[Main soloists: Alfred Muff, Ingrid Haubold, Erich Knodt, Peter Seiffert]
The Flying Dutchman, the story about the cursed sea captain doomed to sail forever, is the first of the 10 Wagner operas that are still considered standard repertoire in opera houses world wide. The Norwegian Sailors' song in act 3 (Steuermann, lass die Wacht!) has rightly become famous on its own. One of the important operas, no doubt. I have a slight preference for the Sinopoli version.

Tannhaeuser (1845/1861)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Solti (Decca, 1970, 3 h 7 min)
[Main soloists: Hans Sotin, Helga Dernesch, Rene Kollo, Victor Braun, Werner Hollweg]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sinopoli (DG, 1989, 3 h 16 min)
[Main soloists: Placido Domingo, Cheryl Studer, Agnes Baltsa, Matti Salminen, Andreas Schmidt]
One of the least performed of the big ten, but excerpts are often played in concerts and the overture is probably his best known tune after the Ride of the Valkyries. The other evergreen is the pilgrim's choir based on the same theme. Both Solti and Sinopoli choose the later Paris version to good effect, and for me both interpretations are great. An important opera, close to essential.

Lohengrin (1848)
Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Kubelik (DG, 1996, 3 h 43 min)
[Main soloists: James King, Gundula Janowitz, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Stewart, Karl Ridderbusch]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Solti (Decca, 1987, 3 h 42 min)
[Main soloists: Placido Domingo, Jesse Norman, Eva Randova, Siegmund Nimsgern, Hans Sotin]
The tale of the Swan Knight Lohengrin is as romantic as they come, with some gorgeous music, especially in the preludes and the evergreen bridal choir. A cornerstone of the opera repertoire. I have a slight preference for the Kubelik version.

Der Ring der Nibelungen (1848-1874)
Wiener Philharmoniker (Decca, 1958-1965, 14 h 37 min)
[Main soloists: Wolfgang Windgassen, James King, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Regine Crespin]
English National Opera Orchestra/Goodall (Chandos, 2001, 16 h 53 min)
[Main soloists: Derek Hammond-Stroud, Norman Bailey, Norman Welsby, Ann Howard, Gillian Knight]
Comprising of four full-length operas that are to be performed on four subsequent evenings: Rheingold, Die Walkuere, Siegfried and Goetterdaemmerung. No words are necessary to describe the importance of this epic work, one of the highlights in the history of occidental art. The legendary Solti recording is unsurpassed even after over 50 years, the Goodall version in English is a curiosity in comparison. Hors concours.

Tristan und Isolde (1858)
Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunk/Bernstein (Philips, 1981, 4 h 26 min)
[Main soloists: Peter Hofmann, Hildegard Behrens, Yvonne Minton, Hans Sotin, Bernd Weikl]
Welsh National orchestra/Goodall (Decca, 1981, 4 h 19 min)
[Main soloists: John Mitchinson, Linda Gray, Philip Joll, Anne Wilkens, Gwynne Howell]
Widely regarded as one of his best works, on par or even exceeding the Ring trilogy - to be frank, as much as I like it, I still think it is not on that amazing level. In fact, I prefer Lohengrin and Parsifal over it as well. Still essential though. The Bernstein version is a clear favourite over the Goodall.

Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg (1867)
Staatskapelle Dresden/von Karajan (EMI, 1971, 4 h 26 min)
[Main soloists: Theo Adam, Karl Ridderbusch, Geraint Evans, Rene Kollo, Peter Schreier]
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg isWagner's only mature attempt at a comic opera - highly successful according to many, but it is simply not my cup of tea. Of course, it has lots of great moments, but I find it distinctly less attractive than the other nine of the top Wagner operas.

Parsifal (1882)
Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1984, 4 h 16 min)
[Main soloists: Peter Hofmann, Durja Vejsovic, Siegmund Nimsgern, Victor von Halem]
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Boulez (DG, 1970, 3 h 39 min)
[Main soloists: James King, Karl Riddersbusch, Gwyneth Jones, Thomas Stewart, Franz Crass]
Perhaps the least accessible of the big ten, but for me one of the best. There is a distinct absence of "hits" in this opera, but it holds together very well, and the atmosphere throughout is fascinating. Primus inter pares for the Wagner operas that I rank as essential - with a preference for the Karajan version.


Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: Der Ring der Nibelungen.
Essential: Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde.
Important: Der fliegende Hollaender, Tannhaeuser.
Good to have: Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg.
Not required: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi.
Avoid: None.