Great Wagner Conductors from DG

With recording dates that range from 1927 to 1962, the consistent
excellence of the recorded sound is remarkable even for Deutsche Grammophon.
Not unexpectedly, sound reproduction is not as detailed or expansive in the
earliest recordings in this compilation, but the music of Wagner is brilliantly
served both by the original recordings and by the mastering of Lennart Jeschke.

Discs One and Two are devoted to the conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch (1888
– 1965), still regarded by many critics as the undisputed Wotan in the
Valhalla of Wagner conductors. Much of Maestro Knappertsbusch’s career was
devoted to conducting Wagner, and his 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal
—recorded by John Culshaw for DECCA—remains a touchstone of Wagner
interpretation. From November 1962 recording sessions with the M¸nchner
Philharmoniker emerged the featured performances of the Overtures from
Rienzi, Der fliegende Holl‰nder, and Tannh‰user ;
the Act One Vorspiele from Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger
von N¸rnberg
, and Parsifal; the Siegfried-Idyll , and
the Act One Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und
. From 1927 or 1928 recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker come
performances of the Acts One and Three Vorspiele and the Tanz der
(Dance of the Apprentices) fromDie Meistersinger von
; the Walk¸renritt ( Ride of the Valkyries) from
Die Walk¸re; the Act One Verwandlungsmusik (Transformation
Music) from Parsifal; and the Venusberg (Bacchanale) from
Tannh‰user. One of the most interesting opportunities offered by
these selections is that of comparing Maestro Knappertsbusch’s 1927 or 1928
performance of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger von
with the 1962 performance. Clocking in at 10:55, the later
performance is more than two minutes longer than the earlier recording, which
has a duration of 8:34. Timings are of course somewhat deceptive when comparing
recordings of these vintages, especially considering that side lengths remained
limited in the early days of electrical recording. These constraints led to
cutting music and perhaps adopting speeds before the microphones that were
rather quicker than those that would have been employed in the theatre. Not
unlike Herbert von Karajan, Maestro Knappertsbusch exhibited an increasing
expansiveness of approach as his career progressed. Despite the difference in
durations, the two recordings of the Meistersinger Act One
Vorspiel are surprisingly similar: brass fanfares are given the
prominence they deserve, but the inner voices and colorations of Wagner’s
cleverly-deployed counterpoint are also completely evident. All of the excerpts
conducted by Maestro Knappertsbusch explore the ‘inner demons’ of the
music. In the Fliegende Holl‰nder Overture, a sense of mystery is
pervasive without being overwrought. The Liebestod from Tristan
und Isolde
tingles with emotional immediacy. The Act One
Verwandlungsmusik from Parsifal has audible senses of wonder
and spiritual fervor. The Rienzi Overture is a rarity in the
repertories of most great Wagner conductors, but Maestro Knappertsbusch’s
pacing of the piece reveals fleeting glimpses at Wagner’s mature style,
confirming that the opera was an important step in the composer’s musical
development. Maestro Knappertsbusch’s reputation as a Wagnerian is perhaps
sufficient to justify his prominence in this collection of the work of great
Wagner conductors. The excerpts on offer here that were recorded under his
baton justify that reputation.

The third disc celebrates the Wagner conducting of Wilhelm Furtw‰ngler
(1886 – 1954). To Maestro Furtw‰ngler went the accolade of conducting the
first commercially-issued Ring Cycle, taken from concert performances
recorded for broadcast by RAI Roma in 1953. He was also contracted to conduct
the first complete Ring recorded in studio, but at the time of his
death only Die Walk¸re had been recorded. All of the performances
conducted by Maestro Furtw‰ngler in this compilation were recorded ‘live’
with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the ensemble of which he was named Principal
Conductor in 1922. Recorded eight years into Maestro Furtw‰ngler’s tenure at
the helm of the Philharmoniker, the Act One Vorspiel from
Lohengrin is as ethereal as the sound quality allows, the string tone
mostly free from distortion in the highest register. An aspect of Maestro
Furtw‰ngler’s conducting from which today’s Wagnerians could learn much is
the way in which flexibility of rhythm is put to telling use in passages of
greatest dramatic emphasis, the hairpin turns in rhythmic profile serving the
composer rather than earmarking the idiosyncrasies of the conductor. Maestro
Furtw‰ngler’s command of rubato is masterful, and he displays even
in the Act One Vorspiel a cognizance of the fact that, its Teutonic
dramaturgy notwithstanding, Lohengrin is in many ways an Italianate
score, with the preponderance of 4/4 time and the concerted Act Finales. Taken
from performances recorded in Berlin’s Titania-Palast on 19 August 1949,
accounts of the Act One Vorspiel from Die Meistersinger and
the Trauermarsch (Siegfried’s Funeral March) from
Gˆtterd‰mmerung reveal Maestro Furtw‰ngler at the zenith of his
abilities as a Wagner conductor, the great melodic arcs of both selections
built upon sturdy foundations of richly-textured sound. Also recorded in the
Titania-Palast, the performances of the Act One Vorspiel and
Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde date from 27 April 1954,
only seven months before Maestro Furtw‰ngler’s death. Lacking nothing in
terms of energy, these selections find the conductor pushing the music slightly
too hard: missing are the ambiguity and disquietude that simmer in Maestro
Knappertsbusch’s recordings of the same pieces, as well as in Maestro
Furtw‰ngler’s complete recording of the opera with Ludwig Suthaus and
Kirsten Flagstad. The account of the Tannh‰user Overture was recorded
in Rome on 1 May 1951: Maestro Furtw‰ngler displays a clear knowledge of where
the music starts and ends, and his pacing of the performance ideally conveys
the journey between those two points. A few days before the
Tannh‰user Overture was recorded in concert in Rome, on 25 April
1951, the Philharmoniker played the Karfreitagszauber (Good Friday
Spell) from Parsifal in what seems an unlikely venue: Alexandria,
Egypt. This excerpt from Parsifal is an especially welcome selection,
the paucity of recorded evidence of the conductor’s way with the score
rendering it tremendously valuable. Maestro Furtw‰ngler conducted
Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1936 and 1937, assuming the mantle of Richard
Strauss, who had conducted the opera on the Green Hill in 1933 and 1934, and
returned to the opera for five performances at La Scala in 1951. Wagnerians and
admirers of the conductor’s artistry have long clung to rumors that at least
one of the La Scala performances was recorded: some contemporary sources
suggest that one of the Parsifal performances was intended to be
transmitted live over Italian radio, but in the event a recording of the 1950
RAI concert performances conducted by Vittorio Gui was broadcast—thankfully
so, as that broadcast facilitated preservation of Maria Callas’s performance
of Kundry under decent recording conditions. In the performance recorded in
Alexandria, Maestro Furtw‰ngler brings great weight of tone to the
Karfreitagszauber, the sound being constructed in layers with the
sureness of touch of a true master. Somewhat perplexingly, Maestro
Furtw‰ngler’s conducting of Wagner repertory is often compared to similar
efforts by his contemporary Arturo Toscanini, who conducted Parsifal
at Bayreuth in 1931. It is often said that Maestro Furtw‰ngler strove to
create magnificent cacophonies of sound, whereas Toscanini pursued leaner
orchestral timbres and stricter rhythm. These selections reveal that Maestro
Furtw‰ngler possessed his own unique concept of rhythmic pacing which enlisted
adaptability of the beat as a vital component of effective interpretation of
the music of Wagner. Even when the recorded sound does not permit the listener
to enjoy a complete appreciation of the dynamic ranges and sheer power of sound
that Maestro Furtw‰ngler sought, it is apparent that he was a Wagnerian of
phenomenal importance.

Selections on the fourth disc are divided among three undoubted masters of
Wagner repertory who, to Twenty-First-Century observers, might nonetheless seem
slightly out of place in company with Knappertsbusch and Furtw‰ngler.
D¸sseldorf-born Karl Elmendorff (1891 – 1962) is deservedly remembered by
Wagnerians for having conducted the first studio recordings of Tristan und
in 1928 and Tannh‰user in 1930, as well as for having
presided over memorable performances at Bayreuth, where he was a frequent
presence from 1927 until 1942. His work did not earn him the adulation enjoyed
by Knappertsbusch and Furtw‰ngler, however, and he is increasingly overlooked
as the years pass. In June 1941, he recorded orchestral excerpts from the
Ring with the Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin and the Staatskapelle
Berlin. With the former ensemble, he recorded theEinzug der Gˆtter in
(Entry of the Gods into Valhalla) from Das Rheingold and
the Walk¸renritt and Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) from
Die Walk¸re. With Staatskapelle Berlin, he recorded Siegfrieds
(Siegfried’s Rhine Journey) from Gˆtterd‰mmerung.
All four selections reveal an unquestionable skill with shaping Wagnerian
phrases, the Walk¸re and Gˆtterd‰mmerung numbers in
particular bristling with energy but never veering out of control. Victor de
Sabata (1892 – 1967) is now perhaps most remembered for his conducting of
Verdi and Puccini repertory, but it is worth noting that, owing to the complex
dynamics of European politics, Maestro de Sabata was an Austrian citizen at the
time of his birth in Trieste. His sensibilities were decidedly Italianate in
the tradition of Toscanini, in whose footsteps he followed when he conducted
Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth in 1939. It is with the Act One
Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde that
Maestro de Sabata is represented in this compilation. Recorded in April 1939,
less than four months before he dÈbuted at Bayreuth, the pieces are superbly
played by the Berliner Philharmoniker, Maestro de Sabata’s disciplined but
impassioned conducting wringing every ounce of emotional impact from Wagner’s
music. Eugen Jochum (1902 – 1987) belongs to the Kapellmeister
tradition that has unaccountably taken on negative connotations in the years
since the beginning of the era of ‘star’ conductors. Like Maestro de
Sabata, Maestro Jochum made his dÈbut at Bayreuth conducting Tristan und
, but it is primarily as an advocate for Anton Bruckner’s
Symphonies that Maestro Jochum is remembered. In this compilation, Maestro
Jochum is honored with the inclusion of 1951 recordings of the
Vorspiele from the First and Third Acts of Lohengrin with the
Berliner Philharmoniker and 1957 performances of the Act One Vorspiel
and Karfreitagszauber from Parsifal with the
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Maestro Jochum perhaps lacked the
larger-than-life charisma of his Wagnerian counterparts, but he was second to
none in preparedness, musicality, and knowledge of the repertory. His readings
of the selections from Lohengrin and Parsifal are
appropriately complementary: poise and careful attention to the nuances of
Wagner’s phrasing reveal the similarities of the structures and sound worlds
of these excerpts despite Lohengrin and Parsifal occupying
opposite ends of Wagner’s artistic career. The subtle but bracing vitality of
Maestro Jochum’s conducting reminds the listener that traditions persist
because there is inherent validity and power in the approaches that they

It has become all too common for the Wagnerian efforts of conductors to
prove either anonymously inept or damagingly idiosyncratic. Perhaps the
greatest fallacy that has pervaded the music of Wagner across the generations
is that it requires a specialized approach that borders on proselytism. Though
Hans Knappertsbusch and Wilhelm Furtw‰ngler are admired for setting standards
by which other conductors of Wagner’s music are still measured, their
trend-setting also extended to the music of Mozart and Beethoven. During his
tenure as Principal Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Elmendorff was
celebrated for his conducting of wide-ranging operatic and symphonic
repertories. The legacy of Victor de Sabata is immortalized by the 1953 studio
recording of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, still recognized
as one of the greatest operatic recordings ever made, but he was also acclaimed
for his conducting of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Respighi. Eugen Jochum was an
idiomatic, intelligent conductor of a varied repertory who, in his career as a
Wagnerian, presided over the 1954 Bayreuth dÈbut of Birgit Nilsson as Elsa in
Lohengrin. In short, all of these eminent Wagnerians were also
respected for their work beyond the Wagner canon. This observation is critical
to understanding why these five conductors towered over their contemporaries as
interpreters of the music of Wagner. To these five men, Wagner’s music was
not an exalted institution to be quarantined and approached with special
reverence. These conductors understood the position that Wagner occupies in the
development of Western music and, rather than regarding his works as
antiseptic, pseudo-religious experiences, approached Wagner’s music as a
fantastic menagerie of creatures, their life drawn from the common genetic
ancestry of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and Schumann and their destinies devoted
to influencing all the music that followed. No man is an island, it is said:
these five conductors helped to row Wagner to shore, where his music became an
integral part of the musical landscape both in the world’s theatres and on

Joseph Newsome

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883): Great Wagner Conductors—Orchestral Music
from Rienzi, Der fliegende Holl‰nder,Lohengrin,
Tannh‰user, Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg, Tristan und
, Das Rheingold, Die Walk¸re, Siegfried,
Gˆtterd‰mmerung, and Parsifal; Berliner Philharmoniker,
M¸nchner Philharmoniker, Orchester der Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle
Berlin, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Karl Elmendorff, Wilhelm
Furtw‰ngler, Eugen Jochun, Hans Knappertsbusch, Victor de Sabata [Various
recording venues and dates; Deutsche Grammophon 479 1148; 4CD, 301:01]

product_title=Great Wagner Conductors
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 1148 7 [4CDs]