Oct 04

KronosWagnerAt the Grave of Richard Wagner, by the Kronos Quartet ★★★
At the Grave of Richard Wagner was written by Franz Liszt, is the lead piece on this CD, but is only 2:47 long. The rest of the CD is filled with a string quartet by Alban Berg (op. 3), and five pieces by Anton Webern. This is the only recording of the At the Grave of Richard Wagner piece that I could find.
Richard Wagner’s grave is located in the grounds of his home Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth, Bayern, Deutschland. Here is a recent photo of the grave, not taken by me (I’ve never been to Bayreuth)

Grave of Richard Wagner at Willa Wahnfried

Grave of Richard Wagner at Willa Wahnfried

Though Wagner’s music is among the greatest music ever written, I have little good to say about the man Richard Wagner. Thus it is fitting that he get a less than 3 minute music memorial written to him, which is rarely listened to, and even less recorded.
The music on this set is not bad. I’m not crazy about the new Viennese school, which Webern and Berg were students of. The performances are quite high quality, and the Kronos Quartet does a wonderful job of making Webern and Berg accessible. Sadly, the entire disc is only 33 minutes long. I bought it used on Amazon.com for a few dollars. It sells new for $42, making it over a dollar a minute, and definitely NOT worth it.

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Aug 19

WagnerOperas OtherWagnerWagner: Complete Operas; Various artists, Deutsche Grammophon ★★★★★
The Other Wagner: Symphonic, Vocal and Piano Music ★★★★
Together, these two sets make up the complete published works of Wagner, as far as I can tell. I already had several performances of some of the operas in the Complete opera set, but the compendium had a reasonable enough price to make it worth purchasing the entire set. In the Other Wagner, there were new pieces for my collection. Naturally, the Sigfried Idyll and Wiesendonck Lieder were in my set, but not some of his early vocal music, which did not sound at all like the Wagner one is familiar with, or his symphony. The piano music was mostly transcriptions of his other vocal works; it is my understanding that Wagner usually wrote out a piano version first, and then orchestrated the piece, so having some of his piano transcripts is not surprising.
Each of the operas in the DG collection were superb. Many were not my favorite performances. The Ring series by Levine in this set is less satisfactory than the Solti and Karajan versions, yet is top ranking. The early operas (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi) were all well performed and recorded. Together, both sets were bargains and worth the expenditure.
But, why listen to Wagner? He is painted by historians as a proto-Nazi, racist, self-serving prig. All of that may be true, yet most musicologists without an axe to grind will admit he is the greatest symphonist of all time, in that his orchestrations for a modern full orchestra are the most complex and creative compositions to date. Wagner created music-drama and with that film background music. Having just listened to the even more expansive set of the Verdi operas, one sees little maturation from the young to the old Verdi. Wagner is the opposite, where you would not recognized the same composer in his early vs. late works. Unlike the Strauss works that I just reviewed, Wagner does not form instant weariness on the listener. Wagner is not easy to listen to. The first time I heard Wagner, I was mystified that he didn’t do the standard opera style of Mozart or Verdi or others. There were no arias followed by choruses and mixed in duets, trios, quartets and the like. In the Ring, rarely does Wagner ever have two people singing together. BUT, when they do, the result is profound. Who cannot instantly fall in love with the Walkürienflucht or “Du bist der Lenz”? If you are into 5 minute sound-bite music, stick to Strauss. If you like complete predictability and ensemble music, Verdi will hit your tops list. But, if you like complex music with true creativity, then you are stuck with composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, or Shostakovich. And it will be a compendium of Shostakovich music that I will be reviewing soon, after I listen to it.

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Oct 13

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)  conducted by Marek Janowski, Staatskapelle Dresden ★★★★★
This production, recorded in 1981-1983, is reportedly the first digital Ring on the market. It had a star-studded cast, many of the best known opera singers doing cameo pieces, such as the Rheinmädchen or some of the Walkürien, but also including Jessye Norman, Siegfried Jerusalem, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, and Rene Kollo as Siegfried. Much discussion about the use of the Californian Jeannine Altmeier as Brünnhilde on Amazon.com regards some weakness in her voice. There is truth to that, though it doesn’t seem to diminish her role, and excellent singing.
The Ring des Nibelungen is a work of four continuous operas, a total of 15 hours long, all of superb music. I try to make my way through either an audio or video production of the Ring every fall/winter around Christmastime, and having obtained a new rendering of the Ring, gave it my ear. This production originally sold on the market for about $80 and is now down to less than $30, a real steal for 14 CDs of superb music. How does it compare to other Rings? What is the best Ring? I’m not sure one can say. Every Ring out there has a few problems; none are perfect. For such a lengthy piece, how can one expect a perfect Ring? As Wagner performers are becoming harder to come by, it may be a few years before a definitive Ring hits the market again.

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May 30

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, by Richard Wagner, performed by the Deutsche Oper Berlin ??
Wagner wrote three early operas that are relatively unknown since they are rarely performed, including die Feen, das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. They are operas that are not typical of  Wagner’s mature style, but do show development toward the final Wagnerian style. Rienzi is the opera that launched Wagner’s career as a musician, and several of the pieces including the overture are still occasionally performed. There were no available movie versions of this opera until this performance came out, so I decided to buy it, especially with the reasonable reviews given to it by Amazon.com reviewers. This performance has its merit. The singers were faultless, acting and singing well. The recording was high quality, though there were often problems with mixing of the sound of the singers and the orchestra, in that the orchestra tended to drown out the voices on stage.
My problem with this performance is the staging. I don’t object to modern versions of operas, so long as they don’t distract from the story and theme of the original opera. If the staging is such that it creates another theme or story than the original opera, or if it restricts itself to being solely a commentary on either the opera or the composer, then it should not be considered as a legitimate version of the opera. I recall the Peter Sellars versions of various operas that attempted contemporary contextualization of 18th and 19th century operas, yet they were never sold as straight opera renditions. Creative license with modern European staging tends to destroy the composers intent, and this should be overtly stated. It would be like re-writing a Beethoven symphony for a Jazz band but calling it the original symphony. Liszt did not have the audacity to do that, but was willing to call his transcriptions something else, and bizarre creative staging should be called something other than the original opera.
The staging used in this performance is indeed bizarre. The citizens of Rome come out masked at first, eventually removing their masks and donning suits that looked more like Soviet peasant outfits. Rienzi and his daughter appeared more like Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun than a noble Roman tribune. The themes of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini prevailed, forcing the entire opera into an entirely other interpretation. Adriano, the traitor, is made into the hero, and Rienzi is reduced to totalitarian scum. The final scene, with Rienzi in Hitler’s bunker and Speer’s model of the new Berlin before him was exceptionally distractive to the aria “Allmächtiger Gott…” and completely out of place. The videos of Rienzi as a totalitarian propagandist before microphones appearing on television were seriously distracting. Wagner’s character development in the opera was completely re-written. The behind the scenes slaughter of the assassins at the end of act 1 altered the story of the opera. This is not the way Wagner intended the opera to be, and the staging was too divergent from the actual opera story to be legitimate. I’d rather just listen to a recording than to watch what Stölzl has given us.
Whatever one may think of Wagner, I suggest that performances should leave Wagner alone. It is true that Wagner was a truly despicable  egotistical, racist person, yet his composing is sublime. It is quite easy to see his anti-Jewish sentiments throughout his operas, which must be overlooked. Thankfully, many Jewish Wagner conductors and performers have been able to do that, producing some of the best performances of Wagner in existence (eg., James Levine’s Ring, Leonard Bernstein’s Tristan und Isolde). To be obsessed with mid-twentieth century totalitarianism when performing a Wagner opera deprives the opera of its legitimate interpretation and reduces the performance to just another case of Euro Trash.

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Sep 09

Der Fliegende Holländer, by Richard Wagner, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, starring Donald McIntyre as der fliegende Holländer, and Catarina Ligendza as Senta ?????
This opera production has received mixed reviews with Amazon.com, being that it was a filmed version and not a staged version of the opera, and that there were short deletions in the full performance of the opera. I can appreciate criticisms regarding deletions, but not on objection to the opera being filmed in life-like circumstances. I consider the opposite of film versions, to be minimalist opera, which seems to be exactly fly in the face as to why composers wrote operas rather than oratorios–because they expected the staging/scenery to contribute to the statement of the opera. To change the scene from what the composer wrote is (in my not so humble) opinion similar to changing the musical script itself. Meanwhile, back to this opera. First, the musical performance was superb. Both McIntyre and Ligendza have superb voices, and the supporting vocalists were all first class. The live scenery was more effective at conveying the opera story than a staged version would have ever done. Of the two things that have made opera accessible to modern populaces, undertitles (supratitles at the opera) and filmed versions have been the most effective at spreading the appeal of opera to normal folk. I would certainly like to see more productions like this, especially with the Wagner operas, such as Tannhäuser or der Meistersinger. While playing this opera, I asked Betsy to guess the composer, and she was quite surprised to learn that it was Wagner. She had thought that Wagner did not write melodious opera that could appeal to all. This opera, and this production in particular, is a wonderful way to begin entry into the world of Wagner, before tackling his more mature works.

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Feb 12

Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, performed by Levine, Metropolitan Opera ?????
This is a traditionally staged and performed opera. I’m not sure if it’s the Dresden or the Paris version of the opera. Sometimes, the staging leaves something to be desired, such as the re-use of the scene from the second part of the first act for the third act. The Venusberg scene was not terribly convincing in the first act. Having been in Thüringia and the Wartburg, the scenes were not terribly reminiscent of the places Wagner was attempting to represent. Even still, few dvd performances nowadays are available with traditional staging, and most are offered as minimally staged, which, I think, does Tannhäuser an injustice.  The entire production is very well staged, the video operation well done, and audio comes through always well with excellent voice to orchestra balance. Thus, in spite of its problems, this is probably the best dvd Tannhäuser available today.
People often ask me why I like Wagner, especially in terms of his anti-semitism. Such anti-semitism doesn’t seem to cause Levine too much of a problem, as well as many other Jewish conductors, who are quite masterful at the works of Wagner. It is like many composers. I see nobody protesting Tchaikovsky because he was a child molester, or Britten, because he was fond of little boys. We overlook Shostakovich’s anti-capitalism, Beethoven’s anti-social behavior, and Schumann’s psychosis, and Bach’s penchant for perfection, frequent anger fits, and probable addiction to alcohol. He also had a criminal record. Most composers, in spite of their life, produced a transcendental music, and Wagner is no exception. Certainly the prudishness of many anti-Wagnerites competes with Wagner’s own arrogance. Nobody competes as well as the Brits with the ability to be racist. so, we appreciate Wagner’s music for what it is. Wagner does an excellent job of representing various human emotions and traits, though this portrayal of Christianity is that of a very medieval Roman Catholic sort, the Pope being the sole source for salvation from certain sins. This is probably how many, even Christians, view the faith, and that is sad. This opera is early Wagner, and, over time, we see improvement in both his musical expression as well as his thematic choices. The Tannhäuser music is quite addicting, most of it very catchy, and makes for a first Wagner opera to listen to if you are unfamiliar with his works.

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