This set is a cornucopia of glorious conducting and orchestral playing. While it’s impossible to generalise about works as gargantuan as Wagnerian melodramas, I can’t help thinking, having soaked up this set over a period of weeks, that people who find the contemporary interpretations of Levine, Barenboim & Thielemann faceless, may be onto something. The recordings range from Hans Knappertsbusch with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1927 or 1928, to his Munich recordings of 1962.
The sound ranges from the just acceptable to the relatively modern. Knappertsbusch was famously – or notoriously – slow, depending on your point of view, in Wagner. However, there was never any dissent about his unique ability to preserve a line or arc, gradually and convincingly accumulating tension. When it came to architectural grandeur, no one could top “Kna” in these excerpts from Rienzi, Die Fliegender Höllander, the Lohengrin Act 1 Prelude (aptly described by the liner note writer as Wagner’s first piece of truly transcendent music) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Overture and Parsifal Prelude in Munich and another Meistersinger Overture coupled with extracts from Die Walküre, Parsifal & Tannhäuser in Berlin. Intriguingly, the Meistersinger Overture in 1928 took 8’34. By the 1962 Munich performance, it has billowed out to 10’55 – an increase of more than 25%! In a way, it’s unfortunate that the 1962 recordings in more vivid sound are with the Munich Philharmonic rather than the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic but, despite this, his genius shines through. Furtwängler was a very different type of genius. His interpretations were notable for their extremely flexible phrasing and their emotional spontaneity, with feverish climaxes and tempo changes used to incandescent effect. Even what must have been a seriously depleted Berlin Philharmonic recorded in the late 1940s still manages to sound distinguished. A revelation is the Victor de Sabata Tristan & Isolde Prelude & Liebestod with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1939.
Apart from the magnificent wildness of the reading, (de Sabata once remarked to Walter Legge, founder & director of EMI’s Philharmonia Orchestra, when he’d heard its magnificent playing, “I want to ravish your virgin”), it’s incredible that a Jewish conductor was sufficiently brave to conduct in Germany a mere few months before World War II. Eugen Jochum’s 1957 Parsifal extracts are simply sublime. The irony of this set is that Knappertsbusch, de Sabata and Furtwängler all loathed the recording studio and were generally regarded as at their incomparable best live in the opera house!