From Faust to The Flying Dutchman: Wagner from Scotland * An atmospheric collection by a French Wagnerian * Handel’s Xerxes * Proms farewell with Verdi
Chandos records continues to set remarkable standards in recording quality and presentation. Two of the company’s most recent releases include a first-class sequence of Wagner overtures and preludes, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi, and an Early Opera Company performance on authentic instruments of Handel’s Serse, or Xerxes. Just a few months ago, the fifth volume in a series devoted to the music of French Wagnerian, Vincent D’Indy, appeared, so it seemed an opportune moment to mention the master of Bayreuth and his Gallic disciple.
There are many recordings in the catalogue of Wagner’s overtures, and Chandos itself (some 13 years ago) produced a similar pot-pourri: overtures to Rienzi, Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin and Parsifal, with the Danish National Radio Symphony under the baton of a conductor with the curiously Wagnerian name of Gerd Albrecht. So what distinguishes the latest CD? Although it repeats such well-known pieces as Die Meistersinger, maestro Neeme Jarvi has included three much lesser-known and infrequently-played works: the early Overture to Die Feen (The Fairies, an opera from 1834); the Overture to Theodor Apel’s play, Columbus (1835); the Overture to Das Liebersverbot of 1836 (an Italian-sounding composition, with a frenetic, near-comical opening – a foretaste, perhaps, of the Venusberg music in Tannhauser), and the stand-alone A Faust Overture, written during Wagner’s time in Paris (1840 – although the score was revised ten years later). My first encounter with the Faust piece was during the 1982 Proms season, a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert on Wednesday 4th August to be precise; and by chance, that very concert (given by the British late-romantic specialist, Norman Del Mar) also made room for Vincent D’Indy’s nature-worshipping symphonic poem, La fȏret enchantée. The Faust is a taut, thoughtful, expressively-romantic, eleven-minute orchestral study, more in the manner of Berlioz; not a showpiece, not showy, not even gripping, but an experience that draws you in to the troubled world of the subject – with a memorable, almost ‘questing’ motif on strings, welling up and dispelling tension, which appears a couple of times in this mini-drama.
However, the part of this disc which truly stands out is a very well-paced and beautifully-phrased account of the opera which first made Wagner’s name in 1842: Rienzi. Here can be found the beginnings of the composer’s true musical identity: a sound-world of high, uplifting, mystical themes, recognisably German, recognisably Wagner - especially in the dark, unfolding introduction; a gesture which, I am sure, would have made the opera audience at the Dresden premiere sit in solemn worship, gazing into the clouds of heroism and destiny. However, the opera is set in Rome, and concerns the life of “the last of the Tribunes”, the mediaeval Cola di Rienzi, a rebellious and revolutionary figure. But what is important is the accent of the opera: the listener can now truly feel that he, or she, is on the path to Lohengin, Tannhauser, and ultimately, the gold of the Rhine.
Recorded in the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, the Scottish orchestra has a decidedly deep, dark-wood tone; spot-on, unfuzzy, clear horn-playing, and heavy brass which, as a whole, has real might, and which rings out through your speakers. An authentic Wagnerian blast of sound, then - with an arresting drum-roll in Rienzi that is neither booming nor hollow, but hard, crackling and growling. Jarvi also phrases one or two parts of the overture in a slightly different way from many other interpreters. Listen to the first clear theme, or tune, just a couple of minutes into the overture, and you may see what I mean… A notable CD, and an important contribution to this celebration year for Wagner, the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Vincent D’Indy (1851-1931) is one of the 19th century’s, or Romantic movement’s, overlooked figures. If a French counterpart to the English Music Festival existed, D’Indy would be one of the revived composers at the heart of the concerts. Overshadowed by Saint-Saens, by Debussy and Ravel, D’Indy is nevertheless deserving of discovery – particularly the works which appear in this rewarding journey, prepared for the inquisitive listener by Chandos. We are in La France profonde, D’Indy being a French patriot and devoted Roman Catholic. Yet from across the Rhine and into the Gallic hills and villages comes the echo of Wagner, although the Frenchman has, I believe, preserved the subtle, attractive, more easygoing ways of his country in many well-orchestrated pieces, such as the Symphonie sur un chant montagnard francais, Op. 25 (1886). A simple, folkish mountain air, and the air with which you would fill your lungs on a high ridge of the Auvergne or Cevennes (the work is subtitled Symphonie cevenole); D’Indy’s tone-painting gives a rare flavour of a region, an out-of-doors spirit and a memory of a much-loved place in the heart of a Frenchman. Once again, Chandos has honoured its composer with a flawless recording, in the form of a warm, sunny Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba, with Louis Lortie, piano.
Handel, the German who became England’s most famous composer of the Georgian era, was a prolific writer of oratorio, opera, concerti, keyboard works, orchestral suites and anthems. Messiah (or extracts from it)and Zadok the Priest, Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music can be heard each week on both Radio 3 and Classic FM. Today, the movement which demands an authentic, 18th century sound from period instruments has enabled us to appreciate these works through the prism of academic correctness: no more modern-instrument performances from modern chamber orchestras, or pared-down symphony orchestras, and certainly not the heavy, bold, well-upholstered sound of Beecham, Boult or Sargent’s Handel from the 1950s and ‘60s. As a result, the catalogue brims with lithe, delicate and dance-like, pure and astringent, church or cathedral-recorded crystal-clear renditions of Handel’s gargantuan output. And instead of yet another Messiah, Chandos has thoughtfully issued a three-CD set of Serse (Xerxes), the three-act story of the Persian king (written between 1737 and 8), in a version by the Early Opera Company, conducted by Christian Curnyn, a young, but already well-established musician, with performances at English National Opera and at Aldeburgh gaining him critical acclaim.
But Serses has one very well-known moment (again, often extracted by radio broadcasters and concert promoters), the aria in which the leading character (played by a mezzo-soprano, Anna Stephany) sings beneath the shade of a plane tree: Ombra mai fu (“Never was a shade”… [of any plant dearer or more lovely]). All the elegance of the baroque period seems to exist in this gorgeous, bittersweet tune, but if you purchase the new CD set – and I recommend you do so – passage after passage of the opera reveals other tunes, choruses, arias and recitatives of almost equal power and considerable beauty. The other leading characters, such as Arsamene (brother of Serses) and Atalanta (who is secretly in love with Arsamene, even though Romilda, her sister, is officially in love with him!) are well portrayed by David Daniels, Joelle Harvey and Rosemary Joshua.
Recorded at the Church of St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, this is a production that will greatly appeal to enthusiasts of well-engineered, modern recordings, and admirers of a modern breed of artist which looks to the musical style and practice of nearly 300 years ago.
By the time this article is available on-line, the 2013 season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (now the property and branding of the BBC) will have ended. Verdi, like Wagner, was born in 1813, and the Proms celebrated the great Italian composer in the last week of the season with a beguiling sequence of operatic arias, performed by the tenor, Joseph Calleja, and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano, Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Xian Zhang. But do not worry if you missed the evening’s broadcast. Fortunately, the relay of this very exciting concert is available via the BBC Radio 3 website for several weeks. An inspiring conclusion to a varied season, but I do wish that something could be done to improve the dynamic range, the ‘wideness’ of the radio broadcast sound. Having listened to several older analogue CDs of Proms performances, I am convinced that the high-definition quality of what we hear today just fails to capture the wide, open spaces (the richness and reverberation) of the Royal Albert Hall, leading to a sometimes dry, or too-close-to-the-microphone sound. I wonder if readers and Radio 3 listeners agree?
STUART MILLSON is the QR’s Classical Music Editor
Details of the recordings:
Neeme Jarvi conducts Wagner, overtures and preludes. RSNO. Chandos, CHSA 5126
D’Indy, orchestral works, Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard, Prelude to Fervaal etc. Iceland SO. Chandos, CHAN 10760
Handel, Serse. Early Opera Company. Chandos, CHAN 0797(3)