WAGNER: Rienzi – Overture; Der fliegende Hollaender – Overture; Tannhauser – Overture; Lohengrin – Prelude; Lohengrin: Act III Prelude; Die Meistersinger von Nurenberg – Prelude to Act III; Parsifal – Prelude – Southwest-Radio Orchestra Baden-Baden/Hans Rosbaud – SWR Classics 19036CD, 72:01 (5/12/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

SWR Classics initiated their revival of the conductor Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962) recorded legacy with this all-Wagner concert, 1955-1959, which allows us to savor his pointed, linear style in the very series of works that provided the template for German music-drama. Wagner claimed to have extended the course of the opera overture from both Weber and Beethoven, presenting “the whole drama in a more deeply moving way than following the separate acts does. Thus, the prelude is not simply an overture but in itself the most powerful drama.” The 1842 Overture to Rienzi (rec. 12/28/55) marks the only “developmental” study by Wagner in this series. Its essentially lyric, Neapolitan approach makes much of “Rienzi’s prayer” and evolves into a potent march that carries a rousing triumph of the notions of duty and romantic love, even in the face of treachery.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

The Flying Dutchman Overture (rec. 12/27/55) provides a good case in point: based on a traditional, Germanic folk tale, the music avoided the turgid machinations of the (Italianate) Rienzi plot that occupied Wagner at virtually the same time.  A sea voyage through Norway’s reefs provided much of the impetus for the “program” of the music for the Dutchman: a potent, stentorian D minor urges the listener into the punishing seas, complementing in Nature the torments of the cursed Dutchman, who seeks redemption through love.  The driven, arched and clear phrases Rosbaud elicits tempt me to label him “the German Toscanini,” given the poignancy of his literalist approach. The voluptuously flexible reading of the Tannhauser Overture (2/6/59) conveys a seamless, linear approach similar in style to what we hear in Sawallisch and Schmidt-Isserstedt, yet the patina retains a warmth that belies its sobriety. The wind section—and so, too, the violin solo—relishes the flourishes and curlicues in the musical line, while the strings sweep upward with the eroticism of the Venusberg. If the string work does not quite excel as Klemperer’s strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra, the trumpet works equals anything in Karajan.

Few compositions project an ethereal luster as vividly as the 1850 Prelude to Lohengrin, a musical embodiment of the Holy Grail as it proves immanent for our spiritual life. The recording (3/11/57) by the Südwestfunk Orchester masterfully tempers the graduated crescendo as transparently as the classic recording by the Boston Symphony strings under Koussevitzky. The radiance of the angelic host increases, only to explode of its own rapture. The Act III Prelude (rec. 6/26/59) ripples and quakes in anticipation of the wedding music for Elsa and Lohengrin, blazing brass against animated triplet figures.

Wagner set his 1868 Die Meistersinger in 16th Century Nuremberg, the free imperial city that served as a touchstone for Renaissance values. The opera proceeds without recourse to myth or fable, representing the various guilds and master craftsman who established rules and conventions for artistic endeavor. The Act III Prelude (3/11/57) offers a processional, solemn in character, much closer in spirit to the “consolations” of music that Schopenhauer celebrates in his otherwise pessimistic philosophy, which mourns the vanity of “apparent” achievement.

Rosbaud’s survey concludes with the Parsifal Prelude to Act I (10/25/57), whose optimum performance exists in my own mind in a realization by Hans Knappertsbusch.  The 1890 music-drama “concedes” to Christianity and the Holy Grail the notion of redemption through faith, utilizing a series of processional music—concentrated thematically into the first six measures—interrupted by six silences. The musical, as well as spiritual, ambiguity lies in the tension between A-flat Major and C minor. The Baden-Baden brass inject a sense of force and awe into the divine mystery and its expression via the so-called “Dresden Amen.”  In the more radiant passages, the music graduates upward into G-flat Major and D Major, but the rhythms proves disturbed, and the interval of the falling fifth—so dear to Bruckner—suggests the guilt harbored by Amfortas. And it exactly on this note of uncertainty that Robaud’s reading concludes.

—Gary Lemco