Reiner conducts WAGNER = Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg: Prelude to Act I (two performances); Prelude to Act III; Dance of the Apprentices; Procession of the Mastersingers; Parsifal: Prelude to Act I; Die Walkuere: Ride of the Valkyries; Tannhauser: Venusberg Music; Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I and Prelude to Act III; Siegfried: Forest Murmurs – New York Philharmonic/ Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ Fritz Reiner – Pristine Audio PASC 517, 79:26 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Fritz Reiner’s legacy of Wagner from shellac sources proves memorably striking, given a fine restoration by Pristine Audio.
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn here restores all of the Wagner repertory Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) left for posterity, 1938-1941. Reiner had a distinguished career in opera, having served at the Volksopera in Budapest and the Court Opera in Dresden. Like fellow musicians Bruno Walter, George Szell, and Otto Klemperer, Reiner maintained strong ties to Richard Strauss. History tells us that Reiner’s experience in the recording studio long proved frustrating, and his early 1938 efforts left him un-named in releases by the New York Philharmonic, which also remained anonymous. This release contains all of Reiner’s issued recordings of works by Wagner from the 78 rpm era; that more of Wagner’s music by Reiner was not captured—excepting a “Living Stereo” LP issue from RCA and one prior 45rpm with the RCA studio ensemble—remains our loss, since by the standards set here and processed by Pristine Audio, the results can be electrifying.
In the period prior to Reiner’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Symphony, 1938-1948, having left Cincinnati, he had expressly sought permanent positions in New York and Philadelphia, especially the latter, since he had assumed a teaching position at the Curtis Institute. Listening to the warm expressivity of the Pittsburgh strings in Parsifal and Lohengrin, we can well imagine what the Philadelphia sound would have accomplished under Reiner. The program opens from New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic-Symphony with a muscular Prelude, Act I from Die Meistersinger, a work that established the composer’s gift for blissful counterpoint while following Weber’s example of introducing the opera’s major motifs. This Prelude and the succeeding Parsifal Prelude, Act I have the benefit of exemplary unity of tone, including marvelous brass work in both preludes. Parsifal luxuriates in its harmonic tension between A-flat Major and c minor, “culminating” in the “Dresden Amen” and its resplendent response in the trumpets. Reiner proves as adept in manipulating the silences—there are six such lacunae—as anything I’ve heard from Furtwaengler and Knappertsbusch. The anxious motifs of redemption, guilt, and the image of both the spear and the Grail itself converge in an unbroken line that testifies to a potent declaration of faith by all principals.
The Pittsburgh contribution begins, excitingly enough, with two energized operatic excerpts, the Ride of the Valkyries (from Act III of Die Walkuere) and the Venusberg Music from Tannhauser, here performed as a detached bacchanal. The former proceeds by crisp, acerbic jerks and gallops, in closely clipped phrases as the four spirits gather the souls of dead heroes. The festival in praise of Venus certainly conveys a kinetic mania, frenetic and wildly passionate, only missing the vocal complement to have made this 1941 reading perfect. The string work, particularly, enjoys a discipline that would spark envy in any rival conductor.
The canny division of the strings for the 1850 Prelude to Lohengrin Act I demands specific, luminous lines in eight parts, all in a glowing A Major. With flute and oboe support, the music weaves a magical sheen unique in music, and then the brass contributes its own resonance that merely accents the halo-effect of the piece as a whole. The Act III Prelude, set on the wedding day for Lohengrin and Elsa, projects a rousing, feverish energy, based on two themes, that of Lohengrin—in fluttering triplets—and Elsa, embodied in the oboe melody. Reiner imbues this relatively brief operatic excerpt with a startlingly pungent gloss. The trumpet work warrants the price of admission. The Forest Murmurs—from Siegfried, Act II—grants us an exquisite tone poem, whose violin part I assume is realized by Henri Temianka. Until he tastes the blood from the slain dragon Fafner, Siegfried cannot understand the fateful message of the forest bird. Now that he possesses the Rhinegold and the Ring of the Nibelung, Siegfried may proceed to confront the magic fire that guards the sleeping Brunnhilde.
For the remainder of the program, Reiner returns to Die Meistersinger, opening with a slightly quicker version of the Act I Prelude than that from New York. The Act III Prelude introduces the critic Beckmesser into the rivalry for musical honors, and the audience expresses its disapproval. The slow polyphony of this somber music produces an effect close to the Renaissance sound in the brass, with deep tones in the Pittsburgh low strings. The mood brightens immediately with the Dance of the Apprentices, which weaves into its playful figures the Prize Song, then suddenly breaks off for the martial arrival of the Mastersingers, triumphant and dazzling in the heroic colors.
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