Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: Good Wagner conductors find what inside the music makes it move


The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now, choreographed to the "Ride of the Valkyries" from Act III of Wagner's Die Walküre

by Ken

We're talking about what makes music move, from the inside, not just because a conductor waves his stick or a performer has a metronome ticking away in his/her head. In last night's preview we heard specimens by Dukas, Rossini, and Johann Strauss. Tonight we close in on our target, that master of musical movement, Richard Wagner.

It would be kind of hard to miss with the "Ride of the Valkyries." Here it is again, without heiicopters.

WAGNER: Die Walküre: Act III, The Ride of the Valkyries

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 13-14, 1972

Nowe this isn't what Wagner actually wrote, beyond the first couple of minutes. The "Ride of the Valkyries," after all, is the ride of the Valkyries, as the Valkyrie sisters gather on their mountaintop. I thought we might kill two birds with one stone, by hearing the scene as it was actually written -- with the exception that our performance is in English -- and hearing it in the hands of a conductor who was as brave as any I know of in looking deeply into the innards of Wagner's music and finding in it satisfactions both richer and deeper. So here's the scene as the sisters and greet each other, and wonder about the missing Brünnhilde, their father Wotan's favorite daughter, until finally they see her approaching in a most unexpected fashion. (We cut off just at the point of her entrance.)

WAGNER: Die Walküre: Act III opening

Soloists and Orchestra of the English National Opera, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI, recorded live, December 1975 (now available on Chandos)

Goodall's tempo is clearly slower than what we heard in the film clip, and slower also than our not exactly breakneck Boult performance. But I certainly don't feel any lack of "fastness"; speed is built into the music. Yet still conductors fall into the trap of thinking the trick in playing fast music is to play it real fast. Valery Gergiev seems to me to do just this in this performance of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.

In the process Gergiev not only runs his poor Mariinsky Theater Orchestra ragged, but runs roughshod over the music. Oh, the piece will always make a certain effect, but there's much richness and detail along the way that's lost, and the contrasting middle section is almost lost entirely. Here's a performance that's by no means poky, but creates a different piece altogether.

WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMi, recorded February-March 1960

Lohengrin, like a number of Wagner operas, has two preludes, one for the opening of the opera and one for Act III. the Prelude to Act I is, for its time, one of the composer's most remarkable an original inspirations, and hearing the movement of this music is a much greater challenge. In this performance I think Claudio Abbado manages it rather well, though he does it partly by overplaying the earlier portion, which indeed makes the music easier to sustain, but then leaves him less room to build the climax. Still, it moves with a lot more conviction than, say, any Verdi performance I've heard from him.

WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I

Claudio Abbado conducts the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin at the Vienna State Opera in 1990.

By the time of his final opera, Parsifal, the inner life of the musical line had become almost the central performance issue. Just as a sample, because I've got the audio clip ready, here is a performance I'm very fond of of the frequent concert pairing of the Prelude to Act I (again, there's an Act III Prelude as well) with the "Good Friday Spell" of Act III.

WAGNER: Parsifal: Prelude and Good Friday Spell

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, cond. DG, recorded December 1957


I noted above that the orchestra-only "Ride of the Valkyries" isn't what Wagner actually wrote, and now I have to admit that the Lohengrin Act III Prelude as we heard it above isn't exactly what he wrote either, or at least not the way that what he wrote ends -- because what he wrote doesn't end. As a prelude rather than overture (the German term Vorspiel covers them both, but in English we distinguish between preludes and overtures, and Wagner was mostly a prelude guy.)

The Lohengrin Act III Prelude leads directly into some of the best-known music ever written, as the newly married Elsa and her knight (whose name she doesn't know, so we mustn't refer to him as Lohengrin -- oops!) are ushered into their bridal chamber for what should be the good stuff.
Scene: The Bridal Chamber

Bridal Song of the Men and Women

[The singing, offstage, gradually comes closer.]

Faithfully guided, draw near
to where the blessing of love shall preserve you!
Triumphant courage, the reward of love,
joins you in faith as the happiest of couples!

Champion among youth, proceed!
Jewel among youth, proceed!
Flee now the splendor of the wedding feast,
may the delights of the heart be yours.

[The bride and groom are led into the chamber from opposite sides, by the women and men, respectively.]

Sweet-smelling room, bedecked for love,
takes you in now, away from the splendor.
Faithfully guided, draw now near
to where the blessing of love will preserve you!
Triumphant courage, love so pure,
joins you in faith as the happiest of couples.

[The two processions meet in the middle and embrace. The respective attendants begin to prepare the bride and groom for the night. Eight women circle them.]

EIGHT WOMEN: As God blessed you in happiness,
so do we bless you in joy.
[They walk around a second time.]
Watched over in love's happiness,
may you long remember this hour!

[The King embraces the bride and groom, and the processions of men and women re-form and exit the way each came in.]

CHORUS: Faithfully guarded, remain behind
where the blessing of love will preserve you.
Triumphant courage, love and happiness
join you in faith as the happiest of couples.

Champion among youth, remain here!
Jewel among youth, remain here!
Flee now the splendor of the wedding feast,
may the delights of the heart be yours!

Sweet-smelling room, bedecked for love,
has taken you in, away from the splendor.

Faithfully guarded, remain behind,
where the blessing of love will preserve you!
Triumphant courage, love and happiness
join you as the happiest of couples.

[The bridal couple remains alone in the bridal chamber.]

Vienna State Opera Concert Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Nov.-Dec. 1985, June 1986

So you see, the world's best-known wedding march, the "Wedding March," really isn't a wedding march at all!


Once again I think we've burst the bounds of a post, and I think we really have to call tonight's preview "Part 1" of our investigation of musical motion. Tomorrow we will dip back to Rossini but mostly focus on Wagner, focusing in particular on what may have been the most shocking piece of music heard in the 19the century: the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.


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At 1:10 AM, Blogger woid said...

The Abbado performance is stupendous.

Thanks for this, great post. Wagner has a lot to apologize for, but not his music. I hadn't listened to these pieces in years, so I kept being surprised by, well, everything.

If only there weren't so much bellowing involved in those operas...

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My God! You had a news story several years ago and didn't know it! Or maybe you should apologize to the Russert family for outing Tim via a dangling modifier. Dangling, pun intended, is what you should be doing, not writing!
Howie Klein at 12:00 PM on August 29, 2007.
Will Mitch McConnell Be The Next Outed Gay Republican?
This post, written by Howie Klein, originally appeared on Down With Tyranny!

Voting-wise, Larry Craig's record is a bit to the right of Miss McConnell's but, when it comes right down to it, the two of them see almost eye to eye on everything: both are classic Bush-Cheney rubber stamps. Several of my friends can't understand why two closeted homosexuals have been so virulently anti-gay. I'm not a psychologist (though I gave it a shot yesterday) so let's just stick to the politics on this. And the GOP leadership is playing hardball-- against one of their own. After his pathetic "I'm not gay" press conference yesterday Tim Russert, on Nightly News, said "I talked to Republicans today -- they just want Senator Craig to exit, to leave."


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