The Sound of Wagner in Berlin, and that New Year’s Concert in Vienna

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

The gears are cranking up already for next year’s Wagner bicentennial, and we can probably expect a slew of new videos from the currently dominant school of regietheatre – sometimes known as Eurotrash.  Yet PentaTone, the outfit that has resurrected many a 1970s-vintage Philips recording in SACD surround-sound, is bucking that trend by gradually issuing new recordings of all ten Wagner repertory operas in audio only, recording concert performances live in the Berlin Philharmonie, one per opera.

No wise-cracking fantasies from stage directors who brag about never having seen a Wagner opera before tackling one. Just your own theatre of the mind which, with a good audio system and a libretto or score in hand, has usually delivered the most involving Wagner experiences for me, at least.  I’ve just received the third installment in the cycle, Parsifal, and am luxuriating in the deep, richly-textured, just-reverberant-enough sound that PentaTone has extracted from the Philharmonie – especially enrapturing when heard in SACD surround.

The conductor is Marek Janowski, an experienced old hand with Wagner (some of us still enjoy his straight-ahead Dresden Ring cycle for Eurodisc, the first all-digital one, from the 1980s) and a conductor who has had enough of regietheatre (check out the video interview below, particularly the first half) – hence these concert operas.  As in his Dresden Ring, Janowski wants things to move; those who are accustomed to a suspended Knappertsbusch-like timeframe in the Act I Transformation and Grail scenes should probably look elsewhere. But Janowski’s control of dynamics is exquisite, and he creates a beautiful surface with the Berlin Radio Symphony.  While Act II is somewhat on the cool side, Act III is where the Janowski approach, allied with the gorgeous sound, really pays off, illuminating some of the most serenely elevated music on earth.  Good cast, too, with a pair of low male voices – Franz-Josef Selig’s superb, sepulchral Gurnemanz and Evgeny Nikitin’s equally imposing Amfortas – leading the way, complemented by Christian Elsner’s somewhat baritonal Parsifal and Michelle DeYoung’s Kundry. The whole thing comes in an elegant, miniature book-like digi-pak with plenty of supporting material, including some amusing dissenting opinions by none other than Berg and Stravinsky.


Meanwhile in Vienna, the New Year’s Day Concert industry continues to churn out annual recordings in multiple formats within days of the event.   It’s easy to take this winter ritual for granted – assorted bonbons by the Strausses and their fellow travellers, some familiar, others not, always concluding with the Blue Danube Waltz and Radetzky March, trading in on rose-colored tales from a Vienna of over 100 years ago.  But I’ve always looked forward to these concerts, and the 2012 edition was an especially good one, with Mariss Jansons loosening his tie and leading in a more unbuttoned and convivial style than usual.  There are a few nice surprises here – didn’t know that Josef Strauss’s chipper Feuerfest Polka had lyrics, with the Vienna Boys Choir chipping in – and one Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky makes a rare cameo here with a pair of excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, fitting right in.  The Vienna Philharmonic, of course, can play this stuff in their sleep (and have), but they don’t here; they sound alive and crackling on these discs.  This one is back on Sony Classical after Deutsche Grammophon and Decca owned the franchise for several years.

Finally, since this is leap year, a very happy birthday to Gioacchino Rossini who, if you count actual birthdays, would have been an eternally youthful 55 today.