WAGNER, R.: Orchestral Highlights from Operas (Gunter Appenheimer/ Michael Halasz/ Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550136)
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes of reaction. Forsome his music seemed as misguided and repulsive as his anti-Semitism, whileothers were overwhelmed by the size of his ambition and achievement, to which everythinghad to be sacrificed. Wagner's career was in many ways thoroughlydiscreditable. He betrayed friends and patrons, accumulated debts with abandon,and seemed, in pursuit of his aims, an unprincipled opportunist. Nevertheless,whatever his defects of character, he exercised a hypnotic influence over hisimmediate followers, while his creation of a new form of music-drama, in whichthe arts were combined, and the magnitude of his conception continue tofascinate.
The tetralogy of The Ring,based on a conflation of Teutonic and Scandinavian legends, was originallyconceived while Wagner was enjoying his first real success as conductor at theopera in Dresden, where Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser were first performed. In 1848,with revolution in the air, Wagner began work on the poem concerning the deathof the hero Siegfried, a text that was to serve as the basis for the fourthopera in the cycle, Gotterdammerung.
In 1849 Wagner was forced to leave Dresden in haste. His creditors had,in any case, made his stay there uneasy, but in 1849 he was implicated in therising against the monarchy, and escaped to Switzerland, leaving his wifebehind. The first years of exile brought the completion of the text of The Ring and its publication in 1853,followed by the composition of the music of the first opera, Das Rheingold by 1854 and the second, Die Walk??re two years later. The completecycle, however, was performed for the first time at the new Festspielhaus inBayreuth in 1876. There, with the help of his young patron King Ludwig II ofBavaria, he had been able to establish his own operatic kingdom, realising hisrevolutionary ideas of music-drama and investing the art of opera with asignificance and weight that it had not generally possessed before.
In July, 1882, the last of Wagner's operas, Parsifal, was staged at Bayreuth at the end of July, runningfor sixteen performances under the direction of Hermann Levi. In September thecomposer travelled again to Italy, where an easier way of life seemed likely tobe of benefit to his health. He died in Venice in February, 1883, after asevere heart attack and was later buried in the garden of his house inBayreuth. His legacy to the world was an enduring body of stage works and afestival centred on them, as well as continued conflict between thosefascinated by his achievement and those appalled by aspects of his characterand his writing.
The Flying Dutchman
has its literary source in the seventh chapter of Heine's Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski,used by at least one earlier composer to provide the libretto of an opera. Thestory of the phantom ship and its haunted master appealed even more to Wagnerafter his own experiences at sea, when he was caught in a storm, sailing fromthe Baltic port of Pillau to England, to take refuge from his continentalcreditors in 1839. Sheltering in a Norwegian fjord, he was reminded of Heine'sstory, resulting in the composition of the libretto and music of the new opera,completed in Paris in 1841. The work was first staged at Dresden in 1843,leading to his appointment as conductor at the opera-house there.
The Overture to The Flying Dutchman, with its story of thelegendary haunted Dutchman, fated to sail the seas in his ghostly ship untilredeemed by true love, sets the scene of what the composer described as astorm-swept ballad. Leit-rnotifs, themes or fragments of themes, appear andre-appear, dominated by the horn call associated with the Dutchman and therushing strings of the sea and wind. Another theme that appears in the Overture is associated with Senta, thegirl who loves the Dutchman and dies for him, as he sails away in apparentdisappointment at what he believes to be her betrayal. Her sacrifice brings himfinal redemption.
While travelling to Dresden, Wagner passed the mountain of theWartburg, and in 1842, during a stay in Teplitz. sketched the libretto of hisnew opera. Tannhauser und der Sangerkrieg aufWartburg, described as a grand romantic opera, was staged forthe first time in Dresden in October, 1845. The story of the opera is derivedfrom a 14th century legend about a 13th century Minnesinger, the aristocraticpoet-composer and crusader Tannhauser. He is found first in the Venusberg,singing the praise of the goddess of love, but his invocation of the name ofthe Mother of Christ brings him back to the human world and the valley of theWartburg, where he hears a band of pilgrims pass and is greeted by the nobles.
At a song contest in the Wartburg Castle Tannhauser's impassioned praise ofVenus is defended by Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave, and the hero isdespatched to Rome to seek forgiveness, to be denied him by the Pope. On hisreturn he finds Elisabeth dead of a broken heart, but pilgrims enter bearing astaff from the Pope that has sprouted leaves, a sign of papal pardon.
The Prelude to Tannhauser includes a number of themes andmotifs that have later importance in the score. The sound of the Pilgrims' Chorus is heard and a motif ofrepentance, contrasted with the Venusberg music and the Hymn to Venus. The Dresden version of the overture ended with a return to the Pilgrims' Chorus, while for Paris Wagnerled straight into the Bacchanal,a pagan celebration of love. This is the Venusbergmusic of the first act. The entrance of the nobility in the secondact is accompanied by a festal march, followed by the entrance of thecontestants in the song contest on the subject of love. The introduction to the third act gives amusical account of Tannhauser's pilgrimage to Rome, in search of absolution.
Lohengrin wasfirst performed at the Court Theatre in Weimar in 1850, with Liszt conducting.
Wagner himself had taken refuge in Switzerland, after his indiscreet support ofrevolution in Dresden against his royal patron. He was later, through Liszt'sgenerosity, to be joined there by his wife Minna, who had at first seemedreluctant, as she wrote, to continue to serve as a good-hearted bootblack toher egocentric husband, by his dog and by his parrot.
The new opera, which established him as an international figure ofimportance in the world of opera, was set in the 10th century and concerns theunjust accusations levelled against Elsa, ruler of Brabant, and her defence byan unknown knight, who appears in a boat drawn by a swan and promises to be herdefender and husband if she never asks his name or origin. Elsa is tricked intoasking just this question, on the day of her wedding, and the mysterious knightreveals that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, from the Temple of the HolyGrail. Before he leaves he restores Elsa's brother Gottfried, turned by evilmagic into a swan, to his original shape.
The Prelude to Act Irepresents the mystical appearance of the Holy Grail, growing in radiance as itdescends to men, and disappearing again, as the overture comes to an end, aftercelebrating the triumph of Lohengrin's divine mission. The third act isintroduced by music for the wedding celebration of Elsa and her mysteriousknight and champion.
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work ofits distingu