The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: It is Wagner Week with the Middleton Community Orchestra tonight and the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” production of “Parsifal” with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann this Saturday.

February 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

It almost seems like Wagner Week in Madison, a good time to start this year’s bicentennial celebration of the birth of the still controversial and larger-than-life composer.

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School, the Middleton Community Orchestra (below) will perform two well-known excerpts: “Elsa’s Procession” from “Lohengrin” and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” from the last Ring opera, “Gotterdammering” or “The Twilight of the Gods.”

Admission is $10 adults, student are free. For information about tickets and joining or supporting the orchestra and about the program, visit:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/classical-music-the-middleton-community-orchestra-spotlights-the-young-local-violinist-alice-bartsch-plus-music-of-saint-saens-verdi-wagner-and-britten-at-its-winter-concert-next-wednesday-night-p/

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org/concert_information

Middleton Community Orchestra by William Ballhorn

Then on this Saturday, the next production of “Live From the Met in HD” will offer Wagner’s last opera “Parsifal,” in an acclaimed updated staging by Francois Girard for the Metropolitan Opera, at the Point and Eastgate cinemas.

Much of the music by Wagner (below) is hauntingly beautiful — I love the Prelude — though at 5 hour and 40 minutes, it will be a long, long afternoon, starting at 11 a.m. and ending at almost 5 p.m.

Richard Wagner

The title role of the innocent Knight of the Round Table who quests to find The Holy Grail will be sung by the young Munich-raised, German tenor Jonas Kaufman, which is pronounced “Yonas KaufmaHn.” (Below is a preview of his Kaufmann’s performance in “Parsifal” from a video on YouTube.)

And here is a review by senior critic Anthony Tommasini who calls the new production “brilliant”:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/arts/music/parsifal-at-the-metropolitan-opera.html?_r=1&

Here is a link with more details, including a synopsis (if you can follow it) and a cast list as well as a video:

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/liveinhd/LiveinHD.aspx

Perhaps like me, you last saw Kaufman last season in the Met’s latest production of Wagner’s “The Ring.”

This young singer (below) seems to have everything. He is handsome and trim, so he is visually believable in both heroic and romantic roles on stage. He acts well. He sings superbly and beautifully. And to top it all off, he is smart and very articulate.

jonas kaufmann leather coat

Decca has just released a terrific album by Kaufmann simply called “Wagner” (below) that includes music from all the major periods, early to late, of Wagner’s amazing artistic output. The music includes excerpts from The Ring and other operas as well as the early “Wesendonck Songs.”

Now, I am not a big Wagnerite, or a Wagnerite at all, really. Small doses do me just fine. I love his orchestral overtures more than I do his entire operas, which sit with me much like a 15-course dinner. For me, Wagner suffers from opera gourmandise.

But I am enthralled with Kaufmann’s Wagner, and think his album, in which Kaufmann is partnered with Donald Runnicles conducting the German State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, is a great candidate for a Grammy next year, much like Renee Fleming’s CD of French songs, which won this year.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Why do I like Kaufmann’s Wagner’s singing so much? Well, he always seems pitch-perfect, and I love his big sound and rich tone coupled to relative lack of vibrato. He never shows a sense of strain or exaggeration, which you cannot say of many Wagnerian Heldentenors.

Kaufmann’s talent seems so comprehensive and total. To me he is the perfect and natural blend of the Italian and German opera styles, of the lyrical and the profound. He should have a very great future. Perhaps Jonas Kaufmann is the German Pavarotti.

Jonas Kaufmann face

I am especially impressed by an interview he recently did on National Public Radio to promote his CD and the upcoming opera appearance. Kaufman recalls how he came to Wagner in his youth and in his family; but he also understands and does not shy away from the anti-Semitism of this great composer or how Hitler’s Third Reich used and abused Wagner. I like his candor, and his appeal to let the music speak for itself apart from the composer.

Here is a link to that interview:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/02/16/172002771/jonas-kaufmann-on-wagner-its-like-a-drug-sometimes

I think Jonas Kaufmann’s time has come. The Ear predicts that this year or next, he will break out into The Really Big Time — and maybe even superstardom.

What do you think of Jonas Kauffman?

And of Wagner?

And, of course, of Jonas Kauffman’s new recording “Wagner”?

The Ear wants to hear.


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