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Wagner: The Ring

Peter Bassett (speaker): Vienna Philharmonic: Sir Georg Solti

DECCA 480 7311: 4CD: TPT: 257’28”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Wagner’s incomparable set of music dramas, known collectively as The Ring of the Nibelungs, has been around for a long time. It entered the operatic mainstream years ago. Yet, it is still far too often the case that even seasoned concert- or opera-goers  feel intimidated by it. They will happily listen to extracts – Ride of the Valkyries, say, or Siegfried’s Funeral March – but they will shy away from experiencing the work in its entirety.  When asked, timid opera goers will mumble about inordinate length, paucity of memorable melody and its being ‘too difficult’ or ‘too heavy’.RingExplorations_Cover


Yet, more often than not, those who avoid, or condemn, The Ring have never attended a performance of one or all of the cycle.  They mumble clichés: The Ring is too complicated, they say, too dreary, depressing, without catchy, memorable melodies and inextricably associated with notions of overweight sopranos who do nothing but stand on one spot and sing too loudly and at great length. They will sometimes say they are put off The Ring because Hitler liked it so there has to be something wrong with it.


Nonsense? Certainly. But how to persuade and convert the doubters not only to dip a toe into but top jump in? How to tempt them to experience this masterpiece in toto?


DECCA has responded to this challenge in the most practical and effective way.


So, timid, vacillating listeners, fear not. Operatic salvation is at hand.


And DECCA has the solution to the problem. And if this 4-CD set doesn’t manage to transform listeners into passionate and loyal followers of The Ring, I don’t know what will.


Our heroes are two gentlemen steeped in Wagnerian tradition. One is very well known – Sir Georg Solti – the other, Peter Bassett, less so but as crucial to leading the nervous novice across Wagner’s formidable operatic landscape.


Bassett’s great gift, apart from his encyclopaedic knowledge of The Ring, is his ability to make the seemingly complex approachable, to explain in the most straightforward and appealing way what the Ring story is all about. This is just the thing – and not only for those who are intimidated. Even the most enthusiastic and informed of Ring followers will find fascinating facts, perhaps even revelations – on this operatic journey of discovery in the company of Bassett, Solti, singers (some legendary) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.



Wagner: The Ring: Highlights


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra: Herbert von Karajan: vocal soloists

DG 480 6977: 2CD TPT: 153’55”


Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Wagner: selections

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Hans Knappertsbusch

DECCA 480 7093: 2CD: TPT: 154’28”


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Beethoven wasn’t above double dealing by selling the same composition to more than one publisher, Gesualdo was a double murderer, Mascagni was an enthusiastic fascist –  and Lully ruthlessly trashed the reputations of others as he clawed his way to eminence at the French royal court. But for sheer awfulness, Wagner was in a class of his own.


A serial adulterer, incorrigibly vain, an embezzler, an anarchist, an instinctive ingrate and anti-Semite, he was also a genius. And in this 200th anniversary year of his birth, there are celebrations worldwide to mark this milestone. And in a series of releases in Universal Music’s Eloquence series, Cyrus Meher-Homji has once again done CD enthusiasts proud by pulling a series of splendid musical rabbits out of his hat. One cannot too highly praise these initiatives whereby top ranking recordings, most often originally available on LP, are reissued on CD at competitive prices. They constitute a cornucopia of Wagnerian delights.


For those who prefer to listen to The Ring in small doses as opposed to experiencing the work in full, they could hardly do better than a quite superb 2-CD pack – DGG 480 6977 – featuring von Karajan presiding over singers and the Berlin Philharmonic.4806977_WagnerRingHlts_Cover

Originally recorded in 1968 and 1970, it makes for frankly riveting listening. More often than not, sound quality is exceptional. Throughout, Karajan, as ever  loyal to the printed note, does wonders in eliciting some of the most sheerly satisfying performances from a bevy of Wagnerian stars that one might ever hope to encounter.


Bouquets aplenty to the sound engineers who have done wonders in capturing the Berlin Philharmonic sound. If you purchase no other recordings this year, you will have done yourself proud to have these performances in your record library. Not the least of its many pleasures, is the often exceptional clarity of diction.


Hans Knappertsbusch – known to colleagues simply as Kna – didn’t get on well with that lifelong Wagner fan Adolph Hitler. The latter detested Knappertsbusch’s conducting style and avoided his performances. The loss was his for Knappertsbusch, when on form, did wonders on the podium and he has left a substantial recorded music legacy.  He famously disliked lengthy rehearsals, preferring a minimum of  preparation. Instead, he endeavoured always to obtain a sense of spontaneity from his players, a  risky attitude that occasionally resulted in embarrassment. But when his players were on their mettle, the result could be most rewarding – very!

PACKSHOT 4807093 KnaConductsWagner_Cover

None of these misfires are in this compilation of Wagner orchestral highlights from not only The Ring but also Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.  Here are beautifully gauged, finely paced, unhurried, deeply meaniungful accounts of perennial favourites including Flight of the Valkyries and  Forest Murmurs from Siegfried – and the overture and Venusberg music from Tannhauser.

This recording, brimming with good things, is a joy.

Requiem KV626; Ave Verum Corpus KV618; Sancta Maria, mater Dei KV273; Exultate, Jubilate KV165 (Mozart)





Orchestra of the Antipodes



Anthony Walker, conductor



ABC Classics CD 476 4064

TPT: 68’35”



reviewed by Neville Cohn


Oceans of ink have been spilled – and will so continue – about which hand completed which section of Mozart’s Requiem. If these endless speculations  – and musings about which illness he might have been suffering from as he wrote this, that or the other episode – bring satisfaction to those who utter them, then good luck to this endless pageant of nitpickers.


For those whose prime satisfaction comes from listening to the work, here is yet another in a very long list of recordings of the Requiem.


Piety informs just about every moment of this performance which has about it an inner quietness that is often very moving. Gratifyingly, there’s not a hint here of that over-the-top approach favoured by some.


Cantillation is at its supple best in the Kyrie which is presented with gratifying clarity at speed. And there is splendid attack and follow-through., too, in the Dies Irae. I particularly liked the  quietly uttered, deeply felt measures of the Recordare sung, beautifully, by the vocal quartet of Sara Macliver (soprano), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo soprano), Paul McMahon (tenor) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass baritone). And buoyant momentum makes for gratifying listening in Domine Jesu Christe.


It is only in the Introitus that one senses a need for a more calmly fluent unfolding of some of the most profoundly poignant music in the repertoire.


 Soprano Sara Macliver is at her virtuosic best in the much-loved Exultate, Jubilate.

Mendelssohn: The Five Symphonies

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Sebastian Lang-Lessing (conductor)



ABC Classics 476 4623 (3CDs + DVD)



TPT: 128’ 52”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Last year, when the world was awash with performances of the music of Mendelssohn to mark the bicentenary of the composer’s birth in 1809, many regular concertgoers who thought they had a good overview of his music, found themselves on an often gratifying journey of discovery. This applied particularly to his chamber music, the complete string quartets, say, which for many might well have proved revelatory.  


As far as the symphonies are concerned, most concertgoers would readily be able to identify the works dubbed Scottish and Italian. They are frequently performed and with good reason. And mini-polls I’ve conducted in the foyers of this or that concert venue around the city reveal clearly that, frequently, even the keenest of music followers have only the vaguest ideas about the existence of Mendelssohn’s other symphonic utterances apart from the ubiquitous Third and Fourth.


Bear in mind, too, that by the time Mendelssohn got round to composing what we know now as his Symphony No 1, he had been at work in the genre for much of his adolescence, producing a stream of so-called string symphonies. Many of these are astonishingly original without a hint that they’d been written by a teenager.


This 3-CD + DVD set will, I believe, bring many new adherents to the flag, not least for providing an opportunity to hear works that only very rarely appear on concert programmes these days.


Listen to Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s direction of the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1. How splendidly this fine ensemble evokes the ebullience of the first movement. It’s a performance which brims with energy, again and again carrying the listener forward on the crest of a finely stated orchestral wave. Lang-Lessing and the TSO are no less persuasive in the second movement; its gentle, lyrical calm makes it a near-perfect foil for the energetic bustle that precedes it.


In the Minuetto, Mendelssohn’s usually sure touch is less apparent; it is overly bucolic music and the Trio excessively solemn and serious. But the finale is inspired as is its performance, not least for excellent clarinet playing and precise pizzicato which add  significantly to the engaging bustle of the music.














The Scottish Symphony is in a class of its own. How intriguing that a German could identify so profoundly with Scotland based on the briefest of visits to that part of the world. (Consider, too, the quite magically atmospheric Fingal’s Cave Overture. When will some musical Scot turn out a couple of masterpieces after some brief encounter with Germany? Don’t hold your breath!)



Lang-Lessing makes magic of the first movement. Clarinet playing in the Vivace non troppo is beyond reproach in a movement that is as Scottish as a tartan kilt and sporran.

A shrewd commentator once described the finale as “a wild dance of rude Highlanders who stamp furiously into a smug coda………”. And who would gainsay that view on the basis of this splendidly bracing account?


Almost invariably, when Mendelssohn visited England, there’d be an invitation to Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were great admirers of the famed composer – and Victoria would, shyly, sing some of the lieder by “dear Dr Mendelssohn” with the composer accompanying at the piano. And when the composer asked if he might dedicate his Scottish Symphony to her, she agreed at once. Victoria would often attend public performances of Mendelssohn’s music which invariably ensured full houses.


Inspiration informs just about every moment of this account of the Italian Symphony with Lang-Lessing and the TSO coming through with honour not only intact but enhanced. There’s not a dull moment here. The quick movements crackle with energy, the opening allegro vivace splendidly precise at top speed as is the ever-engaging Saltarello. Intriguingly, this exquisite movement, which sounds as if it might have been conceived in a single, sustained burst of highest inspiration, never quite satisfied the composer who seriously considered revising it. Happily, he didn’t; it comes as close to perfection as anything he ever wrote.


But not even the skill and commitment of the players can persuade this listener that the first movement of the Reformation Symphony is other than ponderously dull and the allegro vivace that follows amiable but unremarkable. Mendelssohn’s inspiration was no less in short supply in the pompous, lacklustre finale. But that certainly does not lessen the importance of including it – and the dreary and overlong Lobgesang – in this important recording enterprise.


It says a great deal for the skill and commitment of both conductor and orchestra that, for the duration of Lobgeasang and the Reformation symphony, these works sound far better than they in fact are.

Concentration Camp Music..


Works by Viktor Ullmann, Robert Lannoy, Marius Flothuis and Jozef Kropinski



Francesco Lotoro (piano) and friends



KZMUSIK CD8  232525



TPT: 63’27”



reviewed by Neville Cohn


 Marius Flothuis                                                                Viktor Ullmann

Although the greater part by far of this compact disc series is devoted to music written by composers who perished while incarcerated in nazi concentration camps, a number of musicians survived the camps and went on to productive musical lives.


One of these is Marius Flothuis who, initially a music critic, was also assistant artistic director of Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1942 when he was deported to Amersfoort before being transported to the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Flothuis died in 2001 in Amsterdam.


He wrote a number of works while in the camps, such as his piano duets opus 21 and a sonata for solo violin. But it is his Sonata da camera for flute and piano that provides some of the most beguiling listening with flautist Pasquale Rinaldi and Lotoro (piano) in excellent fettle throughout. I particularly liked the beautifully expressive stream of mellow flute tone in the opening cadenza – and the plaintive quality of the second movement is finely evoked by both players. The brilliance of the concluding rondo is a fine foil for the melancholy Lamento which precedes it.


Another survivor was Robert Lannoy who died as recently as 1979 in Lille. Conscripted into the French army, he became a POW in Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine and Stalag  XVIIB in Austria. He made numerous escape attempts but they were all foiled. After the war, he produced a large body of work in his native France. Lannoy’s Berceuse comes across in rather too heavy-footed a way for a lullaby, an impression reinforced by a surfeit of tremolo from the piano.


Berlin-born Josef Kropinski survived Buchenwald and lived on until 1970. He was a prolific composer. Pianist Francesco Lotoro, who works tirelessly to place on disc as much music as possible which was written in confinement, has painstakingly reconstructed fragments of 14 short piano pieces which include three each of mazurkas and tangos. The pieces are most musically played but melodically, harmonically and style-wise they are unremarkable, formulaic and predictable and have little intrinsic worth.  But, as with all music in this series, these keyboard miniatures cry out for recognition as music that came into being in uniquely terrible and terrifying circumstances.


Kropinski, incidentally, was astonishingly prolific; his output includes more than 300 songs as well as string quartets and much else for piano solo.


Lotoro brings a great deal of energy to a piano version of the overture to Ullmann’s opera Don Quixote Dances the Fandango. The orchestral score is lost, so we have to be content with a piano reduction that survived the camps.  There is a great deal of rather noisy tremolo in this intensely dramatic piece. There’s also a tantalisingly brief fragment from a projected two-act opera about Joan of Arc – and a dozen lieder which make up Der Mensch und sein Tag. Angelo de Leonardis and Lotoro take us into a world of deep emotion here but for those who are not German-speaking, a translation of the text into English would have been most helpful. Certainly, it would have made the listening experience that much more meaningful.