CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Wagner and Mozart

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews new releases featuring works of Wagner and Mozart.

WAGNER: Overture to Rienzi; Prelude to Act I and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde; Preludes to Acts III and I of Lohengrin. Franz Welser-Möst conducting The Cleveland Orchestra. Wesendonck-Lieder (Five Poems for Female Voice), orchestrated by Felix Mottl. Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; with Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra. Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger; Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon 4778773.

Wagner by the Cleveland OrchestraThe Cleveland Orchestra (styled “legendary” by Deutsche Grammophon in its advance publicity for this recording) is a sleeping giant that is a legend, occasionally aroused by guest conductors. Tapes of recent concerts and observations of those who have actually frequented Severance Hall in recent years seem to bear out the complaints that current music director Franz Welser-Möst does little beyond simply doing everything correctly and putting everything in the right place. There seems to be no personality to his interpretations, for the most part. I recall a Welser-Möst performance of Charles Ives’ second symphony in which he appeared to be trying to clarify messy orchestral textures; messy textures are a part of the charm, and the message, of the Ives No. 2. In the present recording, the beauty of the Lohengrin Act I Prelude is all there and everything perfectly executed, but there is no feeling or poetry. Bruno Walter’s recording of the same work, made slightly more than half a century ago, is more than music: it is the sound of every human aspiration, of carefully molded phrases and of a conductor putting down his last thoughts on a piece after having lived with it virtually his entire life.

The Rienzi Overture is similar in effect—marvelous exactitude, but neither poetry nor personality. The Cleveland Orchestra, in spite of many changes since the heady Szell days (now a completely different orchestra in terms of personnel, and two other music directors have come and gone since Szell’s death forty years ago), has an enshrined and eminently provable tradition of a virtuoso orchestra that is also consummately musical and an orchestra that can do just about anything. That is still very much in evidence. Even the accompaniment to Der Engel, the first of the “Wesendonck” songs (composer’s title: Five Poems for Female Voice), is a harbinger of everything in place and everything correct but no soul.

The songs, however, do not turn out that way. Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman is a dramatic soprano with a lyric bent, and she has color and expression to spare. They are a complement to her self-evident vocal prowess. Her diction is admirably clear. Much more than all that, this performance of the Five Poems gets better as it moves along, reaching a peak Im Treibhaus and ascending until the end. The orchestra and soloist are at one, and Welser-Möst proves himself a more than capable accompanist and delineator of texts.

The Tristan and Meistersinger preludes are more of the polite performances in which everything but poetry is in place. The orchestral technique and control are remarkable, particularly in the Tristan prelude to the first act. I do not hear the forward thrust that marked the performances of Szell and Dohnányi—who represented two very different approaches to music-making—but rather beautiful playing which, somehow, seldom rises above the routine. In mostly adulatory liner notes, Welser-Möst is quoted as saying that “the musicians rarely play opera, and so I explained to them in detail who the Valkyries are and what Wotan’s Wild Hunt is all about”. Which reminds me of something Sir Thomas Beecham said in an interview toward the end of his life: “What does a young conductor do? He rehearses a few bars, stops, and begins ‘educating’ them. Fancy educating a body of people like the Royal Philharmonic!” One could say the same of the Cleveland musicians.


MOZART: Symphonies Nos. 14 in A, K. 114; 18 in F, K. 130; 20 in D, K. 133; 39 in E-flat, K. 543 and 41 in C, K. 551 (“Jupiter”). James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. BSO Classics 1001 (2 CDs).

James Levine returns to one of his many centers of musical sympathy in this attractive collection of five Mozart symphonies—three early works and two of the more familiar late ones. Some years ago, Levine recorded most of the Mozart symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic; he has now found in the Boston Symphony a most expressive and sympathetic partner. The early symphonies are practically essays in Levine’s advocacy of what he called “vocality” in orchestral playing, stylish and with every strand of sound clearly in focus—yet the antithesis of his old mentor George Szell, to whom he was apprenticed in Cleveland at the beginning of his career (while there, being promoted from apprentice to assistant conductor). All are fresh, cleanly articulated and played with an infectious drive and grace.

The later symphonies benefit from Levine’s insistence on a broad, singing line, clarity and a healthy amount of gravitas—especially in the introduction to the first movement of No. 39. Tempi are generally brisk but never too fast to obscure any detail. These are the most un-earthbound performances of these symphonies in a long time In the slow movement of No. 41, Levine delivers an unaffected instrumental approximation of the operatic Mozart. The contrapuntal finale of the “Jupiter” is as crisp and clear as could be desired. This is a welcome addition to the hopefully growing catalogue of BSO Classics.