S. WAGNER: Glueck; Sehnsucht; Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel waer. Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eroes conducting. Delyse CD-SLL-3 (CD).
S. WAGNER: Symphony in C. Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eroes conducting. Delyse CD-SLL-2 (CD).On Christmas Day of 1870 one of the most famous premieres in music history took place, not in a concert hall or opera house but on the stairs of Villa Tribschen on the shores of Lake Lucerne.
The occasion was the 33rd birthday of Cosima Wagner, wife of Richard and mother of Siegfried, born in June of 1869. In honor of this double event and the birth of his son, Wagner composed the "Siegfried Idyll," originally for 13 instrumentalists who were rehearsed in secret and then arrayed on the stairway outside Cosima's bedroom early Christmas morning.
The result was perhaps the most touching gift a composer's wife has ever had, as well as the most affectingly intimate work in the Wagner canon. It is, moreover, still the piece to which Siegfried's name is most closely attached, and that despite his own subsequent list of compositions, four of which are represented - two for the first time on records - on the above-listed Delyse CDs.
I won't pretend they are revelations. Like his father, Siegfried put the best of himself not into his concert works, which these all are, but into his operas, of which he wrote more than a dozen. But they do support the notion that the time may be ripe for a reassessment of this generally neglected member of the Wagner family.
As a conductor, only a few of his recordings seem to catch him at his best, but on those occasions he emerges as a singularly unbombastic interpreter of his father's music. (Not surprisingly his recording of the "Siegfried Idyll," made in London in 1927, is really quite special.) Similarly in the wake of his son Wieland's truly revolutionary stage designs, it is customary to dismiss his own tenure as director of the Bayreuth Festival as comparatively unadventurous. (Remarkably, the strong-willed Cosima, who lived another 24 years, turned it over to him as early as 1906.) But that does not take into account his re-establishing it, without state subsidy, following World War I, or his extensive remodeling of the rear of the Festspielhaus - much opposed in some quarters - without which the modern stage machinery of today could never have been accommodated.
As a composer, his gifts also seem to have been primarily unbombastic. Befitting his era he has been described as a "post-romantic," but I should say "romantic" is closer to the mark. One can only imagine what it must have been like to labor in the shadow of such a famous father (not to mention grandfather - on his mother's side, Liszt). But in fact the works under discussion bear a closer resemblance to Humperdinck (with whom Siegfried studied for a time) than to what we think of as Wagner, being less complex and more lyrical, and that despite occasional Wagnerian, even Straussian, touches.
Certainly the Symphony, dating from 1925, could not be called avant-garde in any sense. Indeed, to my ears the strongest link is to early Bruckner - i.e., the more Schubertian phase - with the addition of an almost Weberian trio (with an especially lovely horn solo) in the scherzo and a dash of Italianate drama in the finale. Otherwise the music itself falls appealingly on the ear, although I think the endings to the first, third and fourth movements might have been stronger.
More interesting is the disc containing the three tone poems. The earliest of these, "Sehnsucht" ("Longing"), is, like the Symphony, a premiere recording. But although one can hear those elements, such as the flickering string figures about 13 or 14 minutes in, that caused the conductor Hans Richter (who took part in the premiere of the "Siegfried Idyll") to characterize it as "too Liszt-ish," it nonetheless seems fresher and more strongly motivated than the Symphony, something also true of "Glueck," or "Happiness," composed in 1923, nearly 30 years later.
Here the ghost of Liszt likewise looms large, following the subtly "Tristan"-ish opening. By the same token the "Happiness of the Philistines" section sounds almost like "Zarathustra"-by-way-of-Humperdinck, but that does not diminish the songful expanse of the work as a whole or the open-heartedness of the finale. Between these two comes the playful humor of "Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel waer" ("And If the World Were Full of Devils"), its rustic charm putting one in mind of a cheerful version of the "Witch's Ride."
To his credit conductor Peter Eroes does not try to read more into all this than is there, any more than one supposes Siegfried himself would have. The upshot is a series of genially molded performances, maybe a bit too much so in the Symphony but suitably committed in the tone poems. At least in the latter one hears more of what may have prompted Arnold Schoenberg, in the early part of this century, to praise the composer as "a more profound and original artist than many who are famous today."
As indicated, I hear more of that in the operas, general ignorance of which has for the most part consigned them to an undeserved oblivion. Even the New Grove, in an otherwise well-balanced entry on Siegfried, refers to them as "chiefly fairytale operas." A more accurate description, based on the handful I know, might be a blend of history, myth and German folklore that, more often than not, deals with questions of sacrifice and redemption (in this if in nothing else, they very much resemble his father's).
Certainly "Der Kobold" ("The Goblin"), the composer's own favorite among his operas, seems worth reviving, given its soaring melodies and sure theatrical impulse (more pronounced in the music, I think, than in the text). Act 3 in particular strikes me as being unusually fine, with writing for the female voice that verges on the Straussian.
Ditto "Schwarzschwanenreich" ("The Kingdom of Black Swans"), for which I have an especially soft spot, due in part to its remembrances - not conscious, one supposes - of "Siegfried" (e.g., the Siegfried/Wanderer duet) and "Parsifal" (particularly Klingsor's Garden). Which is to say either of these might have been more welcome than what the above two discs offer us. But our chances of hearing them apart from the occasional concert tape probably depend to a great extent on the public's response to the latter - i.e., be warned.