WAGNER: Tannhäuser Overture. Parsifal: Prelude to Act I. Suite from Act III. Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.
Swedish Radio Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B000000985 (F) (DDD) TT: 70:01

To borrow from Frank Baum by way of M-G-M, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.”

Under Furtwängler between 1922 and 1954, then Herbert von Karajan from 1955 until his death in 1989, the Berliner Philharmoniker was keeper of the Wagnerian flame in the world’s concert halls. It had a special sound—weighty, solemn where suitable, brazen on call—even if, during the Karajan regime, emphasis was placed on top and bottom sonorities, leaving something of a hole in the middle register. If HvK never matched Furtwängler’s magical version of the Prelude and “Good Friday Spell” from Parsifal on three RCA Victor 78s in album M-514, or his ecstatic Tristan Prelude and “Liebestod” (in M-653)—both of them stateside merchandising victims of WW-2 —Karajan lent his own brand of Teutonic poetry to the tonal heft in more recordings of Wagner than I have the time or resources to count.

With the coming of Claudio Abbado in 1989, a middle register was created and the entire orchestra superbly balanced in weight and sheen. During his 12-year tenure, the Berliner Philharmoniker was arguably the world’s greatest orchestra, with one exception—in Wagner’s concert music. Abbado’s only complete recording was Lohengrin, which he made in Vienna before his Berlin tenure. To be sure there were annual Wagner concerts, a tradition in the German capital, but not much on CD (a disc of Wagneriana with baritone Bryn Terfel was significantly disappointing despite Abbado’s and the orchestra’s painstaking accompaniments).

Now we have a combination of live and studio productions, made at home in November 2000, plus the Tannhäuser Overture and Parsifal Prelude recorded during March 2002 in the Grosses Festspielhaus at Salzburg. A beguiling “suite” from Act 3 of the latter opera, beginning with the “Good Friday Spell” features the Swedish Radio Chorus (regular visitors in Berlin). The Tannhäuser Overture, on the other hand, sounds interminable even without the Venusberg Scene: sensitive but soft-centered. The Parsifal excerpts, which account for more than 38 minutes of the disc’s 70:01 total timing, are lovingly performed and lovely to hear (but Furtwängler won’t quit my inner ear, although it’s been decades since I owned M-514). The traditional coupling of Prelude and “Liebestod” from Tristan are on the same exalted level but in the face of so much competition not exactly essential.

One hopes DGG has more Abbado/Berlin collaborations in a strongbox for future release. During his tenure 80 new players joined the ranks, accounting in greater part for the balances, tonal lustre, and sheer virtuosity that Simon Rattle has inherited. One hopes he will not undo what Abbado took 12 years to fashion—not in his own image, as Karajan had done, but in the service of music comprehensively. This disc meanwhile has historic value, even if you can find Wagner more blatantly conducted elsewhere. Perhaps, for starters, Naxos will give us Furtwängler’s prewar Parsifal and Tristan excerpts in masterings by Mark Obert-Thorn.

R.D. (November 2003)