WAGNER:  Rienzi Overture.  Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. A Faust Overture.  Prelude to Die Meistersinger.  Siegfried Idyll.  "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Lorin Maazel, cond.

RCA/BMG  68717 (F) (DDD) TT:  70:49

I missed the first volume, but this one—albeit a mixed bag interpretively—has 40-some minutes of mightily persuasive music-making, the Berlin Phil’s wind section outstandingly so (try Maazel's otherwise sectionalized reading of A Faust Overture for a sample). It was recorded September 14-15, 1999, not in the Neue Philharmonie but in the Jesus Christus Kirche that served EMI so consistently before and after the Neue was built, prior to the recent in-performance preservation of Sir Simon Rattle's Mahler Tenth (Cooke 2 edition with further adds).

RCA/BMG's sound is spacious, emphatic, a little too reverberant, and more than a little bass-shy. It doesn't help that the Philharmoniker's timpanist reverts to the "pocketa-pocketa" tradition (pace Walter Mitty) that goes back to Furtw”ngler's earliest discs, but was especially annoying on Karajan's decade after decade. That said, the prize here is a performance of Siegfried Idyll as tender as any ever recorded, without for a moment sounding maudlin or bleary-eyed. I never have and don't now "like" the music, but will keep this disc as a reminder that it can be parsed and played beguilingly.

The "Rheinfahrt" from G–tterd”mmerung runs Idyll a close second, with virtuoso brass playing and a burst of energy when the sun finally rises, so that Siegfried can go questing without Brünnhilde. It has the traditional concert-hall ending yet does not sound chopped-off. That's not the case, however, with the Act III Prelude from Lohengrin, which suggests duty rather than a love feast between conductor and players. On the other hand, the first-act Prelude to Die Meistersinger is broad, sweeping, and cannily managed whenever Maazel slows down to enjoy the sheer panoply of "Johannestag."

The Rienzi Overture almost makes it, using Fritz Reiner's 1958 Chicago Symphony broadcast performance as a yardstick (available only, however, in one of those 2-disc packages that the CSO has been merchandising in-house since the '80s—the one called "The Reiner Era" from 1986). Maazel's comes in a minute faster, but thereby loses the full impact of Roman legions on the march—a Reiner specialty as anyone knows who has his Chicago Pines of Rome on a remastered "Living Stereo" CD. I've frequently wondered—did Reiner always pace Rienzi as broadly, especially in Pittsburgh, where Maazel grew up during the senior maestro's decade there? And I've wondered also how much, if any, of Reiner's music-making Maazel actually heard as a boy (he joined the orchestra as a back-stand violinist in 1948, the year Reiner quit rather than countenance a reduction in numbers)?

A Faust Overture has moments, although I don't recall being as aware heretofore of the sequence-writing (no wonder Wagner embraced Bruckner!). But then, if I'm going to listen to the piece, it will be Szell's galvanic 1966 concert performance with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (in a Music and Arts two-disc collection, CD-219, that seems sadly to be out of print). His trajectory was gripping and the playing authentically impassioned. Not so here.

R.D. (Jan. 2001)