Richard Wagner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am

Richard Wagner
The Ring, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Meistersinger
Challenge Classics

To reduce Wagner's epic operas from four hours to just 60 minutes of orchestral music is no small task. These four new CDs are the latest attempts to play Wagner without words, all arranged by Dutchman Henk de Vlieger, a percussionist with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed under its then musical chief Edo de Waart (now artistic director of the Hong Kong Phil).

Except Meistersinger, all three remakes were recorded in the mid-1990s at the renowned Concertgebouw hall. Of the three, The Ring is clearly the best. In just 67 minutes, all the celebrated leitmotifs in the four-part opera of nearly 20 hours are narrated in one sweep. The clanging sound in the forging scene in Das Rheingold and the flying Valkyries in Die Walkure, for example, generate exciting aural effects. The horn call in Siegfried too is compelling, and the great funeral scene in the finale a sheer tour de force.

Banking on The Ring's success, the Dutch team produced the orchestral Parsifal and then Tristan and Isolde. The former, Wagner's last opera, highlights a mystic mood epitomised in such famous passages as the Good Friday music, the Holy Grail and the Last Supper, all done to superb effects. Tristan, on the other hand, underscores the theme of love and death and sounds almost like a symphonic poem. The crescendo that ends on the B Major chords is thrilling.

Meistersinger, recorded last year, is the least convincing on all counts, from scores to orchestral sound (recorded in a studio instead of a concert hall). The rousing brass in the coda is impressive but comes too little, too late.