[Last updated June 20, 2004]
Although I am neither a Nazi nor an anti-Semite (quite the contrary, in fact), I like the music of Richard Wagner. Why do I like his music? Mainly because I find it intoxicating. (Intoxicate: To cause stupefaction, stimulation, or excitement by or as if by use of a chemical substance.) I admit that this is not a very deep reason. But I'm not very deep. (My years as an analytic philosopher would have drained any depths I may once have had.) Although Mark Twain once described Wagner's music as 'better than it sounds', it actually sounds better than it is, since intoxicating substances deceive our senses. (Think of the love potion in Tristan.) There are, I grant, other more serious reasons to like and to value Wagner's music. Rather than rehearse any of them, I'm going to turn to an annotated list of some of my favorite recordings.
Tristan und Isolde
I think this opera sounds better than any of Wagner's others, though I've never witnessed a wholly satisfactory staging of it. These are my two favorite recordings:
I. Conductor: Böhm, Karl. Singers: Nilsson, Birgit; Windgassen, Wolfgang; Ludwig, Christa; Talvela, Martti; Wachter, Eberhard; Heater, Claude; Wohlfahrt, Erwin; Nienstedt, Gerd; Schreier, Peter. Orchestra and Chorus: Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Bayreuth Festival Chorus. Label: Deutsche Grammophon.
This is a recording of a live performance in Bayreuth which extended over more than one day. Each act was performed on a separate day, so as not to exhaust the singers. It's notable mainly for Nilsson's Isolde. Her performance of the Liebestod is the best I've heard (by her or anyone). She sings with more abandon than in any studio recording, but her voice is fresh for the reason mentioned above. I also approve of Böhm's non-labored pace.
Another recording of the Liebestod which I highly recommend is by a singer who is now largely overlooked:
Varnay's Liebestod is more dramatically compelling and moving than Nilsson's. Her voice is both beautiful and huge. But Nilsson's climactic high notes leave Varnay and everyone else in the shade.
II. Conductor: von Karajan, Herbert. Singers: Vickers, Jon; Dernesch, Helga; Ludwig, Christa; Berry, Walter; Ridderbusch, Karl; Weikl, Bernd; Schreier, Peter; Vantin, Martin. Orchestra and Chorus: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus. Label: EMI Angel.
I think Vickers's Tristan is both vocally and dramatically better than any other, and this is his best recording of Tristan.
If only there were a good recording of Vickers as Tristan together with Nilsson as Isolde. There is a DVD recording of a Nilsson/Vickers live performance in Buenos Aires in 1971, with Böhm conducting. But the sound quality is barely acceptable. There's another DVD of the pair which I haven't heard (Böhm conducting, Kultur Films, 1973 performance).
As a piece of theater, I think this is Wagner's best. In introducing friends to Wagner, I usually begin with Act I of Die Walküre (unless they like twentieth century classical music or Vertigo, in which case I begin with Tristan). I start by playing a video recording of Act I. (It used to be a laserdisc of Boulez's version with Chereau's staging. But since I haven't got a laser disc player anymore, it's now a DVD of a Metropolitan Opera performance with Levine conducting and Jessye Norman as Sieglinde.) This, however, is simply a means to acquaint them with the drama so that they'll be able more fully to appreciate the following much better audio recording on CD:
Conductor: Karajan, Herbert von. Singers: Vickers, Jon; Talvela, Martti; Stewart, Thomas; Janowitz, Gundula; Crespin, Regine; Veasey, Josephine; Rebmann, Liselotte; Ordassy, Carlotta; Steger, Ingrid; Brockhaus, Lilo; Mastilovic, Danica; Ericson, Barbro; Ahlin, Cvetka; Jenckel, Helga. Orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Label: Deutsche Grammophon.
Having played Act I on laserdisc or DVD, I play the last scene of this act (which begins with 'Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater') from this CD. One friend was reduced to an uncontrollable flood of tear while listening to such a well-sung version the second time around. Vickers, as usual, is both dramatically intense and vocally phenomenal. And Janowitz's Sieglinde is bell-like in the beauty of its sound.
There's also a recording of a gripping and brilliantly sung Metropolitan Opera House live performance (von Karajan conducting) of the Todesverkündigung from Act II. Nilsson is Brünnhilde and Vickers is Siegmund. Nilsson's performance is appropriately icy and commanding. Vickers's sound is both ravaged and powerful. A bonus is that the microphone picks up a stagehand saying 'Watch out' during a scene change. It's from a two-CD set called 'Great Voices: Birgit Nilsson', HR 4275, issued in 1991 in Italy by Nuova Era Records. It appears to be out of print at the moment.
This is my favorite non-Wagnerian of Wagner's opera. I like it mainly for the Overture and the post-Tristan insertion of a new Act I, scene 1 immediately following. Christa Ludwig is Venus in the recording below, and her voice is suitably rich and sensual. Kollo's Tannhäuser has a trumpet-like quality which heightens the contrast between his straightforward, diatonic odes and Venus's chromatically ambiguous pleadings.
Georg. Performer: Sotin, Hans; Dernesch, Helga; Kollo, Rene;
Braun, Victor; Hollweg, Werner; Equiluz,
Kurt; Jungwirth, Manfred; Bailey, Norman; Ludwig,
Christa. Orchestra and Chorus: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Vienna
Opera Chorus; Vienna Boys Choir. Label:
Wolfram's 'Wie Todesahnung...O Du Mein Holder Abendstern' is the other bit of Tannhäuser I go out of my way to listen to. My preference is for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's version in Konwitschny's 1961 recording of Tannhäuser with EMI.
Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg
This is another non-Wagnerian Wagner opera which I like. I play the quintet in Act III to try to win over people who hate Wagner, and they're almost always won over - at least to this small slice of Wagner.
The combination of Fischer-Dieskau and Domingo make this the best recording, in my opinion:
Conductor: Jochum, Eugen. Singers: Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich; Domingo, Placido; Laubenthal, Horst; Ligendza, Catarina; Ludwig, Christa; Hermann, Roland; Lagger, Peter; Maus, Peter; Banuelas, Roberto; Feldhoff, Gerd; Driscoll, Loren; Mercker, Karl-Ernst; Vantin, Martin; Lang, Klaus; Sardi, Ivan; Nikolic, Miomir; von Halem, Victor. Orchestra and Chorus: Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra; Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus. Label: Deutsche Grammophon.
Domingo sings a number of Wagner roles surprisingly well: Siegmund, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tristan. But his Walther in Die Meistersinger is the one role he sings better than any Wagnerian singer.