About this Recording
8.550136 - WAGNER, R.: Orchestral Highlights from Operas

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes of reaction. For some his music seemed as misguided and repulsive as his anti-Semitism, while others were overwhelmed by the size of his ambition and achievement, to which everything had to be sacrificed. Wagner's career was in many ways thoroughly discreditable. He betrayed friends and patrons, accumulated debts with abandon, and seemed, in pursuit of his aims, an unprincipled opportunist. Nevertheless, whatever his defects of character, he exercised a hypnotic influence over his immediate followers, while his creation of a new form of music-drama, in which the arts were combined, and the magnitude of his conception continue to fascinate.

The tetralogy of The Ring, based on a conflation of Teutonic and Scandinavian legends, was originally conceived while Wagner was enjoying his first real success as conductor at the opera in Dresden, where Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser were first performed. In 1848, with revolution in the air, Wagner began work on the poem concerning the death of the hero Siegfried, a text that was to serve as the basis for the fourth opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung.

In 1849 Wagner was forced to leave Dresden in haste. His creditors had, in any case, made his stay there uneasy, but in 1849 he was implicated in the rising against the monarchy, and escaped to Switzerland, leaving his wife behind. The first years of exile brought the completion of the text of The Ring and its publication in 1853, followed by the composition of the music of the first opera, Das Rheingold by 1854 and the second, Die Walküre two years later. The complete cycle, however, was performed for the first time at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in 1876. There, with the help of his young patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he had been able to establish his own operatic kingdom, realising his revolutionary ideas of music-drama and investing the art of opera with a significance and weight that it had not generally possessed before.

In July, 1882, the last of Wagner's operas, Parsifal, was staged at Bayreuth at the end of July, running for sixteen performances under the direction of Hermann Levi. In September the composer travelled again to Italy, where an easier way of life seemed likely to be of benefit to his health. He died in Venice in February, 1883, after a severe heart attack and was later buried in the garden of his house in Bayreuth. His legacy to the world was an enduring body of stage works and a festival centred on them, as well as continued conflict between those fascinated by his achievement and those appalled by aspects of his character and his writing.

The Flying Dutchman has its literary source in the seventh chapter of Heine's Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski, used by at least one earlier composer to provide the libretto of an opera. The story of the phantom ship and its haunted master appealed even more to Wagner after his own experiences at sea, when he was caught in a storm, sailing from the Baltic port of Pillau to England, to take refuge from his continental creditors in 1839. Sheltering in a Norwegian fjord, he was reminded of Heine's story, resulting in the composition of the libretto and music of the new opera, completed in Paris in 1841. The work was first staged at Dresden in 1843, leading to his appointment as conductor at the opera-house there.

The Overture to The Flying Dutchman, with its story of the legendary haunted Dutchman, fated to sail the seas in his ghostly ship until redeemed by true love, sets the scene of what the composer described as a storm-swept ballad. Leit-rnotifs, themes or fragments of themes, appear and re-appear, dominated by the horn call associated with the Dutchman and the rushing strings of the sea and wind. Another theme that appears in the Overture is associated with Senta, the girl who loves the Dutchman and dies for him, as he sails away in apparent disappointment at what he believes to be her betrayal. Her sacrifice brings him final redemption.

While travelling to Dresden, Wagner passed the mountain of the Wartburg, and in 1842, during a stay in Teplitz. sketched the libretto of his new opera. Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, described as a grand romantic opera, was staged for the first time in Dresden in October, 1845. The story of the opera is derived from a 14th century legend about a 13th century Minnesinger, the aristocratic poet-composer and crusader Tannhäuser. He is found first in the Venusberg, singing the praise of the goddess of love, but his invocation of the name of the Mother of Christ brings him back to the human world and the valley of the Wartburg, where he hears a band of pilgrims pass and is greeted by the nobles. At a song contest in the Wartburg Castle Tannhäuser's impassioned praise of Venus is defended by Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave, and the hero is despatched to Rome to seek forgiveness, to be denied him by the Pope. On his return he finds Elisabeth dead of a broken heart, but pilgrims enter bearing a staff from the Pope that has sprouted leaves, a sign of papal pardon.

The Prelude to Tannhäuser includes a number of themes and motifs that have later importance in the score. The sound of the Pilgrims' Chorus is heard and a motif of repentance, contrasted with the Venusberg music and the Hymn to Venus. The Dresden version of the overture ended with a return to the Pilgrims' Chorus, while for Paris Wagner led straight into the Bacchanal, a pagan celebration of love. This is the Venusberg music of the first act. The entrance of the nobility in the second act is accompanied by a festal march, followed by the entrance of the contestants in the song contest on the subject of love. The introduction to the third act gives a musical account of Tannhäuser's pilgrimage to Rome, in search of absolution.

Lohengrin was first performed at the Court Theatre in Weimar in 1850, with Liszt conducting. Wagner himself had taken refuge in Switzerland, after his indiscreet support of revolution in Dresden against his royal patron. He was later, through Liszt's generosity, to be joined there by his wife Minna, who had at first seemed reluctant, as she wrote, to continue to serve as a good-hearted bootblack to her egocentric husband, by his dog and by his parrot.

The new opera, which established him as an international figure of importance in the world of opera, was set in the 10th century and concerns the unjust accusations levelled against Elsa, ruler of Brabant, and her defence by an unknown knight, who appears in a boat drawn by a swan and promises to be her defender and husband if she never asks his name or origin. Elsa is tricked into asking just this question, on the day of her wedding, and the mysterious knight reveals that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, from the Temple of the Holy Grail. Before he leaves he restores Elsa's brother Gottfried, turned by evil magic into a swan, to his original shape.

The Prelude to Act I represents the mystical appearance of the Holy Grail, growing in radiance as it descends to men, and disappearing again, as the overture comes to an end, after celebrating the triumph of Lohengrin's divine mission. The third act is introduced by music for the wedding celebration of Elsa and her mysterious knight and champion.

The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra has benefited considerably from the work of its distinguished conductors. These included Vaclav Talich (1949 - 1952), Ludovit Rajter and Ladislav Slovak. The Czech conductor Libor Pesek was appointed resident conductor in 1981, and the present Principal Conductor is the Slovak musician Bystrik Rezucha. Zdenek Kosler has also had a long and distinguished association with the orchestra and has conducted many of its most successful recordings, among them the complete symphonies of Dvorák.

During the years of its professional existence the Slovak Philharmonic has worked under the direction of many of the most distinguished conductors from abroad, from Eugene Goossens and Malcolm Sargent to Claudio Abbado, Antal Dorati and Riccardo Muti.

The orchestra has undertaken many tours abroad, including visits to Germany and Japan, and has made a large number of recordings for the Czech Opus label, for Supraphon, for Hungaroton and, in recent years, for the Marco Polo and Naxos labels. These recordings have brought the orchestra a growing international reputation and praise from the critics of leading international publications.

Michael Halász
Born in Hungary in 1938, Michael Halász began his professional career as principal bassoonist in the Philharmonia Hungarica, a position he occupied for eight years, before studying conducting in Essen. His first engagement as a conductor was at the Munich Gaertnerplatz Theatre, where, from 1972 to 1975, he directed all operetta productions. In 1975 he moved to Frankfurt as principal Kapellmeister under Christoph von Dohnányi, working with the most distinguished singers and conducting the most important works of the operatic repertoire. Engagements as a guest-conductor followed, and in 1977 Dohnányi took him to the Staatsoper in Hamburg as principal Kapellmeister.

In 1978 Michael Halász was appointed General Musical Director at the opera-house in Hagen, and there has further developed his experience of the repertoire, while undertaking guest engagements, which included television appearances as conductor in English and German versions of the Gerard Hoffnung Music Festival, as well as work with the Philharmonia Hungarica, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Hilversurn Radio Orchestra.

For the Marco Polo label, Michael Halász has recorded works by Richard Strauss, Anton Rubinstein, Schreker and Miaskovsky and for Naxos works by Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Beethoven.

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