Wagner – Symphonic Excerpts from Parsifal, Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6 – Roger Norrington

Hanssler Classic 93-119 Total Time 78:35 min Full Price

Wagner Symphonic Excerpts From ParsifalTchaikovsky Symphony No 6 Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra Roger Norrington, conductor

by Jonathan Rogers

I’ll admit to blanching at Sir Roger Norrington’s liner notes spiel when he writes that what you are about to hear is much more likely to be the sort of sound Wagner and Tchaikovsky expected in their lifetime than you have ever heard before, before proceeding to use this as a justification for the superiority of the approach. The logic Norrington employs to support his view is that whilst star violin soloists had begun in the late 19th century to employ the shaky finger approach, orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic did not. Because they therefore presumably frowned on it, so did the composers of the day and by extension so must we.

Tchaikovsky would naturally have turned his nose up at the benchmark recording of his Pathetique symphony, by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic because the players employ what Norrington derisively terms caf vibrato and instead given the English maestros turn presented here a thumbs up.

I disagree with this inference. I’ll bet Tchaikovsky would have loved Karajan’s version, which is as heart on sleeve as the score intends the performance to be. Still that doesn’t stop me being a big fan of this recording. It isn’t a benchmark performance and if it seeks to be, it fails there’s something of the irregular, the novelty about it, but that’s true of all Norringtons period instrument and period performance work. These methods allow him to buy freshness on the cheap, but its still invigorating to listen to. This Pathetique seems to have been designed for the sternest of stern anti-sentimentalists. The famous first movement love theme which forms the most nostalgic and rapturous elements of Tchaikovskys programme he was dead before he had a chance to reveal what the symphonys programme was, but it was probably about his descent from youthful passion to the despair of middle age is done matter of factly.

Conductors looking to egg the Hollywood movie score aspect delay the pace and surpress the horns here. Norrington brings them out and moves on briskly. The effect is of accurately remembered youthful energy without the distorting rose-coloured tint of memory, delivered principally by the vibrato-less almost ghostly Stuttgart strings. I would describe Norringtons approach in these performances as granular allowing an almost equal dynamic weighting to all the instruments.

In Erich Leinsdorfs symphonic excerpts from Parsifal, this produces a startling opening up of the score. I heard things I have never heard before but without the central argument of the music being lost. This approach isn’t likely to please a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian, nor perhaps will the fast tempi, but again, its fresh, and  fascinating to listen to what is usually hidden in the broad sweep of a Knappertsbusch or a Solti. Sadly theres a jarring dissonance in the Act 1 transformation scene from the horns a shame, since they otherwise make this recording.

Certainly Norrington’s argument in the liner notes that his performance techniques produce pure tone is correct. On the other hand its too much to say, as he does, that vibrato is the enemy of nobility and innocence. On that view, we are forced to flush the recorded repertoire of much of the last century and the beginning of this down the toilet. Thats nonsense. For this music I will always go first to the standard recordings Karajan and Solti (full opera) and go to Norrington for the new angle. But not because tradition equals integrity equals the best music. Give me the Goldbergs on a Steinway any day and likewise give me Wagner and Tchaikovsky with full blown vibrato. Caf or otherwise.

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