Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Now, let's not be hasty

A.C. Douglas points us to this article, on Wagner, in Commentary. Now, I'm not going to get as hot-and-bothered as Mr. Douglas, largely because my mind on Wagner and Wagnerian performance is fast approaching the "made up" phase, though there is still some room for give-and-take. I will also say that Keilberth's 1955 Ring might just be the "real deal," but I should wait until next month, so to speak, before judging this one's flavor.

Still, I would like to offer my comments, such as they are, on some of the author's (Benjamin Ivry) main points.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Since when (i.e., to the first point)? Georg Solti's Decca Ring has been the gold standard since its release. As far as I know, no one considers Von Karajan's attempt to be "final" in any respect. His strongest entry, Das Rheingold, is still well behind several stronger contenders. His 1951 Bayreuth performances, though, are a different story. As to Karl Böhm, his Ring tends to be overlooked these days - with Daniel Barenboim's recording, there's a new "live" set - and it's solid (though some would disagree). However, there are flaws, which I could discuss, that make it far from "final."

As to the second point, other than Von Karajan and Böhm, both of whom had associations that were regrettable at very best, most great Wagnerians of the generation old enough to be working during that time have been not only not fascists but also made to suffer by fascists. Toscanini was fairly safe in New York. Others, well-known all, were not so safe. Furtwängler was held in a state of limbo, personally and professionally, by the NSDAP "cultural" authorities. They weren't fond of his meddling and defense of unpopular artists, but also didn't want an artist of his stature to "disappear." As the story goes, Albert Speer, Hitler's armaments minister and architect, warned the conductor when the tide was finally decisively against him. Furtwängler was a broken man after the war.

The author mentions several lesser-known conductors. What about Otto Klemperer? His recording of Der fliegende Holländer, forty years old or better, has never really been surpassed. Even Georg Solti fell short of this transitional work. He was driven from his post at the Kroll and eventually out of Germany by the NSDAP madmen. Bruno Walter, whose Walküre first act is generally acclaimed to be one of the greatest Wagner records (and records in general) of all time, met with a similar fate. In fact, his famous record was taken from him when the fascists decreed him out of work.

The author discusses "Wagner without tears." I'll grant him that the performance history of Richard Wagner in the 20th century is spotty, to say nothing of his political and social philosophy, complex, often malevolent, and muddled though it is; however, there is no mention of the really great conductors driven to tears and worse by evil men - who still conducted Wagner beautifully.