Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Young Richard Wagner Writes a Symphony

There is a tendency to think about the music of Richard Wagner only in terms of his operas. When any of the other genres are performed, there is usually some connection to the operatic canon. The best example of this is probably the five songs known as the Wesendonck Lieder, which were written while Wagner was working on Tristan und Isolde. Not only do these songs reflect on the narrative of this opera; but also thematic material from the third song, “Im Treibhaus” (in the greenhouse), would later show up in the prelude to the opera’s third act. Similarly, “Siegfried Idyll,” a “birthday present” for chamber orchestra, amounts to an instrumental reflection on Wagner’s Siegfried opera.

Nevertheless, those who get really obsessed with Wagner have a tendency to explore the less familiar ventures into other genres. By way of a disclaimer, I have to confess to having done this with his music for solo piano, much to the consternation of my piano teacher at the time! As a result, every so often a conductor will decide it is time to air out the only complete symphony that Wagner composed. The latest conductor to do so is Jun Märkl, and his recording of that symphony will be released on Naxos this coming Friday. (Rabid Wagnerites will be able to resort to the usual option of pre-ordering through the Amazon.com Web page for this recording.) Märkl conducts the MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk) Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he was Principal Conductor between 2007 and 2012.

The symphony is in the key of C major. It is no surprise that this was a key frequently favored by Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wagner’s admiration for Beethoven is unmistakable. Nevertheless, this is an early composition; and sober reflection requires that it be treated as such.

In that respect any listener seriously interested in context will have to be warned that the dates given in the track listing on the back cover of this album are inaccurate. If we are to go by the score information provided by the IMSLP Web page, this symphony was composed in 1832 and was first performed in Leipzig in December of that year. Wagner then revised it near the end of this life in 1882, and that version was first performed in Venice (again in December of the same year). Wagner also started another symphony (this time in the key of E major) in 1834. He only completed the first movement but began the second movement. Felix Mottl prepared a performing version of what Wagner had composed, primarily by fleshing out the orchestration. (He did not try to continue or complete the second movement.)

Mottl’s efforts are presented as the first two tracks on this album. This suggests that this uncompleted effort preceded the C major symphony, and that suggestion is reinforced by the printed dates on the track listing. That suggestion is incorrect, and one can even recognize that the E major symphony owes a bit more the Carl Maria von Weber than it does to Beethoven. Fortunately, the booklet notes by Katy Hamilton get the dates right, but she does not mention the revision of the C major symphony.

It is also worth noting that this is a period during which Wagner completed his first two operas, Die Feen (the fairies) in 1833, followed by Das Liebesverbot (the ban on love), recasting William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure as a comic opera, in 1834. There are definitely signs of Weber in Die Feen; but Das Liebesverbot suggests that Wagner already had his eye on Paris and may well have been aware of Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavolo (Brother Devil), also a comic opera. What all this suggests is that both the complete symphony and the fragment come from a time when Wagner had not yet really found his own voice. The result is that specialists may well mine useful information from these symphonies in taking on the question of “how Wagner became Wagner;” but this recording is likely to strain the patience of any serious listener approaching it with any other goal!

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