WAGNER Die fliegende Holländer:
Overture (1860 version). Tannhäuser:
Overture. Rienzi: Overture. Lohengrin: Preludes to Acts I and III
Hiroshi Wakasugi, conductor
Berlin Classics 0300923 (51:54)
Another disc of Wagner overtures to sit on your shelf
next to Böhm, Solti, Elder, Järvi, Barenboim, Boult....In fact, Hiroshi Wakasugi
need fear no comparison with any of those luminaries—his collection turns out
to be up there with the best. The Dresden orchestra demonstrates, yet again,
their keen sense for Wagner’s idiom, the early digital sound, from 1984, though
a little dry, is clear and involving, and the conducting is expansive but with
plenty of detail and rhythmic focus.
Hiroshi Wakasugi (1935–2009) was born in New York to
Japanese parents. He trained in Japan, then divided his career mostly between
Japan, West Germany and Switzerland. In Japan, he was known as a new music
specialist, conducting the national premieres of Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. He was also the principal
conductor of the WDR SO 1977–83 and of the Zürich Tonhalle 1987–1991. As an
opera conductor, he held appointments at Deutsche Oper am Rhein, New National
Theater Tokyo, and with the Semperoper Dresden.
All of which suggests a conductor with a good working
knowledge of the German repertoire, which this recording fully vindicates.
Wakasugi generally takes slow tempos, and the soundscape always has breadth and
scale. Yet he also retains a keen focus on the direction of the music, and
draws strong attacks from the woodwind and brass. That, combined with the sheer
quality of the orchestral playing, gives Wakasugi considerable interpretive
freedom—not having to head straight into the respective operas is probably an
advantage too. He takes risks, not all of which pay off. The Rienzi Overture is too slow here: The
gentle introduction feels like it will never get going, and the following Allegro energico is anything but.
He also sometimes pushes the brass too far, compromising their trademark tonal
precision. In particular the Lohengrin
act III Prelude, taken slow and with very loud brass interjections, is too much
for the horn section, who audibly struggle.
The best of these performances is in the quieter
music, where the strings come into their own. The Tannhäuser Overture and Lohengrin
act I Prelude are both magnificent, with Wakasugi maintaining the long lines at his steady
tempos—like Thielemann but without the frown. The Flying Dutchman is also given a weighty reading. The brass are
more secure here, making this an ideal program opener.
The recording was made in a Dresden church, the
Lukaskirche, and the resulting audio is studio quality. Berlin Classics
describe this release as a 2017 remaster (by Christoph Stickel), so there may
have been some modern magic worked on the tapes. The dynamic range is very wide,
so don’t turn up the volume too high for the opening of Tannhäuser or you’ll be in for a shock. This is being marketed as a
historic reissue, based I suspect more on the reputation of the orchestra than
the conductor. Sadly, there isn’t much else from him in the catalog; he seems
to mainly appear on opera selections CDs, many featuring Wagner. Still, I’d
have liked to have heard a full Lohengrin
from him; the Prelude here suggests he’d have done something special with
it. The only other regret over this excellent release is its short running
time, the premature ending emphasized by the unusually abrupt close to the Lohengrin act III Prelude. It leaves you