Commentary Magazine


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Wagner Without Tears

A commenter asks if I can recommend any performances conducted by the German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956). Abendroth was the “only conductor who ever made me genuinely love anything by Wagner,” says the commenter, citing a 1943 Parsifal from Bayreuth. Abendroth, who mainly conducted in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and East Germany, also produced dynamic recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony circa 1950, of which two, with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphonies, have been reprinted on CD by Tahra.

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.

Try listening to the conductor who was—with good reason—considered the truest Wagnerian at Bayreuth and Salzburg, until his anti-Fascist convictions made him refuse to perform there in the 1930’s: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Volume Seven of RCA’s Immortal Toscanini series is devoted to Toscanini’s fearlessly virtuosic performances of Wagner with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung has its typically intense dramatic emotional imagery—it sounds like a noble person has died and we are mourning him with grandeur—along with high intellectual clarity. (We can actually see Toscanini conduct Wagner on Volumes One and Four of “Toscanini—The Television Concerts 1948-52” on DVD from Testament.)

Another of the greatest Wagnerians is Pierre Monteux (1875–1964), a French Jew whose exultant embrace of life expresses the inherent sensuality in Wagner’s music. His performances are available on CD’s from the EMI Great Conductors and BBC Legends series, as well as a fascinating 10-CD box set from Music & Arts, Sunday Evenings With Pierre Monteux. And how about Fritz Busch (1890-1951)? Busch’s musical career might well have flourished under the Third Reich—he was of Aryan birth—but his principles pushed him into exile from Germany. Busch’s exalted 1936 performance of Parsifal at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires has been released on CD by Marston. This performance features a number of great talents, including the bass Alexander Kipnis, a Ukrainian Jew who would later be forced into exile by Hitler’s regime.

Other must-hear conductors of Wagner include Italy’s Guido Cantelli (1920-1956), who spent most of World War II in concentration camps because of his brave anti-Fascist activities. Cantelli’s fervently poetic performances of Wagner with the Philharmonia have been reprinted by Testament. The Czech maestro Karel Ančerl (1908-1973) was interned in Terezín and Auschwitz (where his family was killed), yet after the war he recorded a pellucid and humane version of the “Prelude to Act I” of Lohengrin with the Czech Philharmonic, reprinted on Supraphon.

Conductors of moral rigor and human depth like Toscanini, Cantelli, and Ančerl overcame the historical stain on Wagner’s music to find its inner value. And thankfully, listeners today need not be limited to historical performances from the Third Reich to find the “real” Wagner.