I started writing about music a quarter-century ago, and one thing I’ve learned since then (the only thing, some of you may already be muttering) is that the quickest way to start a fight is to say something nasty about the operas of Richard Wagner. Most of his admirers are reasonable, but some are fanatical, and the fanatics are all compulsive correspondents. Since I find Wagner a near-unendurable bore…O.K., O.K., enough already. Let’s just say that staged performances of Wagner’s operas usually fill me with unenthusiastic respect, and drop it. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it in his inimitable manner:
In the concert-hall Wagner’s music is still immensely effective; none other, new or old, can match its brilliance at its high points, which may be isolated there very conveniently and effectively. But in the opera-house it has to carry a heavy burden of puerile folk-lore, brummagem patriotism, and bilge-water Christianity, and another and even heavier burden of choppy and gargling singing. No wonder it begins to stagger.
For some (though not all) of these reasons, I occasionally enjoy listening to excerpts from Wagner’s operas in the privacy of my own home, and I definitely have a depraved taste for the super-sensuous Wagner performances of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski may have been a bit of a fraud, with that phony Slavic accent and those pretty-pretty hands, but he knew how to make an orchestra play its heart out, and his Wagner recordings, which I once described as being as hot as an atomic pile, are the antithesis of dull.
Hence it was with unexpected delight that I learned that Andante has released a five-CD set of the complete Wagner recordings made by Stokowski and the Philadelphians between 1926 and 1940, exquisitely remastered from the original 78s by Ward Marston. I shelled out good cash money for this set, and considering the way I feel about Wagner, I’d say that’s a pretty strong recommendation. Maybe Stokowski’s Wagner is for people who don’t really like Wagner, but I have a feeling it’s for everybody, especially his 35-minute-long “symphonic synthesis” of Tristan und Isolde, which consists of all the good parts lined up in single file with nothing in between.
One last slapshot at the Bryan of Bayreuth. This is what I wrote in the New York Daily News a few years ago about Robert Wilson’s Metropolitan Opera staging of Lohengrin:
“Though Wagnerites are a famously conservative lot, I confess to being puzzled by the displeasure of the opening-night crowd. Wilson was born to stage Wagner, and his ‘Lohengrin’—epic in scale and often deeply poetic in effect, but also inhumanely symbolic and portentous to the point of self-parody—is as precise a translation into contemporary terms of Wagner’s windy German romanticism as could possibly be imagined.”
Heh, heh, heh.