Move Records MCD 597
Does anyone in the current generation – X, Y, Z squared – remember Leopold Stokowski? Not the talk-down-to-the-audience posturing figure in DIsney’s first Fantasia of 1940, but the important force in American music-making (and music) who suffered vilification from less-endowed colleagues and underlings, but who stayed the course and remained active almost until his death aged 95 in 1977. He comes irresistibly to mind when considering this idiosyncratic CD which reduces some of Wagner’s most powerful outpourings in the Ring cycle to a mixed trio’s compass: horn, tuba and piano. In doing so, the content covers a bit more ground than just that trodden by Siegfried, who only appears in the last two of the four operas. But, as everyone will tell you, the big tetralogy is nothing less than a monster family show, albeit one starting in primordial ooze and ending in an apocalypse.
Stokowski put his own mark on well-known chunks like the Liebstod, Magic Fire Music and Ride of the Valkyries. In fact, it was some years before I realized that this last-named had singing interpolated. He also put together what he labelled syntheses. Quite a few of both these formats introduced many of my peers and myself to Wagner, mainly because our chances of seeing any parts of the Ring cycle were next to none in this country. Lohengrin or Tannhauser, perhaps; Tristan, less likely; Mastersingers, on the outer rim of feasibility; Parsifal, an impossible dream. These orchestrations were, for their time, very impressive-sounding, especially the three extracts from Tristan: the Prelude, Liebesnacht and Liebstod. Stokowski also gave us more than a nodding acquaintance with the last act of Parsifal, including the Good Friday Spell, as it was known in less religiously correct times.
This Scaffidi/Papworth/Forsberg trio seem to have been driven to their enterprise by little more than Wagner love. Well, that’s certainly true of Papworth who constructed all twelve arrangements and persuaded his colleagues to enter the lists with him. Great to have a musician follow his ambitious path, following the Stokowski trail but scaling down rather than revelling in sumptuousness. Further, it’s admirable to have a player behind the exercise, rather than a well-meaning amateur who responds to the Ring for questionable reasons. For one thing, if you remove most of the tracks on this CD from the original corpus, you are left with hours of tedium in theatrical or dramatic terms. The same can’t be said of the music where many of us look for salvation, but Wotan’s (and others’) lengthy recapitulations can daze many a music-lover. regardless of any singer’s quality.
So, here we are at the opening to Das Rheingold, Wagner’s exercise in E flat Major if mainly its tonic triad. Both wind players have little to do here but sustain the tonic drone while also sounding out the endless chain of E flats, Gs and B flats that are the lot of the brass while Scaffidi copes with the semiquaver arpeggios that turn up in the bass (eventually) and then the woodwind, roaming around both dominant and tonic triads. The group plays a straight version of this famous opening before the first of he composer’s Kardashian precursors, Woglinde, opens her mouth and introduces us to Wagner’s mellifluous vocal line and onomatopoeiac rhyme patterns. No problems here, and the performance is fluid enough.
A more difficult excerpt to carry off follows. After the ‘Get up, you lazy sod’ colloquy between Fricka and Wotan, Fasolt and Fafner, having built Valhalla, show up for their payment. The extract starts at the giants’ entry – Sanft schloss Schlaf dein Aug’ – and their trio with Wotan is followed right up to the D Major cadence just before Donner threatens the giants with his hammer. Forsberg carries the vocal line brunt, Papworth taking over when the movement becomes more chromatic, while the piano is prominent in the galumphing leitmotif that brings to ear the brothers’ heftiness. The players do their best to cover all harmonic bases and, for the most part, the extract doesn’t sound threadbare, although I must confess to losing the vocal line when Freia starts carrying on about being carried off.
This set of three extracts ends with the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla and it’s an impossible task to give even an inkling of the grandiose effect of these pages in a small-scale version. The trio begins at the spot where Donner tells everyone to come on up at Weise der Brucke den Weg!, omits the brooding of Wotan, his uneasy triumphalism countered with the distant Rhinemaidens bemoaning their loss, and takes up when the singing stops and the stately three-in-a-bar march takes over as the gods move into their new quarters. No way on earth can Scaffidi hope to cope with the divisi string work that goes on for page after page and the brass can only hint at the colossal grandeur of the massive brass choir. Still, the extract does show you how brilliant Wagner could be at fleshing out his bare-bones material through a mighty orchestral onslaught.
We are given four excerpts from Die Walkure: two from Act 1 and the concluding act’s Ride of the Valkyrie and Magic Fire Music, with nothing from the much-maligned middle act. The opera’s Prelude is handled well enough, lasting just up until curtain up and a bar before Siegmund comes into the hut. Both brass take on the minor scale motif while the piano keeps up a sustained chord pattern which doesn’t attempt to replicate the sextuplets in violins and violas; even so, the brass cannot hope to replicate the rushed quintuplets that feature so often on the first crotchet in the cellos’ and basses’ pattern work. Still, the dual impressions of storm and urgency come across efficiently enough and with very few errors, considering the pell-mell music and the considerable troubles with giving string music to low brass.
Towards the end of the first act comes Siegmund’s Wintersturme wichend dem Wonnemond aria. sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of this menacing act. Our trio begins 8 bars before the singer and cuts out on the same bar as the aria’s final Lenz! Papworth takes the tune, Scaffidi gives us the mobile arpeggio-rich support, but Forsberg roves across the score with remarkable liberty, here following a bass clarinet part, there a horn, sometimes a violin or cello scrap. It all makes for a genial experience, in large part due to the horn’s smooth agility, especially when the aria moves out of its B flat comfort zone.
The hackneyed Ride of the Valkyries is played straight, without gimmicks, and proves to be a real workout for Scaffidi who has to handle all the athletic work that falls to strings and woodwind. Both brass players tend to reinforce each other, playing at the octave as the piece reaches its highpoint. It’s a bit heavy-handed, as Rides go, and you certainly miss the blazing energy when the brass go into canon with themselves. Scaffidi brings things to a halt at the spot just before Ortlinde sets the girls off on their dead hero body-count, suggestive of AFLW post-match locker room banter – enjoy it while you can, girls: Coach Wotan’s on his way. Then we hear part of Wotan’s Farewell, starting four bars before he summons Loge to install the fire hurdle, and moving to the end of the opera with some omissions to the god’s moving ruminations before he leaves his daughter to her doom. Again, the piano had all the flickering labour while the brass hefted out the pompous descending scales and that unforgettably moving Innocent Sleep motif.
I started to lose the plot with the first extract from Act 2 of Siegfried. I followed the real Forest Murmurs – obvious in the score, beginning at the Wachsendes Waldweben notification and the key change to E Major – but the preceding introduction seemed a Stokowski-style mashing of melodies and motifs from the preceding scene. After a while, of course, Siegfried starts singing and the brass outlined his part, but the process was fragmented and the extract ended in mid-flight, the piano giving us the clarinet solo that accompanies the hero’s picking up his horn prior to blasting at Fafner. This fragment of the opera came off very well, handled with an agreable fluidity, even if most of the effectiveness came from Scaffidi’s non-glutinous string substitution. Papworth gave an excellent reading of Siegfried’s Horn Call, one of Wagner’s rare solo passages – completely exposed, I mean, not just rising above the ruck. You’d go some way to find an equal to this player’s accelerando: immer schnell und schmetternder indeed.
The final extract from Siegfried was the Prelude and first scene of Act 3 where Wotan/Wanderer is loitering at the base of Brunnhilde’s rock. This is pretty dour Wagner with little to recommend it except as an informative harbinger of impending doom and a marvellous contrast with the splendid final duet to the opera. Or perhaps I just miss the orchestral ferment here more than in several other excerpts.
And finally, the trio reaches Gotterdammerung and two solid pieces of work, the longest on the CD: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and his Funeral March. Everybody puts themselves to employment in the musical picture that shows Siegfried leaving the rock, Brunnhilde’s last glimpses of him, and the jaunty journey that our hero has on his luxury-less Scenic tour before the music sinks to depression. The players follow the score right through till the ambiguous chord that signifies the curtain going up on the Gibichung Hall. Much of this is horn-heavy in the original but the keyboard provides much of the movement’s thrust, doubling the brass’s handling of the main melody line for substantial lengths of time. Here, as in previous tracks, details have been omitted; admittedly, most of these are rapid and hard to incorporate into an arrangement, but it might have been worth leaving the brass to jockey with the melodic Hauptstimmen and given Scaffadi the opportunity to fill in the supporting gaps.
And we come at last to the opera’s penultimate dramatic highpoint. Auden once said, ‘When my time is up, I’ll want Siegfried’s Funeral Music and not a dry eye in the house.’ Wishes are all very well, but the poet had a quieter send-off at the churchyard of Kirchstetten in 1973. It’s hard to think of anything to rival Wagner’s pages for shattering, sombre power and these musicians give a convincing musical depiction of this imposing scene, picking up in the bar where Siegfried dies and coming to a neat C Major conclusion (the original’s C sharp down to C) at the point where Gutrune comes on stage to reap the rewards of her household’s duplicity. This is a very hard ask without a conductor and you can hear some slightly discrepant entries, moments when the ensemble is just a tad imperfect. But the interpretation has a reduced grandeur and punch at those stirring moments of C and G Major repeated chords that, even on a small scale as here, take you into the tragedy of this saga’s final moments.
In the end, this CD is something of a curiosity, reducing the irreducible and clarifying where the original intent was often a fabric of rich agglomeration. What you must do is respect the exercise as a labour of love, fed by Papworth’s familiarity with and attachment to Wagner’s music. No, of course it’s no substitute for the original bleeding chunks that Stokowski carved out for us. It’s more like a digest of a digest: improbably diminished canvases, yet bearing enough distinctive lineaments to satisfy the sympathizer, if not the Bayreuth purist.