- Great Wagner Conductors: A Listener’s Companion by Jonathan Brown
Author of Parsifal on Record and Tristan und Isolde on Record (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992 and 2000), Jonathan Brown shifts his attention from individual works to their interpreters in his book on Great Wagner Conductors. The rationale for the volume is that all the conductors covered in the study are indeed adept at Wagner’s music, but they differ in their approaches. To pursue his investigation, Brown focuses on Wagner’s “later” masterworks, specifically Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal. This is an imposing task when it comes to assessing the recorded output of twenty-three major conductors, as the author attests, by listening to the recordings, studying their lives, and examining reviews of performances. Brown states that it was not possible for him to cover every performance, which is understandable, given the book’s scope.
The result is a large volume containing an impressive amount of information about the conductors, along with significant coverage of their recordings. Taken as a whole, the documentation covers the major conductors of Wagner’s music from his lifetime through the century after his death. Understandably, the selection favors German and Austrian figures, which is natural because of the way Wagner’s music was introduced and popularized. In this sense, the volume enhances the history of Wagner performance, although it is limited by its focus on conductors and lack of consistent attention to the production styles with which they were associated.
The titles of the sections in which the author groups the conductors suggest some of his perspectives on them. The first conductor in this book is Wagner himself in the section entitled “Setting the Stage.” This is followed by “Wagner’s Pupils” (Hans von Bülow, Hans Richter, and Anton Seidl), “Early Bayreuth Masters” (Hermann Levi, Felix Mottl, and Karl Muck), “A Touch of Russia” (Arthur Nikisch and Albert Coates) “Vienna Lights” (Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, and Bruno Walter), “America felix” (Arturo Toscanini and Artur Bodanzky), “The German Heartland” (Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Busch, and Erich Kleiber), “Late Pickings” (Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Kraus, and Karl Böhm), and “Outsiders” (Richard Strauss, Otto Klemperer, and Fritz Reiner). The choice of title for the Viennese conductors is unfortunate in its use of a word that could be taken in the pejorative sense, rather than as indicative of their status as [End Page 741] luminaries. It is also difficult to consider Fritz Reiner as an outsider in the Wagner repertoire, let alone his colleagues Strauss and Klemperer. At the same time the order of the chapters is sometimes counter-intuitive to expected chronologies, which would have conductors like Erich Kleiber and Karl Böhm presented after such individuals as Bruno Walter or Richard Strauss. Toscanini may have been regarded as a Wagner conductor, but reading Brown’s comments leads one to believe that Toscanini’s influence was limited when compared with other musicians covered in the book.
Notwithstanding those concerns, the book’s value is confirmed by the substantial discography, which follows the order of the chapters, with entries for each conductor, even those whose careers occurred around the birth of recording technology. In this regard Brown even discusses some of the spurious recordings associated with Wagner, von Bülow, and Mahler. For the rest, Brown starts each conductor discography with a concise list of the works they recorded before proceeding with a chronologically arranged listing of the extant recordings. The listings are thoroughly documented with the use of matrix numbers for recordings from the 78-rpm era, followed by exhaustive information about analog and digital recordings and, when applicable, video recordings as well. Brown’s listings include individual tracks, a detail which goes beyond the norm in identifying specific excerpts and extracts from Wagner’s music. In addition, Brown’s annotations contain much important information about the provenance of the recordings, as well as background on some of the singers.
Yet the performances are at the...