Wagner: Complete Operas; Various artists, Deutsche Grammophon ★★★★★
The Other Wagner: Symphonic, Vocal and Piano Music ★★★★
Together, these two sets make up the complete published works of Wagner, as far as I can tell. I already had several performances of some of the operas in the Complete opera set, but the compendium had a reasonable enough price to make it worth purchasing the entire set. In the Other Wagner, there were new pieces for my collection. Naturally, the Sigfried Idyll and Wiesendonck Lieder were in my set, but not some of his early vocal music, which did not sound at all like the Wagner one is familiar with, or his symphony. The piano music was mostly transcriptions of his other vocal works; it is my understanding that Wagner usually wrote out a piano version first, and then orchestrated the piece, so having some of his piano transcripts is not surprising.
Each of the operas in the DG collection was superb. Many were not my favorite performances. The Ring series by Levine in this set is less satisfactory than the Solti and Karajan versions, yet is top ranking. The early operas (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi) were all well performed and recorded. Together, both sets were bargains and worth the expenditure.
But, why listen to Wagner? He is painted by historians as a proto-Nazi, racist, self-serving prig. All of that may be true, yet most musicologists without an ax to grind will admit he is the greatest symphonist of all time, in that his orchestrations for a modern full orchestra are the most complex and creative compositions to date. Wagner created music-drama and with that film background music. Having just listened to the even more expansive set of the Verdi operas, one sees little maturation from the young to the old Verdi. Wagner is the opposite, where you would not recognize the same composer in his early vs. late works. Unlike the Strauss works that I just reviewed, Wagner does not form instant weariness on the listener. Wagner is not easy to listen to. The first time I heard Wagner, I was mystified that he didn’t do the standard opera style of Mozart or Verdi or others. There were no arias followed by choruses and mixed in duets, trios, quartets, and the like. In the Ring, rarely does Wagner ever have two people singing together. BUT, when they do, the result is profound. Who cannot instantly fall in love with the Walkürienflucht or “Du bist der Lenz”? If you are into 5 minute sound-bite music, stick to Strauss. If you like complete predictability and ensemble music, Verdi will hit your tops list. But, if you like complex music with true creativity, then you are stuck with composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, or Shostakovich. And it will be a compendium of Shostakovich music that I will be reviewing soon, after I listen to it.