Monday, September 6, 2010

The best Wagnerian conductor of our time?

You may have already realized that I'm not into old recordings and stuff remastered beyond recognition. To me the audio recordings are there like old photos -- to bring back the memories of the most memorable shows I've seen.

With Wagner's operas the story is a little different.  Not that I indulge myself into listening to hundreds of hours of old recordings, but because it is interesting to figure out the evolution of styles and approaches to conducting this music over the past 5-6 decades. Once you do that exercise you soon realize the difficulties today's conductors conducting Wagner's music encounter in preparing their performance: they should make their sound 'right' yet refreshing, deliver a distinguishable sound with peculiar timings, and display a profound understanding of the score.

Of all the active conductors, Daniel Barenboim comes on the top. He was the only one able to make that special moment to happen to me, when music almost materializes and detaches from the orchestra. It happens with his Staatskapelle and only sometimes, but when it happens it's the sound that marks you for life.  All Wagner operas conducted by Barenboim are special to me, but his Tristan is likely to remain unbeatable for a long-long time.

Second best to me is Hartmut Haenchen. This year I listened to his Flying Dutchman in Amsterdam and it was magnificent. His Parsifal in Paris --a couple of years ago-- remains an unforgettable musical shock. His Ring, that you can find on DVD, is brilliant as well.

Then comes Christian Thielemann, whose Ring is really special. His Parsifal was interesting too but  not as brilliant as Haenchen's, or even Gatti's or Honeck's. 
There are many other conductors who occasionally come up with excellent performances, but to me the above three are more special than the others.

Since Hartmut Haenchen is not as big a star as the other two big Wagnerian conductors, I would like to bring to your attention a documentary made during the rehearsals of the extraordinary production of Parsifal at the Paris Opera in 2008, that a new conservative direction axed. The show was directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, while the cast included Waltraud Meier, Christopher Ventris, Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, Franz Josef Selig, Evgeny Nikitin, etc.  Enjoy!
[towards the end of part-3 you can listen to Hartmut explaining his take on Parsifal ]




  1. How about James Levine? Or do you only consider Europeans worthy of your list?

  2. There are quite a few excellent Wagnerian conductors: Manfred Honeck, Jaap van Zweden, James Levine, Donald Runnicles, Michael Schønwandt, Simon Rattle, Lothar Zagrosek, and the new guns such as Philippe Jordan, Kirill Petrenko, Andris Nelsons...

    *To me* they all are magnificent but still a tiny bit less impressive than the three guys I mentioned above.

    No, it's not about the European conductors. Barenboim is Argentinian ;)


  3. John Helmer Fiore was not on your list, but to me, his PARSIFAL with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein is one of the highpoints of this Wagnerian's life. His concentrated emotional intensity brings me to a kind of religious ecstasy. Especially when seen on Easter, as I did a few years ago, it was better than being in Church.