Robert Schumann Philharmonie Chenmitz (Caetani) – ‘Wagner: Overtures and Preludes’ A DVD-Audio review by Martin Fendt

A high-resolution multichannel recording of music by Richard Wagner has been long overdue, but now, thanks to Arts Music, the Robert Schumann Philharmonie (of Chemnitz, Germany), and its celebrated conductor Oleg Caetani, there is at last a thrilling DVD-Audio disc that allows us to experience all our favourite Wagnerian overtures and preludes. Moreover, those of us for whom time is in short supply will undoubtedly appreciate the fact that this disc allows us to enjoy such pieces without having to wade through hours of operas to get to them. Featured tracks include numbers from master works such as: ‘Der fliegende Holländer’ (The flying Dutchman); ‘Lohengrin’; ‘Tannhäuser’; ‘Die Walküre’ (The Ryde of the Valkyries); and ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’. Moreover, as a special bonus, Arts Music has also included, for the first time ever, a “world premier” recording of the overture from the somewhat rare ‘König Enzio’.

It should be noted that while Wagner has indeed previously featured on DVD-Audio, from Angel Classics, Hodie and in particular the entire and extensive ‘Die Walküre’ opera from the Farao label, the latter is presented with a sample rate of only 48kHz, and not the 96kHz of this latest Arts Music release. This is not to say that 48kHz necessarily sounds bad – far from it – it’s just that here at High Fidelity Review we feel that 48kHz cannot really be classified as “high resolution” especially when the DVD-Audio format is designed to take advantage of much higher sample rates such as 88.2kHz or 96kHz in full 5.1 multichannel surround. Thankfully, Arts Music has identified DVD-Audio as a natural delivery format for select productions from its extensive back catalog of native 24-bit, 96kHz linear-PCM multitrack recordings – a resolution standard which it adopted and has used since the late 1990s. In short, with this and other recent Arts Music DVD-Audio releases, we are now able to experience exactly the same high resolution of the original master.

And it shows. Indeed, with a running time of just over 75 minutes on a single layer (DVD-5), this clear and dynamic 5.1 surround sound offering shows just what the DVD-Audio format can achieve when the best recording equipment is put to the task and no degrading compression, equalisation or other tweaking is applied during the entire process. Most striking on this Wagner disc is the cornerstone brass section which is conveyed to the listener with a startling level of explosive force and clarity, which would simply be beyond the capability of ordinary 16-bit 44.1kHz CD to realistically deliver. The same could be said the crashing percussion effects in the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.

But surprisingly, for such an expansive soundstage of the large orchestra (100-plus players), only eight B&K and Schoeps microphones feeding Prism Sound analogue-to-digital converters were used to capture all the instruments as well as the hall atmosphere. “We utilised four microphones at the front of the orchestra, plus two for the wind section, and two for the rear ambiance,” explains Gian Andrea Lodovici, the recording’s producer and artistic director.

He adds: “For this 5.1 surround sound recording our aim was to reconstruct the natural sound which we experienced in the hall as accurately possible. To accomplish this, we used the two inner microphones for the left/right front channels, while the two outer microphone feeds were distributed amongst the other channels. We also created a feed for the subwoofer channel to cater for the very deepest frequencies. Usually with classical music it is not often that we utilise the sub, but in this case you can clearly sense the additional impact of the tubas and double bases when the sub is engaged. In short, when I was monitoring the recording, I felt that we had managed to faithfully capture the same tonal balance and warm sound of the performance taking place in the ‘Großer Saal der Stadthalle Chemnitz’ auditorium.

Importantly, Caetani is certainly no stranger to the Wagner repertoire – and operas in general – and this has enabled him to direct these overtures in a way that does not overlook their wider operatic context. Indeed, his credentials are impressive: He has conducted numerous productions of Wagner’s Ring cycle as well as ‘Tristan und Isolde’, ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ and ‘Tannhäuser’, along with operas by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. He is also known for his interpretation of several Russian opera including ‘The Nose’ by Shostakovich, ‘Kashshey the Immortal’, ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ by Rimsky-Korsakov, ‘The Maid of Orleans’ and ‘The Queen of Spades’ by Tchaikovsky.

Caetani commenced his professional career as assistant to Otmar Suitner at the German State Opera, Berlin. He has since been chief conductor at the German National Theatre in Weimar, first conductor at the Frankfurt Opera House, musical director first at the Wiesbaden Opera House, and later at the Chemnitz Opera House and its resident Robert Schumann Philharmonic Orchestra. During these years he has been a regular guest with such orchestras as Bayerische Rundfunk, Gewandhaus, Wiener Symphoniker, and Yomiuri to name a few. Most recently, Caetani was appointed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor designate for 2003/04, and in 2005 he will take up the post of chief conductor and artistic director for the foreseeable future.

The Robert Schumann-Philharmonie was founded in 1833 in Chemnitz but received its current name only in 1983 to mark its 15th anniversary. Comprising approximately 110 musicians, the orchestra’s portfolio includes numerous operas and 10 yearly symphony concerts. In 1996, Caetani took over as conductor overseeing regular appearances in Berlin’s Schauspielhaus; at the Dresden Music Festival; at the Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk summer music festival; and also at a growing number of such festivals abroad. In addition to these, it regularly undertakes performances for state radio programmes and live broadcasts of symphony concerts. In 1994 the orchestra was awarded the prize by the Society of German Publishers for the best concert programme in that season.

After tightening our seatbelts, we promptly take-to-the-skies with a full-throttle afterburning rendition of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ wherein Caetani and the Schumann Philharmonie show their mettle in an incredibly potent coda which really knocks off those proverbial socks. Then we cruise with the graceful ‘Lohengrin’ preludes initially with the ever popular First Act, which follows with a spot of in-flight turbulence during the vivacious Third Act Prelude. Then as things calm down following a pleasantly Beethoven-esque sounding ‘König Enzio’, Caetani treats us to grand and imposing performance of the ‘Tannhäuser’ overture, followed by another Third Act Prelude which, notably, is something of a rarity and a highly welcome addition to the established Wagnerian numbers. Particularly noteworthy in this track is the beautifully resonating brass, which periodically fades to total silence before the next volley is unleashed with incredible spatial dynamism. After this we join formation as we are taken for a ‘Ryde of the Valkyries’, prior to finally coming to a majestic touchdown with the soothing ‘Meistersinger’ overture to conclude a remarkable flight.

It could be argued that in contrast to big-name conductors such as Barenboim or Levine – who some would say handle Wagner with too much restraint – Caetani instead intelligently imparts his own brand full-blooded gravitas to raise these pieces above pure light entertainment. Having said that, some Wagner aficionados may still regard the classic performances by Furtwängler, Solti or Karajan in particular, as the ones to beat musically. Nonetheless, we can assure readers here, that with this stunning DVD-Audio high-resolution 5.1 multichannel presentation, Arts Music truly delivers both a first-class production, as well as a ‘roller-coaster’ of a ride, to boot. In short, by allowing us to experience masterful works by Richard Wagner in a way which plain two-channel CD just cannot, this is indeed an essential and worthy addition to anyone’s music collection.