Please don't let the age of these recordings (1920s-1940) dissuade you from experiencing some of the greatest Wagner playing ever captured, whether in live concert or in the studio.
Once again, Ward Marston has achieved miracles of sonic restoration, this time letting us hear anew the majesty and splendor of these justly famed performances by Stokowski and his fabulous Philadelphians. Even in dimmer transfers of this and other early-Philadelphia material, attentive listeners could sense that Stokowski was the man to whom Philadelphia owed its trademark sonic profile and often-staggering virtuosity (which Ormandy kept alive and well into the stereo era). Thanks to the tireless ministrations of Marston (surely the patron saint of sonic restoration), this album makes it easier than ever to enjoy Philadelphia's glorious early sound.
The performances themselves have never been surpassed and, to my mind, have but one twin sibling: Furtwängler's priceless two-disc Wagner album ("Extracts from the Operas," EMI 5-86191-2; reissued last year in breathtakingly fine new transfers). Both conductors give us a kind of Wagner musicmaking that no one before or since has approached. And despite the technical limitations of the times, the recordings admirably capture the sumptuous Wagner sound.
As impressive as these performances and transfers are, it would naturally be unrealistic to expect their decibel content to knock you out of your seat. If you want that big a bang, you must supplement these classics with more recent recordings. But grandeur is not merely a function of decibels and dynamic range, and on this album and Furtwängler's you will hear a level of rapport with Wagner's deepest impulses, a grandeur of conception, and a quality of orchestral execution that come through loud and clear as they do nowhere else. Many musicians playing in these recordings studied under Wagner's contemporaries (indeed, in the earliest recordings of both conductors, we are almost certainly hearing the playing of a few people who were children or teenagers during Wagner's final years). As a result, these players absorbed the spirit of the Wagnerian age with their every formative breath. Through these precious recordings, they effortlessly project intangible qualities to which no later generations can ever lay claim. While we have lost much, we can yet rejoice in what remains.
Listen, for instance, to the string *portamenti* (connecting slides) and other "old-fashioned" stylistic touches that have all but vanished from our current musical culture, and you will appreciate why these sonic documents will always retain the highest importance to (1) anyone interested in authentic 19th-century orchestral performance style as it survived into the first decades of the 20th century and (2) anyone seeking to experience the highest levels of inspired musicmaking. In the presence of superior, old-school musicians like these, one often hears far more convincing and illuminating results in late-Romantic scores: when they tastefully embellish with unwritten gestures, the musicians are probably closer to reproducing the music as Wagner might have expected to hear it and are more closely attuned to its inner spirit than any dead-accurate reproduction of the written page alone can hope to be, however fine the performance turns out in other respects.
There is simply too much treasure here to discuss in detail. But it's worth noting that the collection includes superb contributions from major U.S. singers like Helen Traubel and Lawrence Tibbett. Under Stokowski's inspirational leadership and Philadelphia's luxurious support, even a lesser singer like Agnes Davis probably outdid herself.
If you want a direct route to the heart of Wagner, this set and EMI's anthology are the royal road to Wagner's mythic kingdom. Gladly pay the fare, and take the journey! The asking price is but a pittance against the wonders that these orchestral wizards will reveal to you.