WAGNER: Excerpts from Tristan and Isolde, Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung; and Siegfried Idyll
National Philharmonic Orch/Charles Gerhardt, cond.
Chesky CD 161 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:47

Aficionados already know Charles Gerhardt as the long-time, London-based producer of sonic spectaculars for RCA and Reader's Digest -- although how spectacular, in the latter case, we've had to wait until Chesky acquired non-subscriber rights and remastered them for CD. Gerhardt is also, however, a conductor of parts and passion, with the National Philharmonic Orchestra he established years back as a recording entity, by recruiting the best players from London's several orchestras alongside top-grade session men. Stateside buyers know him best as the conductor of film scores, most notably Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and Franz Waxman, although his repertory has included the Second Symphony of Howard Hanson. For this collection, called Richard Wagner -- Orchestral Music, he has gone back to the original (rather than published) scores, which is detailed in copious notes by Classical CDs' Bob Benson.

In the case of excerpts from two of the four Ring des Nibelungen operas--"Ride of the Valkyries" and "Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music" from Die Walküre, and the "Death and Funeral Music" of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung -- Gerhardt has marshaled the outsize forces that Wagner demanded at Bayreuth in 1876 and after. Furthermore, he includes prefatory music we almost never hear in concert performances or recorded excerpts. His Tristan begins with the love music from Act II, sumptuously erotic here but never vulgarized (instead of the heavy breathing and throat-clearing that a bygone wordmeister, in the heyday of New York criticism, once described, when two heldenhulks occupied a bench center-stage: "They sat there unmoving, virtue teetering twixt them"). Gerhardt segues from Act II into III so we can be caressed by Isolde's "Liebestod."

Midway in the disc, he puts aside Wagner's heavy ordnance for a sweetly chaste performance of the Christmas-birthday music Wagner composed in 1870 for his wife-to-be, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, to celebrate the (illegitimate) birth of their only child, Siegfried. Gerhardt has a few more strings than when Hans Richter conducted it at Villa Triebschen overlooking Lake Lucerne (where the lovebirds had been banished, reluctantly, by Bavaria's bilked monarch, Ludwig II). But then Gerhardt's players didn't need to stand on a staircase, and the extra strings flesh out what can be (yea, usually is) a treacly-sounding business in less sympathetic hands. Everything has been so resplendently recorded--with a precise and vivid sense of venue -- that you can't tell the Tristan synthesis was made in 1985, the rest between 1994-6. Chesky remastering, as always, is Class-AAA.