WAGNER:  Excerpts from Parsifal  (Prelude to Act I, Act I Transformation Music, Act III Transformation Music, Good Friday Spell)  (Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Alfred Hertz, cond). ( Prelude to Act I).  (Berlin State Opera Orch/Karl Muck, cond).  (Transformation Music, Grail Scene: " Zum letzten Liebesmahle," " Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor," " Wein und Brot des letzten Mahles") (Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orch/Karl Muck, cond).  Act II:  Flower Maiden Scene ("Komm! Komm! Holder Knabe!")  (Ingeborg Holmgren, Anny Helm, Minnie Rueke-Leopold, Hilde Sinnek, Maria Nezadál, sopranos; Charlotte Müller, alto; Bayreuth Festival  Orch/Karl Muck, cond). Act III:  Prelude. " Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde!" " O Gnade! Höchstes Heil!" " So ward es uns verhiessen" (Good Friday Spell). " Mittag:  die Stund' ist da"  (Transformation Music). " Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein."  "Ja, Wehe! Wehe!" " Nur ein Waffe taugt."  (Gotthelf Pistor, tenor; Ludwig Hofmann, bass; Cornelius Bronsgeest, baritone; Berlin State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Karl Muck, cond.)  "So ward es uns verhiessen"  (Good Friday Spell)  Fritz Wolff, tenor; Alexander Kipnis, bass; Bayreuth Festival Orch/Siegfried Wagner, cond.
NAXOS  8.110049/50 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD)  TT:  78:34 & 79:16) 

If you don't like—or sadder, can't stand—historical recordings, skip this. Nothing I may say about the contents or the performances, despite their documentary value as interpretations, is likely to sway you. If, however, you have any curiosity about musical tradition, Karl Muck's legacy is surely as significant as Wilhelm Furtwängler's much larger bequest. Muck was born in 1859—a year before Mahler—and lived 81 years. The jacket photo shows you a Junker who brooked no nonsense, as Boston legends have told the world ever since his term there as music director, 1912-18, after which he was interned as an enemy alien until World War One ended. The charge was baseless—he was simply an arrogant champion of German Kultur, like Germans before him and after, including Ernst Kunwald in Cincinnati, and Frederick Stock in Chicago (who wisely took a sabbatical for two years, rather than inhabit a Yankee Stalag in Georgia).

Muck was more, however, than a martinet; he was a "modern" conductor, who brooked no Schlamperei—and was so before Toscanini put his oar in the water. The first CD in this (flimsy) two-disc-as-one case begins with a 1913 recording of gobbets from Parsifal by the Berlin Philharmonic under Alfred Hertz, who broke the copyright on Parsifal at the Met in 1903, a decade before the rest of the world outside the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. He conducted German repertoire at the Met until 1915, then moved to San Francisco as music director for 15 more years (Pierre Monteux succeeded him after a two-season search). What's to be heard here is a fraction of the orchestra crowded around an acoustic horn, with the strings so mired in portamento (sliding from note to note) there are virtually no fixed pitches when they're playing. The brass are stars in this occluded acoustic firmament—he kind of excavation that earns historic performances a bad rap.

By the time, 14 years later, that Muck recorded whole patches at Bayreuth of Wagner's interminable Bühnenweihfestpiel (that's "play for the dedication of a festival stage"), and still more in 1928 at Berlin with his Staatsoper orchestra, he'd utterly changed playing styles. When Toscanini made history by conducting Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1930 (according to log books the longest in history, five hours and then some), Muck had already indoctrinated the players.

Beyond that, the quality of sound from the early years of electrical recording is staggeringly real, if you'll permit yourself a couple of minutes to adjust (amazing how adaptable one's ears are). Especially so the enveloping acoustic of Bayreuth, a medium-size house of wood, wood, and more wood, although the Singakademie at Berlin in 1928 put Karajan's postwar Neue Philharmonie to shame. Add singing of a caliber hardly to be heard in Wagner performances anywhere today—the Gurnemanz of Alexander Kipnis and Ludwig Hofmann, the Parsifal of Fritz Woolf and Gotthelf Pistor. These restorations, even were the price steeper than Naxos' bottom-line budget, are authentic treasures remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn—almost as fine as voice restoration by Barton Wimble for In-Sync reissues on Dolbyized Chromium tape in 1983, issued coincidentally with the premature arrival of CD. I prefer the orchestral sound, however, on Obert-Thorn's Naxos project.

Now that we have Parsifal, can the rest of Muck's legacy—Wagner excerpts from The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Götterdämmerung—be far behind on Naxos? (The Barton Wimble transfers however, are already  available on Centaur CRC 2142). Listening to Muck again after 16 years, it strikes me that Fritz Reiner's tuition-by-observation of his countryman Artur Nikisch (1855-1922) may have been a technical revelation, but Muck was surely as influential (and possibly more) in respect to musicianship and interpretation. He was a major force in Berlin music at the same time as Nikisch—when Reiner was chief conductor at Dresden and commuted to the Prussian capital at every opportunity.

If you are an aficionado of historical performances, you don't need more issues of the same Rachmaninov performances ad infinitum. You need Muck, and a lot more from the Weimar Republic that survived World War Two.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)