Tannhauser, Nietzsche and me


My start with classical music, probably like most people, was with orchestral music (for the record, Beethoven’s symphonies conducted by Schmidt-Isserstedt). This was a total eye opener to me, but as time went on I listened to all sorts, ending up mainly with piano music. Liszt, Beethoven, Alkan, Schumann, Prokofiev, you name it.

However, there are a few orchestral  pieces that never fail me, and one that gets played again, and again is Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture.

This is the cumulonimbus of overtures, a massive structured billowing creation, laden with hooks, twists and climaxes. It is a brilliantly conceived tone poem that stands perfectly well on its own, with the opening horns gently pulling you in to its fabulous textures.

The Knife is a Karajan fan – he really was a remarkable man, whether you like him or not, and these guys don’t– and two versions, about 15 years apart,  by Herb really stand out, with the earlier one edging it. The Barenboim version is fantastically recorded, but I have yet to actually hear a dud.

Here it is on YouTube with the Karajan sound intact. Fantastic.

It is a testament to the extraordinary transcribing powers of  Liszt that the piano transcription is, in its own way, just as thrilling and probably twice as difficult as the orchestral piece. Try the great Jorge Bolet on CD or YouTube.

Can creativity mitigate evil? Karajan and Wagner, one not-quite-a-nazi and the other Hitler’s favourite composer. None of us is perfect, and these two were real ubermenschen. To quote another German:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.



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