Richard Wagner’s first serious success was with the opera Rienzi in 1842. This is more than just an early work: Wagner found the voice here that he subsequently used in his most mature and popular pieces. This year, the Budapest Wagner Days closes with this opera in a concert form. But why is it so important to find not so well known works from older times like this, and why is it sometimes so difficult? I talked to conductor Marc Albrecht about this.
Rienzi is a relatively unknown Wagner opera. What should we know of it?
This is a brilliant, big, forward-looking piece. The original lasts for 5 hours, but we shortened it to 3.5 and skipped some parts that do not make as much sense at a concert than the stage. There are other interesting early Wagners, like Das Liebesverbot or Die Feen, but maybe the Rienzi shows Wagner’s true language for the very first time. This is where he found himself as a composer. The opera is like a collection of material for his latest works: like the second tact of the ouverture features a slow bell motif which he used in Parsifal 40 years later. Rienzi is like a laboratoire, everything burns and cooks here that we can see later in Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, the Ring. But this is still a grande opéra, in the style of Berlioz and Meyerbeer, but there is already a distinctive Richard Wagner in it.
Did Wagner copy the French opera?
He wanted to surpass the French, to do better than them. He was very ambitious. The opera is full of pomp, excess, gigantic Romanticism. Wagner had a long way to go until he found his own voice in Romantic opera and musical drama, and the huge format of Rienzi is an interesting starting point. He was a very creative person, and some years later he went in a completely different direction, this was his first and last “French style” opera. There is something brilliant in this.
You conduct a lot of music from many different authors. What is the reason for that diverse interest?
I like a lot of things, especially the operas, and I always feel that my repertoire is too small and needs to be extended. That is the reason for looking for not-so-well-known pieces from the late 19th, early 20th century. That made me work with Schreker, with the German opera after Wagner, and the last Romantics in general, the followers of Wagner, they are all very interesting. A colourful repertoire is good for everyone: the orchestra, the audience, and of course myself.
If a piece is not well known, how can you get to it?
It depends on the situation. There are some pieces with a well-documented premiere, such as Zemlinsky’s, the above-mentioned Schreker’s, or Schönberg’s. They had very good publishers with trustworthy first editions. But other situations are more unfortunate, like with this Wagner opera. The manuscript is lost, and he wrote so many versions, so many changes to the original, that many different variations prevailed. Also those that were adapted by someone else, and we do not even know who. There are a lot of insecurities, but lately, an academic edition came out at the Schott Verlag. Researchers could at least say after many decades of work that all scribblings and changes of this version are from Wagner himself.
However, there are many pieces that will always remain a bit of a mystery. Those composers who also worked as conductors, like Wagner himself or Mahler, kept changing their pieces, they performed from a slightly different score every time. Works changed a lot within one year, but these changes have not always been printed. This all is very difficult, but I am happy that now we have a secure material for Rienzi, as we need to know what we work with. With some composers we do not have luck at all, because their works are not well-preserved. Martinu is catastrophic from that regard.
Because not enough copies are maintained?
Because the first editions are bad, erroneous, questionable. Enescu is the same. There was a time when neither research nor the publishers were very accurate. Whole generations suffered with these pieces, until someone rediscovered them and put in all the academic work that resulted in a trustworthy, useful music material which could then inform future scores and editions.
This is what research is good for…
Yes, and there were composers who found it important to preserve their works in a good quality. In the case of Wagner, it was his wife Cosima who dealt a lot with logging everything and being put in the score. Richard Strauss also controlled what the publishers published, and some of the works from his own lifetime can be even used today. But this is unfortunately not the case for all life works: many things were destroyed in the war years, or there were personal difficulties, but there is also the restless genius type that always looks forward and does not care about earlier versions. Bruckner is like that, it is almost impossible to overview all the changes and rewritings in his works.
As if these geniuses had not written for the future.
Yes, this is interesting. Not all composers were interested in the latest version to be readable and playable a century later. They spoke and played to the audience of their own era.
What is the most important thing to learn from the rediscovery of not-so-well-known pieces?
We always need to work with the newest publication, and even we, conductors and musicians, should go to the archives sometimes to see what researchers and artists can work from. I also like doing research, observing what professional music historians can find. Nowadays it is not hard anymore, some archives are even digitalised. If I hold an original manuscript in my hand, it talks to me in a very special way.
Are you looking forward to the concert already?
A lot! It will be a huge honour to perform with the Hungarian National Philharmonics, the Hungarian National Choir and the Honvéd Male Choir. I need to run now, we’ll start a joint rehearsal soon…