(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 9:35 PM Eastern on 31 Jan. See below.)
(Note: This post has been edited to add a footnote as of 6:26 AM Eastern on 31 Jan. See below.)
Writer on music and weblogger Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue Of Midnight has some thoughts on "authenticity" zealot Roger Norrington, with all of which I largely agree.
Writes Ms. Hirsch:
There's one Norrington set that is still a revelation to hear, though, and that's the Wagner disc. I suspect his very fast tempos aren't any more correct than the Beethoven tempos, but the transparency of the orchestra and the bright, individual sounds of the mid-19th century instruments are a far cry from the homogenous, dense sound that so many consider the right sound for Wagner. That's a sound that is only produced by a modern orchestra.
Between that orchestral sound and the size and design of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, his ideal theater, you have to wonder what kind of voice Wagner really wanted. We know from the trills and decorations to be found in the Ring operas that he wanted flexible voices. Yes, Wagner singers have to have stamina, but less-than-immense voices wouldn't present any problems of audibility at Bayreuth with a period orchestra.
The most interesting moral of the Norrington story is very likely that you don't have to be a trumpeter like Flagstad or Nilsson to sing Wagner.
Ms. Hirsch is quite correct in suspecting just how wrong Norrington's breakneck tempi are in his Wagner readings. They are, in fact, perfectly idiot.* Ms. Hirsch is also correct in her assertion that "the transparency of the orchestra and the bright, individual sounds of the mid-19th century instruments [employed by Norrington in his Wagner readings] are a far cry from the homogenous, dense sound that so many consider the right sound for Wagner." They are indeed that. Ms. Hirsch's assertion, however, that those readings are a "revelation to hear," with the implied suggestion that the orchestral transparency achieved by Norrington in those readings is the right way to realize a Wagner score, is quite wrong; perverse, even.
As I wrote in this post speaking of the Wagner readings of the great Mozart interpreter, Karl Böhm:
Wagner's musico-dramatic and symphonic contrapuntal genius is almost always realized in the massing, rarely in details of inner line, and Böhm's transparent readings of Wagner wherein the revealing of inner line is prominent are therefore just plain wrong (i.e., un-Wagnerian). They're wrong because while the revealing of inner line in the music of, say, Mozart or Beethoven is to reveal the very soul of the music, the revealing of inner line in Wagner serves only to reveal how the sorcerer accomplished his magic. Not a good thing, not a good thing at all, as any self-respecting sorcerer will confirm.
Ms. Hirsch is certainly correct in stating that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is Wagner's ideal theater, but quite wrong in her conjectures concerning it vis-à-vis the sound of the orchestra in the proper realization of a Wagner score. Period instruments or modern orchestra, the effect of the Festspielhaus's sunken orchestra pit is to make any attempt at orchestral transparency largely a circle-squaring exercise except in those clear cases where Wagner purposely built such transparency into the orchestration itself; precisely the effect Wagner intended. As I remarked in my above extracted quote, orchestral transparency is proper for the music of Mozart and Beethoven. With Wagner's music, however, such transparency is nothing short of a willful perversion of the score, and of Wagner's intent.
On the associated matter of "what kind of voice Wagner really wanted," we don't have to depend on the evidence of Wagner's "trills and decorations to be found in the Ring operas" (just this side of nonexistent, not so by the way) to make that determination. Wagner tells us in his own words what kind of voice he really wanted: big, beautiful, and dramatically expressive.
You know. Voices like Flagstad's and Nilsson's, to name just two.
*It's sometimes not difficult to see how "authenticity" zealots like Norrington come up with their loony ideas. On the question of his breakneck tempi in his Wagner readings, Norrington apparently thought it more appropriate to follow the 19th-century practice of Mendelssohn, who conducted just about everything at breakneck tempi, rather than follow Wagner's practice outlined by Wagner himself who was perhaps the greatest conductor of his time (generally, not merely of his own music).
Here's Wagner writing in 1869 on the subject of tempo; a matter which he held to be the most important consideration of all for conductors:
But "dragging" is not a characteristic of the elegant conductors of these latter days. On the contrary, they have a fatal tendency to hurry and to run away with the tempi. This tendency to hurry is so characteristic a mark of our entire musical life latterly that I propose to enter into some details with regard to it.
And so he did. Almost 100 pages worth of details, as a matter of fact. And some key statements of those pages are:
The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo. His choice of tempi will show whether he understands the music or not.
If I try to sum up my experiences regarding performances of my own operas, I am at a loss to distinguish with which of the qualities of our conductors I am most concerned. Is it the spirit in which they treat German music in the concert rooms, or the spirit in which they deal with the opera at the theaters? I believe it to be my particular and personal misfortune that the two spirits meet in my operas, and mutually encourage one another in a rather dubious sort of way. [...] I need only speak of [conductors' handling] of the tempo which is either absurdly hurried ... or muddled ... or both dragged and muddled, yet never with those well-considered [internal] modifications of the tempo upon which I must count as much as upon the correct intonation of the notes themselves if an intelligible rendering is to be obtained.
Heaven knows how such quadrupeds [i.e., foursquare time-beaters] find their way from the village church to our opera theaters.
I am sorry to say I know of no one to whom I would confidently entrust a single tempo in one of my operas.
Wagner would, I'm sure, not have found much different today, and would have been delighted to hear to what gross indignities his music has been subjected by the Norringtons of this world, all in the name of historically informed "authenticity."
Update (9:35 PM Eastern on 31 Jan): For Lisa Hirsch's response, and my response to that response, see here.