21 Jun 2013
Great Wagner Singers from DG
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France
Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.
This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
Accompanying the label’s recent release of an audio recording of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper Ring Cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann and a companion set entitled Great Wagner Conductors, Great Wagner Singers offers six discs containg recordings of some of the greatest Wagner singers of the Twentieth Century, with a number of selections that have never before been available on compact disc. The efforts of ‘the Yellow Label’ have been central to the recording of Wagner’s music, both artistically and technically, since the inception of recorded sound, and this compilation draws upon the label’s extraordinary archives to present more than seven hours of the best Wagner singing ever recorded, superbly mastered by Lennart Jeschke.
Pride of place in terms of discussion of this remarkable release must go to the 1928 account of the Act Three Narration from Lohengrin (‘In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten Mein lieber Schwan!) by Moravian tenor Leo Slezak. Recorded in Berlin in June 1928, with composer Manfred Gurlitt conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is one of the most emotionally forthright performances of the Narration on records. Mr. Slezak was approaching his fifty-fifth birthday at the time of this recording: his last performance at the Metropolitan Opera, as Verdi’s Otello, was fifteen years in the past, and he had ended his extensive career at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1927. The voice displays wear and audible signs of decline, especially in the upper register, but the sweetness of timbre, magisterial but liquid phrasing, and eloquent placement of vowels on the beat are of a quality not only absent today but barely even remembered. Hard-hearted listeners might suspect that the almost abrupt manner in which Mr. Slezak’s Lohengrin bids his Elsa farewell is the result of limitations of duration in early recordings. This would be to slight the way in which Mr. Slezak puts a matter of engineering to dramatic use: there is considerable poetry in his clipped delivery, the coloration of the voice suggesting that his words of goodbye to his new bride are almost too painful to be uttered. Mr. Slezak shapes his performance like a long-extended cantilena in a bel canto opera, and it is fascinating to note that the breadth of Wagner’s genius and originality is all the more apparent when his music is sung with genuine beauty and bel canto technique.
It is especially welcome to find in this compilation excerpts from Wagner’s seldom-heard Rienzi sung by singers of top quality. Rienzi is widely considered to be a bloated mess of a score, a by-product of Wagner’s endeavors in the realm of Meyerbeer-esque Grand Opera that merits mention in histories of the composer’s career and little more. The adventurous listener will encounter sparks of the fire that would engulf the score of Der Fliegende Holländer, however, as well as passages of great effectiveness. A better account of Adriano’s Act Three passage ‘Gerechter Gott, so ist’s entschieden schon!’than that sung by Gundula Janowitz can hardly be imagined: recorded in Berlin in 1967, with Ferdinand Leitner conducting the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Ms. Janowitz brings the instrumental accuracy typical of her singing to a poised but pulsating performance of Adriano’s music. Equally engaging is Lauritz Melchior’s 1923-24 recording of Rienzi’s Act Five aria ‘Allmächt’ger Vater.’ Neither the Orchestra nor the Conductor is identified, but the youthful Melchior voice emerges with superb clarity. Not surprisingly, Mr. Melchior’s presence in this set is considerable, his contributions to Wagner tenor singing in the Twentieth Century demanding the prominence it receives here. Mr. Melchior also recorded two of the Wesendonck-Lieder in the winter of 1923-24, ‘Schmerzen’ and ‘Träume.’ It remains unusual for a tenor to take on the Wesendonck-Lieder, but Mr. Melchior’s prodigious vocal endowment enabled him to do many unusual things. Both songs receive deeply-felt, vocally sumptuous performances from the young tenor. The other three of the Wesendonck-Lieder—‘Der Engel,’ ‘Stehe still,’ and ‘Im Treibhaus’—are beautifully sung by Astrid Varnay in a 1955 performance with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Leopold Ludwig’s baton.
Der Fliegende Holländer is the earliest of the Wagner’s operas to remain in the international repertory and the first score in which the work of the mature Wagner of Tristan und Isolde andDer Ring des Nibelungen can be discerned in every bar. Inclusion of Hans Hotter’s unforgettable 1943 recording of the Holländer’s ‘Die Frist ist um’ from Act One was surely inevitable: scarcely ever rivaled and never surpassed in the title role, Mr. Hotter sings ‘Die Frist ist um’ with complete mastery of the music. Supported by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Maestro Heinrich Hollreiser, Mr. Hotter creates in slightly less than nine minutes a compellingly three-dimensional portrait of the Holländer. In the great choruses from Acts One and Three [the three-act edition of the score was employed for the 1958 Bayreuth recording from which the choruses in this compilation are excerpted],’Mit Gewitter und Sturm’ and ‘Steuermann, lass die Wacht,’ the Bayreuther Festspiele Chorus respond to Wilhelm Pitz’s legendary leadership with sharply-focused, dramatically thrilling singing. The selections from Senta’s music may prove to be the most controversial choices made by Project Manager David Butchart and his team: using the DGG recording of the 1971 Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer conducted by Karl Böhm, Senta is sung by Dame Gwyneth Jones. Ever a fiery dramatic presence, Ms. Jones was at the zenith of her powers as a Wagnerian in 1971, the voice vibrant and secure. She seized every dramatic opportunity offered by August Everding’s production, in which she alternated as Senta with Ursula Schröder-Feinen. Complemented by the alert Mary of Sieglinde Wagner, Ms. Jones sings Senta’s Ballad with mesmerizing intensity, following a whirling performance of the Spinning Chorus. The timbre of Ms. Jones’s voice may never be to every opera lover’s taste, but her stature as a Wagnerian is validated by the exciting singing on this disc.
Tannhäuser is represented in this musical anthology with especially fine performances, beginning with a broadly-phrased ‘Dich, teure Halle’ by Leonie Rysanek. Recorded with the Münchner Philharmoniker and Ferdinand Leitner in April 1955, the performance finds Ms. Rysanek at her youthfully radiant best, the aria capped with a heart-stopping top B such as only the young Rysanek could have produced. Also taken from the 1958 recording used for the Fliegende Holländer choruses, three choral numbers from Tannhäuser—‘Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle’ from Act Two and ‘Beglückt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen’ and ‘Heil! Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Heil!’ from Act Three—are expertly sung by the Bayreuth Chorus. The Act Two duet for Elisabeth and Tannhäuser receives from the undervalued Annelies Kupper—an accomplished Wagnerian in Europe in the decade after World War II—and Wolfgang Windgassen a performance of crackling energy, their dynamic partnership shaped by the insightful conducting of Richard Kraus. ‘Gar viel und schön ward hier in diese Halle,’ the Landgraf’s launching of the Song Contest in Act Two, is memorably sung by Josef Greindl in a 1955 recording conducted by Leopold Ludwig. Gundula Janowitz returns with a gorgeous performance from 1967 of Elisabeth’s Prayer, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen!’ One of the finest aspects of Otto Gerdes’s much-discussed 1968 studio recording of Tannhäuser is the Wolfram of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Wolfram was arguably the Wagner role to which the great baritone was best suited, and his singing of Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star—‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’—is one of the finest stretches of Wagner singing on records, deservedly included in this set. The Tannhäuser excerpts are crowned by a towering performance of the title character’s Narration from Act Three, ‘Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büßer noch,’by Lauritz Melchior. Also recorded in 1923-24, this performance is notable not only for the vocal security and ease with the demanding tessitura but also for the psychological sophistication exhibited by the young singer, just thirty-three at the time of the recording.
In addition to Leo Slezak’s wondrous performance of the Act Three Narration, Lohengrin also benefits from the excellent singing of the Bayreuth Chorus in 1958, with bustling performances of ‘Seht, seht! Welch ein seltsam Wunder’ from Act One, ‘Gesegnet soll sie schreiten’ from Act Two, and ‘Treulich geführt ziehet dahin’ from Act Three. From her 1967 recording conducted by Ferdinand Leitner come beautiful performances of Elsa’s ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ from Act One and ‘Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen so traurig oft erfüllt’ from Act Two by Gundula Janowitz. The purity of Ms. Janowitz’s voice is ideal for conveying the sweetness of Elsa, and the clarity of her diction ensures that even passages that require slightly greater tonal amplitude than Ms. Janowitz can provide are nonetheless delivered with passion and musical integrity.
It seems somewhat strange that the selections from Tristan und Isolde exclude music for the male half of the title pair, but the three selections on offer are representative of the finest standards of Wagner singing in DGG’s archives. Beginning with a powerful, biting performance of Isolde’s Narration and Curse from Act One (‘Weh, ach Wehe! Dies zu dulden!’) with Astrid Varnay as Isolde and Hertha Töpper as Brangäne, the Tristan und Isolde excerpts are among the most persuasive in the compilation. A Bayerischen Rundfunks performance from June 1954, conducted by Hermann Weigert (Ms. Varnay’s husband), Isolde’s Narration and Curse unfolds with great dramatic tension, Ms. Varnay’s voice tingling with anger and her top notes gleaming like silvery comets. One of the greatest surprises of this recording is the 1954 performance of König Marke’s Act Two Monologue (‘Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das?’) by Finnish bass Kim Borg, an under-recorded artist of impeccable Wagnerian credentials. Mr. Borg encounters no difficulties in Marke’s challenging tessitura, and his idiomatic phrasing expresses all of the shifting emotions of Marke’s character with uncommon, unsentimental directness. Though he now enjoys less renown than he deserves, Mr. Borg possessed one of the most beautiful bass voices of the Twentieth Century, and the inclusion of his singing of Marke’s Monologue in this set was an inspired choice by Deutsche Grammophon. Fittingly, the Tristan und Isolde selections end with Birgit Nilsson’s 1966 Bayreuth performance of Isolde’s Liebestod, ‘Mild und leise wie er lächelt.’ Conducted by Karl Böhm, the DGG complete recording of the ’66 Tristan und Isolde is one of the truly classic Wagner recordings, one still cited by many listeners as the finest recording of Wagner’s paean to complicated love and betrayal. The tonal accuracy that Ms. Nilsson brings to a live performance of the Liebestod after a long evening is arresting and justifiably celebrated: less remembered, or perhaps less discussed, is the fact that, when at her best, Ms. Nilsson possessed a voice that combined power with rapt beauty. She was at her most inspired in the 1966 Tristan und Isolde, and her singing of the Liebestod is an appropriate testament to the legacy of one of the greatest Wagnerians.
The excerpts from Das Rheingold recall a Golden Age of Wagner singing in the 1920’s. Recorded in 1924, contralto Karin Branzell’s performance of Erda’s Scene (‘Weiche, Wotan, weiche! Flieh des Ringes Fluch!), conducted by Manfred Gurlitt, is a stunning piece of singing. The verbal sharpness and stinging crispness of diction brought to the music by Ms. Branzell are revelatory, and the poignancy of Erda’s warnings is eerily brought out. No less authoritative is the performance of Wotan’s ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ by Josef von Manowarda, recorded in 1921. The vitality of Mr. von Manowarda’s singing and the saturnine vibrancy of his voice are evident despite the dated sound of the excerpt. Both Ms. Branzell and Mr. von Manowarda sing with notable attention to text, making the importance of Erda’s admonitions and Wotan’s stubborn persistence palpable to the listener.
Act One of Die Walküre is offered in its entirety, presented in a sterling 1951 account with Maria Müller as Sieglinde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegmund, and Josef Greindl as Hunding. Conducted by Ferdinand Leitner, this performance simmers with dramatic heat from start to finish. Ms. Müller, whose début role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1925 was also Sieglinde, shows laudable comfort with the part, of which she was an acknowledged paragon during Heinz Tietjen’s tenure at Bayreuth . Though at the time of this recording nearing the end of her career, which she drastically curtailed after the end of World War II, Ms. Müller’s voice still retained much of the elegance for which it was admired, and her instincts as a Wagnerian remained deep. Ms. Müller’s interactions with both of her colleagues are gripping, and the sense of sadness that she brings to Sieglinde’s description of her life with Hunding is very touching. Though the voice no longer responds with absolute perfection to the demands placed upon it, Ms. Müller is thrilling in Sieglinde’s most telling passages, not least in her response to Siegmund’s extraction of Notung from the tree. Mr. Windgassen here reminds the listener why he was for a generation a Wagnerian par excellence: the youthfully virile, ringing tone with which he voices Siegmund’s lines is extremely winning, his ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ as romantic as any ever recorded. The voice is on splendid form, combining the smoothness and confidence above the staff of a lyric tenor—Mr. Windgassen’s top A in this performance is a wonderful eruption of tone—with the power and stamina of a young dramatic voice. Verbally, not a syllable of text is lost. Mr. Greindl is a formidably menacing Hunding, the bleakness of the tone used to chilling effect. The listener is also treated to a 1957 recording of the Todesverkündigung from Act Two (‘Siegmund! Sieh auf mich!’) featuring the incomparable Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde and Set Svanholm as Siegmund, conducted by the young Sir Georg Solti. Recorded in Vienna’s famed Sofiensaal, this is even after fifty-six years one of the most classic recordings of any of Wagner’s music. Ms. Flagstad, in many hearts the dominant Wagnerian soprano of any age, had retired from the operatic stage before the making of this recording, but the voice remained an instrument of warmth, security, and unparalleled amplitude. Starting low in the voice, the music in the Todesverkündigung reveals the autumnal beauty of Ms. Flagstad’s lower register. Mr. Svanholm was a committed Wagnerian but, perhaps because of the legacies of artists like Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, is not as widely remembered as his singing merits. Here singing Siegmund, Mr. Svanholm responds eloquently to Ms. Flagstad, his level of intensity rising as Siegmund defends his devotion to Sieglinde and his voice possessing both steel and satin. Die Walküre ends with some of Wagner’s most moving music, and this set offers brilliantly noble performances of two monumental excerpts from Act Three. Attempting to justify her defiance of Wotan’s orders, Brünnhilde softens from the warrior maiden to a loving, frightened daughter: few sopranos make that transformation more emotionally transparent than Frida Leider. Recorded in 1925, when Ms. Leider sings ‘War es so schmählich, war ich verbrach,’ the voice—more focused than formidable in scale—goes directly to the heart of the listener. The tonal beauty is formidable, however, and the experience with Wagner’s musical idiom is audible in every phrase. Only the most accomplished Wotan would be suitable for taking leave of such a Brünnhilde, and Deutsche Grammophon provide a 1942 performance of Wotan’s Farewell—‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’—by Hans Hotter that matches Ms. Leider’s grace, passion, and beauty. Even in his earliest performances of the role, Mr. Hotter was an atypically insightful Wotan, and this performance finds him at his youthful best, both musically and dramatically.
With its male-dominated sound world and complex dramaturgy, Siegfried is perhaps the most difficult of the Ring operas to produce and record successfully. Beginning with an appropriately muscular but unfailingly attractive 1923-24 performance of Siegfried’s ‘Forging Song’ (‘Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert!’) by the young Lauritz Melchior, the excerpts in this set reveal the rewarding depth offered by Siegfried when sung by voices of legitimate quality. Siegfried’s ‘Dass der mein Vater nicht ist’ receives from Max Lorenz a nuanced performance, recorded at Bayreuth in 1936 and followed by a broadly-phrased playing of the famous Waldweben (‘Forest Murmurs’) conducted by Heinz Tietjen. The Wanderer’s ‘Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach!’ from Act Three is nobly sung by Josef von Manowarda in a performance recorded in 1921. The opera’s final duet, the music to which Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde from her slumber and claims her as his bridge, is represented by a 1925 performance in which Brünnhilde is unforgettably sung by Frida Leider. Fritz Soot, her Siegfried, does not achieve the same level of excellence, but he holds his own in very challenging music. Here, too, Ms. Leider’s phrasing is revelatory, the voice girlish but not insubstantial. Ms. Leider’s concluding top C rings out brightly across the years.
Building upon the foundation of the closing duet in Siegfried, Götterdämmerung contains an equally ecstatic love duet for Brünnhilde and Siegfried, commandingly sung in a 1955 recording by Astrid Varnay and Wolfgang Windgassen. Mr. Windgassen excels in the rocketing phrases with which Siegfried extols his love for Brünnhilde, and his ardor is matched by Ms. Varnay’s bold, firm singing, her top C powerful and secure. Two samples of Josef Greindl’s legendarily craggy Hagen are offered, the first of which is a delightfully insinuating 1955 performance of ‘Hier sitz ich zur Wacht, wahre den Hof’ from Act One. Even more appreciably dominating is Mr. Greindl’s 1958 Bayreuth account of Hagen’s Summoning of the Vassals, ‘Hoiho! Ihr Gibichsmannen, machet euch auf!’ The singing of the Bayreuth Chorus in this scene is again fantastic. Mr. Greindl’s voice was one more noted for power than for beauty, but there is a strange attractiveness in hearing some of the most extroverted passages in the Ring sung with such relish and confidence. The scene in Act Three in which Siegfried describes his youthful adventures is sung with convincing bravura by Max Lorenz—and ably complemented by the Hagen of Georg Hann—in a 1950 performance conducted by Ferdinand Leitner. Mr. Lorenz did not possess the most opulent of voices, but his dedication to the character even in the context of a recording is admirable. Nonetheless, Mr. Lorenz’s vocalism shames the efforts of many latter-day Wagnerians. ‘Brünnhilde, heilige Braut’ from Siegfried’s death scene in Act Three is movingly sung by Wolfgang Windgassen in a 1953 performance conducted by Leopold Ludwig. Mr. Windgassen was for a decade such an ubiquitous presence in Wagner performances, not least at Bayreuth, that his value as an artist has perhaps been underestimated by successive generations of critics and listeners. At his best, Mr. Windgassen was a sensitive interpreter, and the voice was an instrument of world-class quality. Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene (‘Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort’) receives a fantastic performance from Astrid Varnay, recorded in 1954 under her husband’s direction. Even when the voice started to show the effects of hard use, Ms. Varnay was a phenomenally gifted interpreter of the music of Wagner. The ways in which Ms. Varnay conveys Brünnhilde’s emotions through vocal colorations alone are outstanding, but this performance also preserves Ms. Varnay on her best vocal form. The voice only becomes stronger as the tessitura rises, the ecstasy with which Brünnhilde joins Siegfried in death more convincingly depicted than in almost any other recorded performance. Ms. Varnay did not have the same opportunities in the recording studio that other Wagnerians were granted: thanks are due to Deutsche Grammophon for giving her such a deservedly preeminent place in this compilation.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is described as the only comedy among Wagner’s mature works, but it is humanity rather than humor that inhabits the soul of the opera. The excerpts from Die Meistersinger offered by Deutsche Grammophon center the focus on the roles of Veit Pogner, Walther von Stolzing, and Hans Sachs. As in all of their contributions to this set, the Bayreuth choristers sing with idiomatic vigor in ‘Wacht auf! Es nahet gen den Tag’ from Act Three. Pogner’s brief passage ‘Das schöne Fest, Johannistag’ from Act One is resoundingly sung by Josef Greindl. The highlights of Hans Sachs’s music are distributed among three of the most acclaimed interpreters of the role. ‘Was duftet doch der Flieder’ from Act Two and ‘Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!’ from Act Three are sung by Hans Hotter. Both selections were recorded in 1942, the first under the baton of Artur Rother and the second conducted by Robert Heger. The vocal power and allure that Mr. Hotter brings to his performances are superb, but it is the big-hearted good humor of his singing that is truly legendary. Immensely enjoyable, too, is the 1921 performance of Act Two’s ‘Jerum! Jerum! Hallahallohe!’ by Friedrich Schorr. Remembered as a great Wotan, Mr. Schorr, recorded in his early prime, proves an equally impressive Sachs, the burly quality of the timbre perfectly suited to Sachs’s pragmatism. Another fine Sachs is honored by the inclusion of Theodor Scheidl’s 1930 recording of Sachs’s ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ from Act Three. Mr. Scheidl, now almost completely forgotten, was a noted Sachs at Bayreuth in the years just before World War I, and his singing of Sachs’s warning about the dangers of cultural disintegration is as beautiful, noble, and heartfelt as any ever recorded. This performance, too, is a noteworthy rediscovery. It is surprising that the assignment of representing Walther von Stolzing in this set was entrusted to American tenor Jess Thomas, but his singing in his 1963 recordings of ‘Fanget an! - So rief der Lenz in den Wald’ from Act One and the Prize Song from Act Three (‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’) belies his reputation for leather-lunged performances of dubious sensitivity. Captured at his best, Mr. Thomas here sings with untiring musicality and lovely tone that leave no doubt about why Walther prevailed in the song contest.
If Die Meistersinger is an exercise in humanity on a large scale, Parsifal is Wagner’s exploration of the rapture of spirituality and the triumphs of truth, trust, and even flawed benevolence. Interpretations of Parsifal are as varied as the music of Wagner itself, but any performance that focuses upon executing Wagner’s music on the scale that it deserves will offer at least limited pleasure. The Bayreuth choristers return for a stirring account of ‘Zum letzten Liebesmahle gerüstet Tag für Tag’ from Act One. Amfortas’s ‘Des Weihgefäßes göttlicher Gehalt’ is sung with pained nobility and an audible sense of suffering in a state between life and death by Theodor Scheidl. Recorded in 1928, Mr. Scheidl’s singing is supported by the conducting of Hermann Weigert, and the unheralded singer achieves a performance of uncompromising grandeur. Similarly exceptional is Frida Leider’s 1925 recording of Kundry’s ‘Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust’ from Act Two. Ms. Leider’s voice is more conventionally beautiful than Twenty-First-Century listeners are accustomed to hearing in Kundry’s music, but Ms. Leider’s thoughtful, carefully-shaped singing proves anew that she was a Wagnerian of rare elegance. A Danish Radio recording from 1939 preserves the Act Two ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ of Lauriz Melchior, a performance that adds markedly to the listener’s appreciation of Melchior’s status as a Wagnerian. Josef Greindl’s 1952 performance of Gurnemanz’s ‘Das ist Karfreitagszauber, Herr!’ from Act Three is fantastic, the wonder of the scene subtly but palpably expressed by Mr. Greindl’s unflinchingly committed singing. The famed recording of the controversial 1970 Bayreuth Parsifal conducted by Pierre Boulez provides the final excerpts from the opera, pairing James King’s Parsifal with Thomas Stewart’s Amfortas against the Bayreuth Chorus with rousing results. Both of the American singers are on career-best form, with Mr. King’s singing especially inspiring. The enchantment that Maestro Boulez brought to Wagner’s operas is well known, but this Parsifal exceeded even his own exalted standards.
It is impossible when listening to these discs to avoid pondering the state of Wagner singing in the Twenty-First Century. What is immediately obvious is that, though there are fewer handsome faces and trim waistlines among the singers on this DGG compilation than there are in the casts of Wagner’s operas in performances today, beautiful Wagner singing comparable to the performances heard on these discs is an elusive organism that has become virtually extinct. It can be debated whether a singer like Lauritz Melchior, whose figure reflected the largesse of his voice, would enjoy unprecedented success in this age of cinecasts and closely-filmed DVD productions. Ultimately, the music of Wagner emphatically deserves beautiful singing rather than beautiful faces, and Great Wagner Singers documents precisely what its title suggests: an array of standard-setting performances by some of the most significant singers ever recorded in the music of Wagner. Vielen Dank, Deutsche Grammophon.
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883): Great Wagner Singers — Excerpts from Rienzi, Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Parsifal , and the Wesendonck-Lieder sung by sopranos Kirsten Flagstad, Gundula Janowitz, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Annelies Kupper, Frida Leider, Maria Müller, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, and Astrid Varnay; mezzo-sopranos Hertha Töpper and Sieglinde Wagner; contralto Karin Branzell; tenors James King, Max Lorenz, Lauritz Melchior, Leo Slezak, Fritz Soot, Set Svanholm, Jess Thomas, and Wolfgang Windgassen; baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; bass-baritones Hans Hotter, Josef von Manowarda, Theodor Scheidl, Friedrich Schorr, and Thomas Stewart; basses Kim Borg, Josef Greindl, and Georg Hann; Various Choruses and Orchestras; Conductors include Karl Böhm, Walter Born, Pierre Boulez, Otto Gerdes, Manfred Gurlitt,Robert Heger, Heinrich Hollreiser, Richard Kraus, Ferdinand Leitner, Leopold Ludwig, Nicolai Malko, Artur Rother, Sir Georg Solti, Heinz Tietjen, and Hermann Weigert [Various recording dates and venues; Deutsche Grammophon 479 1241; 6CD 452:18]