Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
THIELEMANN CONDUCTS FAUST
Richard Wagner: A Faust Overture
Franz Liszt: A Faust Symphony, S108/R425
Endrik Wottrich, tenor
Dresden State Opera Chorus
Christian Thielemann, conductor
Recorded live from the Semperoper Dresden, 2011.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese
Running time: 90 mins
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W:
A Faust Symphony.
A Faust Overture
Christian Thielemann, cond; Endrik Wottrich (ten); Dresden St Op Ch; Staatskapelle Dresden
707708 (DVD: 90:00) Live: Semperoper, Dresden 02/21–22/2011
Now here’s a good release, entering an uncluttered field with repertoire that coincides neatly with an anniversary and that fits its performers like a glove. Where I recently argued that Christian Thielemann just about makes a (flawed) case for himself in the congested world of Beethoven symphonies, his credentials for Wagner and Liszt are far less controversial. A retro knight of big-boned, smoothly contoured orchestral playing, he is here heard to great effect in repertoire that is shamefully underrepresented. I also cannot fault the pairing of a young Wagner’s aborted attempt at a symphony with Liszt’s epic achievement on the same subject. Before Cosima, what linked Wagner and Liszt were their respective attempts to set Goethe’s
to music. Wagner intended this, written during his Paris years, to be merely the first movement of a
Der fliegende Holländer
and his Saxony post got in the way. So it remained an overture, and it was Liszt who would carry on some of Wagner’s initial intentions, such as a second movement based on the character of Gretchen. Liszt himself conducted Wagner’s piece in 1852, but despite a final revision in 1855 (the version given here) and a sketch for Gretchen’s theme, Wagner’s “symphony” remains a tantalizing what-if, giving clearance for the older composer to work on his vast set of Faustian character portraits. As Tobias Niederschlag’s admirable notes point out, Lizst’s late addition of tenor and chorus (always a bit of an afterthought in my view) to his tonal portraits can be seen as a nod to Beethoven’s Ninth, a sign of the massive ambition on display.
Given its fractious birth, Wagner’s
A Faust Overture
tends, not surprisingly, to be dismissed as a rather nothingy, juvenile work, but Thielemann and the Dresdeners really do make a fine case for it. Despite the full string textures and grandly played climaxes, Thielemann wisely doesn’t linger or pull things about for effect, as he sometimes does, and the Dresdeners’ dark, burnished sound helps underline the familiar traits of mature Wagner, without preventing it from being an intense, nimble account of a work that deserves to be better known. Yes, there are hangovers of Weber in the tuttis, and obvious foreshadows of the
overture, but also there is a germ of Wagner’s later epic arches of texture and melodic development. The dying chords of
Tristan und Isolde
, for instance, can surely be heard in the finals bars of this piece.
With those mournful broken woodwind phrases in the “Nostalgia” opening, Wagner must have had Liszt’s symphony at the back of his mind during
development. Although grotesque humor doesn’t feature in Wagner’s opera, both pieces share that introverted sense of
that naturally brings out the best from Thielemann. Faust’s feverish obsession is brilliantly conveyed in the frenzied string writing, but Thielemann doesn’t let the symphony as a whole become the empty showpiece that some of Liszt’s vast tapestries can become. The second movement (Gretchen) is, likewise, very well controlled, with the love theme played with sincerity, but no less heartfelt than many more drawn-out versions, and with much exquisite solo playing from the orchestra.
I still have the occasional feeling of extreme control-freakery, as on Thielemann’s recent Beethoven, but here his quirks and homogenized sound fit the repertoire brilliantly, and although as typically plush and molded an experience as I had predicted from this team, this DVD confounds a lot of my prejudices about him. Most surprising is how swift Thielemann is, with the Liszt falling roughly between young (Sony audio) and old (Euroarts DVD) Leonard Bernstein in basic length, and similar in scale to Barenboim’s audio version. Likewise I wouldn’t have predicted how well Thielemann creates a sense of fun on the podium; the
comes out well in the opening of the grotesque Mesphisto episode, spritely in tone, in complete contrast to the opening two sections. I would almost say light and fleet-footed, but after some comparison with 1960s Bernstein, or a terrific YouTube clip of Dmitri Mitropoulos rehearsing the same section, Thielemann cannot yield all of his steeliness. Choral singing is excellent, although I can think of more alluring sounds than the rather pinched, clunky tones of tenor Endrik Wottrich, in rather tense form here. DVD competition is scarce, but Kenneth Riegel on Leonard Bernstein’s 1976 Boston DVD is better. For true vocal allure, if weird German, Plácido Domingo on Barenboim’s Warner CD is the obvious choice.
I do wish concert DVDs would come with the option of having an mp3 of the audio only. I, for one, would love the Wagner overture on my iPod. But C Major’s presentation is still very fine, with good booklet notes and logical DVD menuing. Pity that there are no extras (Thielemann’s Beethoven symphonies on the same label came with a 60-minute discussion of each work), but camerawork is unobtrusive and the sound is very clear and balanced, possibly at times allowing that Dresden acoustic to give quieter moments a rather cold demeanor. Perhaps, because of that last point, I find myself preferring the Bernstein DVD, boisterous and all-embracing despite much slower tempi throughout. But it is not a clear victory, especially considering modern picture, sound, and so fine a
performance as a filler. So, yes, unlikely readers who only want one version: Get the Thielemann.
FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
Works on This Recording
Faust Overture by Richard Wagner
Written: 1840-1844; Germany
Faust Symphony, S 108 by Franz Liszt
Endrik Wottrich (Tenor)
Dresden State Opera Chorus
Written: 1854-1857; Weimar, Germany
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