Notes and Editorial Reviews
Wagner's operas broke new ground in terms of both the harmonic language and on approach to the genre in which narrative and drama took precedence over the restrictions of musical Form. Encompassing the profoundly human themes of love, death, redemption, power and revenge, the operas made unprecedented demands on singers' stamina and virtuosity. This 36-CD box presents a comprehensive survey of Wagner's great operas and features a wealth of legendary artists, many of whom are renowned for their interpretations of Wagner's music.
"Listeners persuaded that Wagner only really found himself with Der fliegende Holländer may well be surprised to hear how much of that work—and of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin—is prefigured in Rienzi. It is nevertheless more grand opera than romantic opera, not least because the hero (the tragic Roman tribune of Bulwer Lytton's novel) is so completely a political animal; his bride, he declares to his sister in Act 5, is Rome. As for the 'grandness', this is all too evident in the extensive marches, choruses and ballet music, as well as in the predominantly forceful rhetoric of the solo vocal writing. Even in his greatest works, Wagner was not exactly addicted to understatement. In Rienzi (especially Act 3) the sustained tone of hectic aggressiveness threatens to become monotonous, and it would certainly be hard to take in a performance with less sense of theatrical impetus than this one.
The principal credit for the recording's success—all the more remarkable since it was made in two quite separate periods in 1974 and 1976—is due to the conductor Heinrich Hollreiser. He prevents the more routine material from sounding merely mechanical, and ensures that the whole work has a sweep and a conviction that persuades me, for one, that there is no reason for its continued exclusion from the Bayreuth canon: indeed, Bayreuth might be the ideal theatre for its large-scale spectacle."
-- Gramophone [2/1992]
Der Fliegende Hollander
Klemperer's magisterial interpretation of this work has been unavailable in any form for far too long so that its reissue is most welcome. It has a deal in common with the Karajan/EMI set in treating the work symphonically. This is something of a contrast with the Bayreuth/Philips version under Woldemar Nelsson listed above, which employs faster speeds and a more dynamic view of the score like the famous 1955 Keilberth/Decca set from Bayreuth which should, like the Klemperer, be reissued at medium price.
As ever, Klemperer by and large justifies some moderate tempos by the way in which he sustains line and emphasizes detail. Only once or twice—in the Spinning and Sailors choruses—did I sense, on listening to the set again, a want of propulsion. Otherwise there is throughout what Alec Robertson, back in 1968, called a "blazing intensity" to the reading that brooks no denial. The storm and sea music in the Overture and thereafter is given stunning power, and the Dutchman's torture and passion is evoked in the orchestra—the accompaniment to his long monologue has both inner depth and finely realized detail. Indeed, the playing of the New Philharmonia, forwardly recorded in Studio No. 1 at Abbey Road, is a bonus throughout. Klemperer catches as convincingly as anyone the elemental feeling of the work, the sense of the sea, basic passions and the interplay of character unerringly adumbrated.
There have been few baritones before or since Theo Adam who have sustained the line of the role so well and so intelligently reached the heart of the matter where the text is concerned, Uhde certainly achieved as much on the old Decca and, of course, Hotter on the wartime Krauss version, intermittently available on LP. Jose van Dam on the Karajan sings more beautifully but doesn't convey so much of the role's anguish. Estes for Nelsson is stolid by comparison. As at the concert performance that was given concurrently with this recording, Adam seemed inspired by Klemperer to give of his considerable best, and I found the results profoundly moving. Silja's bright, sometimes piercing timbre isn't to everyone's taste, but she is certainly easier to listen to than either Karajan's or Nelsson's Senta, and sings with just as much if not more conviction as Balslev (Nelsson). To quote AR again: "Hers is a most moving portrayal of trust and loyalty and love unto death, the interpretation of an outstanding singing-actress".
Martti Talvela was in his absolute prime in 1968. Singing magnificently and suggesting a formidable presence, he is a bluff, burly Daland. Ernst Kozub was then the white hope for a new Heldentenor, but died too young to fulfil his potential. His Erik has its clumsy moments but one admires the shining tone, and Kozub evinces sympathy for the character in Erik's the Third Act cavatina. Gerhard Unger offers an ardent, cleanly articulated Sailor. Annelies Burmeister is a ripe Mary. The BBC Chorus is not the equal of its Bayreuth counterpart on either the Keilberth or Nelsson sets, but is none the less very much in the picture. The set was carefully produced in the placing of voices against the instruments and the provision of stage effects (breaking waves, spinning wheels, howling winds etc) without these becoming unduly intrusive. The overall sound is a shade on the dry side, but better that than the excessive reverberation on so many opera sets today. This has now to be the recommended version of the work.
-- A.B., Gramophone [2/1990]
Despite all the praise heaped on Solti's Ring (and rightly so), it wasn't the only extraordinary Wagner opera project from the early 1960s that featured the Vienna Philharmonic in incandescent form. Rudolf Kempe may not have been a podium superstar, but he was an inspiring musician, a seasoned man of the theater, and an absolute genius when it came to balancing orchestras. If you think, as some understandably do, that Wagner's Lohengrin is often four square in its phrase shapes and dramatically plodding, Kempe will convince you otherwise. Time and again we are struck by how the Vienna Philharmonic, collectively and individually, sets the emotional and dramatic tone for what happens on stage. And what a cast! Elisabeth Grümmer, who remains the most three-dimensional Elsa on record, partnered Jess Thomas in the title role. He is slightly less involved under the microphone's scrutiny than his more unbuttoned live Bayreuth performance under Sawallisch a few years earlier. Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bring riveting authority to Ortrud and Telramund, and the veteran Gottlob Frick's eloquent King Henry also stands out. EMI's 20-bit facelift offers a tinge more presence than the label's previous CD transfer, but if you own the latter there's no need to replace it. At mid-price, though, you can't get a better Lohengrin than this. It belongs in every serious Wagner collection.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Der Ring Des Nibelungen
...for those happy to experience 'The Ring' purely as music...Sawallisch's impeccable musicianship is currently peerless, and the Bavarian State Orchestra plays superbly and with great subtlety, ably complementing the outstanding vocal contributions of Meier's Waltraute and Moll's Fafner, Hundig and Hagen..."
Tristan und Isolde
awaited set's raison d'être is the Tristan of Placido Domingo. Now in his mid-60s, it is relatively certain that he'll never sing the role onstage, and since it is the pinnacle of German opera tenor roles and Domingo loves a good challenge (and besides that, he's conquered Otello, the pinnacle of Italian tenor roles, and dozens of others), it is natural that he'd want to sing it. His baritonally-tinged tenor is in remarkably good shape (both on stage currently and here, on this recording), and he has done a great deal of work to get this role right. Wagner wanted his operas sung in the Italian manner, and so Domingo's juicy, Mediterranean sound and smooth legato are most welcome; it's the barking of most other tenors that is unpleasant and anachronistic.
For the most part, Domingo's portrayal is a success. Vocally there are almost no problems--perhaps a bit of strain in the long third-act rants and an inability to sing truly pianissimo--and for the most part, he gets through this epic role unscathed. Emotionally and psychologically it would take another few years for him to get inside Tristan, and here he seems to miss the character's depth at times. He's remarkable at first, sounding spontaneously surprised/outraged at Isolde's request to see him. But once he's in dialogue with her his attention seems to flag; he lacks the snap in his retorts that is required. Something similar happens in Act 2: after a spectacular entrance and exchange with Isolde, he slips into what seems like automatic pilot for the day/night/ecstasy business in the love duet. The fact that he returns splendidly for "O König" only points up his previous disinterest. Act 3 is magnificent--nuanced, raving, and desperate, without perhaps the sheer mania of Vickers, but certainly with more vocal control. It's a very moving and handsome portrayal.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is mightily impressive as Isolde. The voice is beautiful, the tone focused if somewhat less broad than what we're accustomed to in this part--that is, Flagstad, Nilsson, Leider, Mödl, Varnay. Her whole sound is young and vibrant (very rare in this part) and it's a joy to hear the high Bs and Cs shot out so securely, with no danger of spreading or losing their tonal center. Her piano singing could use some work, but the same was said about Nilsson early on. What Stemme misses (or can't express vocally) is Isolde's sarcasm and deep-rooted resentment in Act 1; she's good at anger, but it needs more refining. Nevertheless, she's a terrific Isolde and will only get better if she husbands her resources.
Mihoko Fujimara is an oddly light Brangaene. At first she seems disengaged, but that's not it--she's a lyrical maid-servant who has her own way of dealing with her Princess. She's dreamily effective in her Warning. Olaf Bär's Kurwenal is very like Fischer-Dieskau's: he attempts to roughen his sound more than necessary and there's a sense of forcing the character, but he's grand in the last act. René Pape is a youthful, bruised Marke. What a voice! Luxury casting gives us the stunning Seaman of Rolando Villazon, just a bit too distantly recorded, and Ian Bostridge, who effectively whispers the role of the Shepherd. The others are just as fine.
Antonio Pappano is unarguably a great opera conductor, as he has proven with his French-language Don Carlos, his Tosca, Manon, and Werther--and he does not disappoint here. His Tristan lacks the metaphysical, heavily philosophized grandeur of Furtwängler's and the neurotic rush-to-death of Böhm's, but it is a powerful statement nonetheless. He understands and communicates the omnipresent longing as well as the desolation; the prelude to the last act is anguished in the extreme. His fortes are a knock-out and he handles the quiet moments with real intimacy. His tempos are fleet--the opera takes 226 minutes (Furtwängler takes 256; Solti's first recording 239, just to give some perspective)--but only once do they seem inappropriate: as Tristan launches into "So starben wir..." near the end of the Love Duet, the pace is practically jaunty, clearly a miscalculation. The recorded sound is excellent despite misjudgments in the far placement of the brass announcing Marke's arrival in Act 1, and the gorgeous cor anglais solo in the last act, which is too close. Orchestra and chorus could not be better. [9/15/2005]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Two recordings of The Mastersingers dominated the catalogue when this magnificent performance was released in 1971, both of them, as this one, on the EMI label. An earlier Karajan and a reading by Rudolf Kempe are both still available, but this one from Dresden was in stereo, which rather clinched the matter for many collectors. The present release is not its first CD reincarnation, having previously been included in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. It is now available at an absurdly low price, for which we must be grateful. Yet texts and translations are available only on a “bonus” CD; this is a poor solution. Reading Richard Osborne’s excellent background article poses no problems, but if you want to follow the words you’ll need to sit in front of a screen, or, of course, print them out, all 111 pages of them.
The Dresden sound is glorious, and perfectly suited to the work. All the same, not having heard this performance since the LP era, I found it less sumptuous than I expected, a sign of the wonders we have become used to. The recording is magnificent, nonetheless, in a gently reverberant acoustic and with every thread of orchestral and vocal detail audible. There is an intimacy about it too, which matches the performance. One would not go so far as to call it small-scale Wagner, but neither does the word ‘monumental’ come to mind. There is a certain mercurial lightness about Karajan’s vision of the work that comes over very successfully in the performance and which is perfectly preserved by the recorded sound.
Helen Donath is totally successful, young and eager: hers is, in my view, a near-perfect realisation of Eva. I very much enjoyed Ruth Hesse’s portrayal of Magdalene too. Peter Schreier as David might seem like luxury casting, and so it is, his voice, that of a lieder singer rather than an operatic tenor, perfectly suited to the character. As to the mastersingers themselves, there is not a weak link amongst them, and in particular, Karl Ridderbusch as Eva’s father, Pogner, is absolutely outstanding. The voice itself is one of remarkable beauty, rock-steady, and he assumes the role with a noble authority which is very convincing and affecting. The tenderness with which he conducts his Act 2 dialogue with his daughter is most moving. I wanted to like Geraint Evans’ Beckmesser more than I did. There is no doubt that the character is very vivid and entertaining, but others have found more humanity there, and I do wish he had tempered the tendency to near-speech, and actually sung more of the notes. René Kollo as von Stolzing is very successful indeed. His singing of the Prize Song is very beautiful, and he is in slightly better voice there, perhaps understandably, than in the singing lesson with Sachs, delightfully deft and comical from both artists, in Act 2. It is known that Karajan deliberately sought out younger voices for these roles, and this pays off in Kollo’s case, particularly in those long conversations earlier in the work, where he is excitable and ardent, his sudden, overpowering love for Eva very well caught and acted. When the set was released it was Theo Adam as Sachs who garnered the least support amongst the different critics, and so it proves for me too. The main problem is that this marvellous singer’s voice is simply not right for Sachs. There is not enough gravity or richness about it, nor warmth of tone. Sachs is not simply a wise, old father-figure. He is a philosopher and visionary, but also a cobbler, a fixer, a schemer; he is even allowed a little flirting. In many of these scenes Adam is excellent, but Sachs’ wisdom and force of character provoke the crowd to a final hymn of praise, and in this performance one can’t quite see why. The chorus is excellent, the orchestra remarkable, and Karajan, as previously noted, leads a performance quite different in character from much of his work in Berlin, with unexceptional but convincing tempi and not one hint of indulgence.
If an ideal Mastersingers exists on record, I haven’t heard it. There is hardly a weakness in the marvellous Rudolf Kempe’s cast, but this opera does need modern sound. This Karajan performance was followed in quick succession by two others, Solti on Decca and Jochum on DG. Solti’s performance has what is for me the finest Sachs of all in the great Norman Bailey, but others in the cast are less successful, and not everybody warms to Solti’s rather excitable and foursquare conducting. Jochum, on the other hand, is marvellous, with Fischer-Dieskau as Sachs, self-recommending, though the voice itself is so characteristic that one can never forget it is Fischer-Dieskau. The Knight is played by Placido Domingo, a surprising choice, but highly successful, leaving nobody in any doubt that he will win the Prize! I haven’t heard Solti’s later recording from Chicago (Decca), but it was well received, the conductor apparently better attuned to the work this time around. I think I should enjoy José van Dam as Sachs, and I know I should appreciate Ben Heppner as von Stolzing, as he is excellent in the Sawallisch recording on EMI, a very good all-round recommendation despite, to my ears, a certain lack of intensity and character.
No ideal Mastersingers, then, but this one will do very well for those untroubled by a less than sympathetic Sachs. For this listener, the crucial factor in this life-enhancing opera is the conductor. He must lead the performance as if in one breath, allowing Wagner’s great paragraphs to pass almost in an instant. For this, masterly control of pace and phrasing is required. Of the performances I have heard, Eugen Jochum comes closest to this near-unattainable ideal.
-- William Hedley, MusicWeb International