March 22, 2012


Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Albert Dohmen, baritone; Georg Zeppenfeld, bass; Dietrich Henschel, bass; Robert Dean Smith, tenor; Peter Sonn, tenor; Edith Haller, soprano; Michelle Breedt, mezzo-soprano; Matti Salminen, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

Wagner: Parsifal. Evgeny Nikitin, baritone; Dimitry Ivashchenko, bass; Franz-Josef Selig, bass; Christian Elsner, tenor; Eike Wilm Schulte, baritone; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

     Something truly extraordinary is happening here. PentaTone is in the process of releasing the 10 best-known Wagner operas, the set to be completed next year for the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth – and Marek Janowski is establishing himself as one of the great Wagner conductors. These second and third releases are live recordings of concert performances from 2011 (the first release, Der Fliegende Holländer, was from 2010), and the casts vary and can be nitpicked, but none of that matters. Janowski understands Wagner, understands each opera as a separate unit that is nevertheless part of a magnificent oeuvre, and drills down so deeply into the meaning of the music that the net effect, time and again, is simply splendid. And PentaTone’s outstanding SACD sound is nearly perfect for Wagner, whose music requires as much attention to the softest passages – including silences – as to the loudest. The marvelous playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the attentively idiomatic singing of the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the excellent booklet essays and the complete libretti combine to produce an experience so vivid that listeners will easily be able to transport themselves to the operas’ scenes and become absorbed in them, even though the performances here recorded used no scenery at all.

     So intense is the experience of these recordings that listeners will find highlights of the works beyond the standard ones. In Die Meistersinger, for example, Hans Sachs’ Wahn! Wahn! in Act III is simply extraordinary as sung by Albert Dohmen (listed as a baritone, although he was designated a bass-baritone in Der Fliegende Holländer and sings in that range here as well). The expressiveness of his praise for mein liebes Nürnberg is on the same level as the gorgeous evocation of springtime and love in Morgenlich leuchtend as sung by Walther von Stolzing (Robert Dean Smith) later in the act. Indeed, one of the things that Janowski does remarkably well here is to balance the tenor hero with the opera’s real central character, Sachs, whom Wagner clearly based on himself and whose portrayal was both a love paean and a farewell to Mathilde Wesendonck, whom Wagner clearly adored even though there is continuing uncertainty as to whether she was his mistress. Sachs is an amazing character – it is almost impossible for that not to come through in performance – but he looms so large that he tends to overshadow Walther and everyone else much of the time. Not here, where he is, if not first among equals, at least first among others who are very worthy in their own right. Eva (Edith Haller) is part of this, too: more of an object than a central character, in this performance she attains genuineness and great beauty in the two arias in which she makes it clear that it is Sachs, durch dich erwacht (“by you awakened”), who is dearest to her even though she will happily marry Walther (surely this too reflects Wagner and Mathilde, who stayed with her husband, one of Wagner’s patrons, no matter what she and Wagner meant to each other).

     The fact that the performance is outstanding does not mean that it is perfect. Dohmen misses some of the gruff humor of the hilarious scene in which his hammering constantly interrupts the would-be serenade of Beckmesser (Dietrich Henschel), and Henschel himself is not as over-the-top as he could be. The famous prelude to Act I is less stately and impressive than it ought to be, although the prelude to Act III is excellent. And Smith’s voice actually cracks once during his first-act song. Indeed, the performance as a whole gets better as it progresses, from the warmth and intimacy of Act II through to the end. Nitpicks and occasional missteps aside, though – issues with live performances are inevitable – the overall impressiveness of Janowski’s Meistersinger is quite something to hear.

     So is Janowski’s Parsifal. This is a deliberately paced but never draggy reading with a different cast of Wagnerian specialists than in Meistersinger or Der Fliegende Holländer, but once again a very aptly chosen roster with real understanding of Wagner’s music and generally fine vocal sound. Wagner’s final opera remains one of his most controversial, with arguments about whether the libretto is or is not traditionally Christian, does or does not contain considerable anti-Semitism, and is or is not sunk by its own internal contradictions (how did Titurel end up with a son, Amfortas, in a world where sexual contact with women is de facto evidence of unholiness?). What is inarguable, though, is the sublimity of the music and the extraordinarily tight-knit nature of the score – the interrelationship of the leitmotifs here is beyond anything else in Wagner, and so are the moves beyond tonality into evanescence (starting with a Prelude that, if it not supposed to put the audience to sleep, is surely intended to lull listeners into a sense of otherworldliness). Janowski’s attentiveness to instrumental effects and the frequent chamber-music-like elements of Parsifal is remarkable, and most of the singers do a fine job of trying to breathe some life into their unidimensional characters. Kundry, the only one in the opera who seems fully alive, is well sung by Michelle DeYoung, although listeners familiar with earlier recordings featuring Waltraud Meier’s deeply felt and beautifully projected handling of the role may find DeYoung somewhat pale. Eike Wilm Schulte makes a fine Klingsor, perhaps not filled with menace but certainly monomaniacal in his determination to take the Grail for his own. The “good guys” are somewhat more colorless. Gurnemanz (Franz-Josef Selig) has the most lines, and knits the first and third acts together; and there is certainly passion in Selig’s singing, although at times his voice wavers a little. Dimitry Ivashchenko, who handles the small part of Titurel with world-weary intensity, might have been a better choice as Gurnemanz – a role he has sung elsewhere with considerable success. Christian Elsner is fine as Parsifal, a part as thankless as it is central: its primary characteristics are bewilderment and tentativeness, which Elsner projects effectively. In the equally important, equally thankless role of the ever-complaining Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin sings with such vocal strength that he comes across as somewhat too intense for a character supposed to be agonized both physically and spiritually. The Flower Maidens scene – said to have been Wagner’s favorite in the opera – is especially well handled here, through the contrast of Elsner’s naïveté with the surface sweetness and underlying danger of the magical women. The overall performance is actually more consistent than that of Meistersinger: it is strong from start to finish. Still to come in this exemplary series are Lohengrin, Tristan, Tannhäuser and the four Ring operas. Even without Rienzi, which cries out for a top-notch new recording, PentaTone’s releases are shaping up as a major highlight of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

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