January 22, 2015


Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Kwangchul Youn, Anja Kampe, Christopher Ventris, Jane Henschel, Russell Thomas, Terje Stensvold; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. RCO Live. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Requiem; Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Marianne B. Kielland, mezzo-soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Christian Immler, baritone; Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Gounod: Requiem; Dvořák: Mass in D. Anne Bretschneider, soprano; Christine Lichtenberg, contralto; Holger Marks, tenor; Georg Witt, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin conducted by Risto Joost. Carus. $18.99.

     The live recording of Andris Nelsons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer seems designed to test a truism: if Italian opera is primarily concerned with the voice and French opera balances vocal and instrumental elements, in German opera the orchestra is paramount. Like many clichés, this one arose because it contains a germ of truth, and perhaps more than a germ. Certainly in much of Wagner, the orchestra, pervaded by leitmotif after leitmotif, is as much a part of the stage action as any of the singers. But there are limits to the effectiveness of seeing Wagner through a primarily instrumental lens, and this recording shows what they are. Like other great art, Der Fliegende Holländer has inspired multiple interpretations and has stood up to just about all of them. One particularly intriguing one treated the whole opera as a sort of “fever dream” of an unbalanced Senta, ending in her suicide. This is certainly not what Wagner intended, but the approach did solve some problems, such as the fact that everyone in the opera knows exactly what the Flying Dutchman’s ship looks like, but when the ship appears in reality, absolutely no one knows what it is; and the Dutchman’s portrait is prominently displayed in Senta’s home, but when the man himself – exactly matching the picture – shows up, no one but Senta recognizes him, either. Opera is not renowned for logic, but Wagner, here as elsewhere acting as his own librettist, surely knew of these plot inconsistencies, deeming them insignificant next to what he was trying to say about the redemptive power of love – his preoccupation for virtually everything he was to write after this opera, his fourth.

     In Der Fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman is intended to come across as a sort of force of nature – certainly his Satanic sentence to roam the seas unceasingly, bringing all his unfaithful brides to eternal damnation, seems disproportionate to his “crime” of steadfastly refusing to be stopped by weather from rounding a cape. The Dutchman is, as a human, a tormented soul; this balances his supernatural presence. Unfortunately, in this RCO Live recording, Terje Stensvold gives us a Dutchman who is neither particularly otherworldly nor particularly human. His voice is barely up to the part – in his first appearance, in particular, it is weak and shaky – and he never achieves the rumbling drama of a true bass-baritone, perhaps because he is not one: he is really a baritone, and a comparatively light one, at that. This leaves the much-deeper-voiced Kwangchul Youn, as Daland, to dominate the men’s meeting in Act I (Wagner wanted Der Fliegende Holländer played straight through, but most performances divide it into three acts, as this one does). Yet Daland is supposed to be a superficial character concerned strictly with worldly goods – a good, reliable ship’s captain, but not a deep thinker and not much of a father, hesitating not at all to promise his daughter to a just-met stranger for the sake of wealth. The strongest voice and characterization in this recording are those of Anja Kampe as Senta: her handling of the ballad describing the Dutchman’s hubris and his fate is highly affecting, and her final scene is as dramatic as it can be – in contrast with the Dutchman’s rather pallid revelation to all (at last) of who he is. Better than all the soloists, though, are the three combined choruses – the wonderful scene in which Daland’s sailors taunt and then are taunted by those of the Dutchman is effectively spooky here – and the orchestra, which plays with smoothness, excellent sectional balance and considerable power. The positioning of microphones for this live recording could partly explain the comparative weakness of the soloists’ voices, especially Stensvold’s, but the audio of the choruses and orchestra is very good indeed, perhaps reflecting what seems to be Nelsons’ concern to focus the performance on the instrumental elements rather than the vocals. In all, this is a reasonably good, very-well-played reading that gives short shrift to characterization and vocal storytelling while placing choral and instrumental elements front and center throughout. Like its title character, though, it is pale (the Dutchman, both in his portrait and as a person, is described as den bleichen Mann); and while it has many effective elements – and, thankfully, includes a full libretto – it is simply not as involving or emotionally trenchant as Der Fliegende Holländer is capable of being.

     The emotional impact of Mozart’s Requiem is certainly high in a new BIS recording featuring the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki. But this release seeks to be more than an effective presentation of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece: it wants to be a reconsideration. This is not the familiar (and familiarly flawed) completion of the Requiem by Franz Xaver Süßmayr but an altogether new version put together by Masato Suzuki, son of the conductor and a member of Bach Collegium Japan. The younger Suzuki uses a combination of Süßmayr’s work with that of Joseph Eybler (1765-1846), the friend of Mozart who was first asked by the composer’s widow to complete the Requiem but was unable to do so – leading to Constanze’s selection of Süßmayr, whose work Mozart did not respect (he liked and admired Eybler’s). Add in some material from Masato Suzuki himself and you have the Requiem as heard here. It would be unfair to say that all this is much ado about nothing – it is, in fact, much ado about something very important, for the Requiem is magnificent music left incomplete, and any and all thoughtful attempts to turn it into a fully integrated work are most welcome. However, it is worth pointing out that, just as non-specialists are unlikely to hear the flaws in Süßmayr’s work (technical errors, unnecessary doublings of voices, and some generally uninspired writing), so they are unlikely to perceive significant improvements in what Masato Suzuki has done. There have been a number of other attempts to complete Mozart’s Requiem, some being on the radical side (Duncan Druce), others being considerably more modest in scope (Franz Beyer, H.C. Robbins Landon), and still others lying somewhere in the middle (Robert Levin, Richard Maunder). Certainly Masato Suzuki’s work is worthy within this group of rearrangements (or re-completions), and certainly the performance here is thoughtful, well-paced and effective. As a rethinking of Mozart’s Requiem, though, neither the new version nor the new performance breaks significant new ground. The CD also includes a very fine recording of Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, which contrasts well with the later Requiem, plus an alternative version of the Tuba mirum from the Sequentia of the Requiem.

     The concept of a Requiem expanded significantly, along with much else, after Mozart’s time, and there is a richness and opulence to Gounod’s Requiem in C that make the work both moving and attractive from a strictly sonic point of view. A new Carus recording led by Risto Joost, however, forgoes aural splendor and turns this work into something even smaller and more intimate than what Mozart produced: the Berlin Radio Choir is accompanied only by organ (played movingly by Hye-Lin Hur). This is a strange, if interesting, way to hear Gounod’s Requiem, which dates to 1893, more than a century after Mozart’s. The mysterious commission that led Mozart to write his Requiem is well-known, but there is no mystery about Gounod’s inspiration: he wrote his Requiem after the death of his four-year-old grandson, Maurice. It was to be Gounod’s final work, as Mozart’s was his; but except for some details on which Gounod was working at the time of his death, his Requiem, unlike Mozart’s, is complete. The intimacy that Gounod’s work receives when heard as a vocal composition with only organ accompaniment gives it an even stronger religious orientation and seriousness than it has in its orchestrated form. Yet this is scarcely a traditional Requiem: it omits the Offertory, for example, and sets the Introit and Kyrie together to begin the work. The atmospheric orchestral opening is lost here, and therefore so is the effect of the first, hushed choral entry; but the overall sparseness of the performance makes for a moving recording, if scarcely an authentic one. The disc also includes a rethought Dvořák Mass in D (1892), heard here with wind quintet rather than full orchestra. Interestingly, the original version of this work (dating to 1887) was written for organ accompaniment – but rather than use that form, Joost offers one featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The solemnity of this wind quintet actually comes across quite well, with the lower instruments frequently dominating the discourse and giving the work considerable depth – although never as much as it has in its orchestral version. The most interesting element of the piece, namely the way the composer combines then-new harmonic approaches with old church modes, does comes through well in Joost’s version. And even if this disc as a whole is a bit of a curiosity, it will be of considerable interest to listeners already familiar with these two heartfelt works and intrigued by the chance to experience them in previously unheard forms.

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