Cher Public

Springtime for Wagner

Could Marek Janowski do for Wagner what the early music movement did for the Baroque and Classical repertory? Though the distinguished maestro is smart enough not to stake any claims of authenticity, his generally fleet, lean-sounding and gracefully shaped interpretations provide a stimulating perspective on works that often invite interpretive overkill.

The latest installments in Janowski’s 10-part cycle of live concert performances with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are Tannhäuser and Das Rheingold, a pair of dramatically problematic operas that under the right circumstances can benefit from an absence of stage action. Both performances go down like refreshing summertime drinks, with naturally flowing phrases, textural clarity and a strong sense of the narrative arc. PentaTone’s sound quality is splendid. All that’s lacking is an extra dose of power in the musical message and maybe a little more of a personal stamp.

The Tannhauser, from May 2012, is performed using Schott’s newly edited orchestration and serves as a reminder that Wagner’s early phase didn’t just end with Der Fliegende Hollander. There’s a vigorous Romantic character to sections such as the Act 1 finale, and a folk-like flavor in the orchestral motifs that has direct musical connections to Weber. Janowski injects an appropriate amount of pomp in Act 2’s ceremonial segments yet avoids getting bogged down by the work’s lumbering earnestness.

The pacing only feels a little hurried in Act 3 from the Rome narrative on, when dramatic urgency begins to overtake the splendor of the music. Janowski’s Lohengrin similarly focused on speed and precision that, however bracing, sapped some drama from the final act.

Any Wagner performance featuring Nina Stemme commands attention, and the Swedish soprano delivers here as a vulnerable and pure Elisabeth. The vocally exposed Act 3 prayer “Allmacht’ge Jungfrau, hor mein Flehen!” is effortlessly rendered, with mezzo-like colorings that convey a warm, gentle sadness. “Dich Teure Halle” ripples with ecstasy, ending on a somewhat squally high B. Few artists are able to blend lyricism with strong-willed determination as naturally as this diva, even if her full-bodied vocalism is a little ripe for this character.

Russian mezzo Marina Prudenskaya is an intriguing Venus, with an athletic voice that crackles with intensity but doesn’t show an especially wide range of emotions. Her big sound and incisive attack in “Geliebter komm!” is exciting and made me want to hear more. Perhaps some company will engage her for the Paris version of this opera, with its extended interplay between the goddess and title character.

Christian Gerhaher’s text-centric approach and seductive baritone have won raves in his explorations of art songs. His crisp enunciation and restrained legato will make this a Wolfram that’s not to everyone’s taste. I found it an emotionally involved portrayal that placed the character right in the middle of the tragedy. His account of “O du mein holder Abendstern” is beautiful and qualifies as the high point of the performance.

In contrast, Robert Dean Smith’s Tannhäuser is a bit of a cold fish, who could sound more unhinged in the outbursts and convey some torment dealing with his conscience and guilt. Though he has the vocal goods to bring out bel canto aspects of the difficult role and still sound like a Wagnerian tenor, he’s underpowered and not particularly distinctive in the ensemble scenes.

Among the rest of the cast, Albert Dohmann is a sturdy Landgrave and Bianca Reim does well with the small role of the shepherd. The Berlin orchestra is utterly committed to Janowski’s approach, with especially prominent contributions from the woodwinds. The standout chorus is deeply affecting in subdued passages, such as the older pilgrims’ appearance at the beginning of Act 3.

Janowski’s traversal of the Ring begins promisingly enough with a beguiling and vividly detailed reading of the E-flat figurations in the prelude to Das Rheingold. Unfortunately the forces in this November 2012 performance can’t quite sustain that level of interest for all of the remaining 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, who’s sung both Wotan and Alberich to great acclaim, has said he views the king of the gods as something of a power-hungry outsider who married well. Perhaps for this reason, his greeting to Valhalla isn’t as poetic as some on record, and his dramatic conception in general seems to key on motivations instead of emotions. The voice still is imposing and even through the registers, with dark, unforced low notes and fine diction. We’ll hear more when he essays Wotan and the Wanderer for Janowski’s Die Walkure and Siegfried.

The light-voiced baritone Jochen Schmeckenbecher nicely captures Alberich’s anger and wounded pride in the opening scene’s encounter with the Rhinemaidens but isn’t forceful enough when delivering the curse on the ring or interacting with Wotan and Loge.

Christian Elsner, who was Janowski’s Parsifal earlier in the series, excels by mining a melting lyricism that is too seldom brought out in Loge’s music, using his pleasant heldentenor to deliver a lovely account of “Immer ist Undank.” Also impressive is contralto Maria Radner, who injects energy into the proceedings during her brief but pivotal appearance as Erda. Her crisp enunciation and almost over-the-top trilling make for an appropriately high-handed earth goddess.

Basses Timo Riihonen and Gunther Groissbock are nicely paired as Fasolt and Fafner and somehow manage to be lyrical yet menacing. Andreas Conrad is a poignant Mime. The most inconsistent performances come from the occasionally unfocused Iris Vermillion as Fricka and soprano Ricarda Merbeth, who sounds overtaxed in spots as Freia.

Janowski and the orchestra support the cast and keeping the action flowing but seem to gloss over some important musical moments. The descent into the Nibelheim is taken at quite a clip, and key junctures such as Erda’s entrance or the gods’ procession into Valhalla sound more businesslike than majestic.

Listeners who know the conductor’s underrated Ring cycle from the 1980s won’t find this installment as compelling or strongly cast. That said, his lucid approach and PentaTone’s vivid sonics will make the remaining three installments of the cycle required listening.

  • phoenix

    This site is always worth reading for it’s guest critics, who always seem to hit the mark at least somewhere in their reviews. Although the b-flat at the end of the Dich teure halle shouldn’t be such a big issue, I have to give credit to this writer for pointing it out since the 1st time I heard Stemme sing Elisabeth (Genève 2005) she set the benchmark with it -- on target with the softest pianissmo that she crescendoed into the warmest mezzavoce, all in time with Ulf Shirmer’s even-scaled beat. Is it that time takes it’s toll on even the greatest or did she just have an off-moment in Berlin?
    -- Janowski is certainly more adept than many conductors but I find his Philharmonie/Pentatone concerts/CD’s variable. His Meistersinger, like this Tannhäuser, was a good -- but not great -- performance. The only of his efforts that rose to the iconic was his Parsifal, which I understand has garnered even more accolades than when it was first released. His most dissatisfying events were the ring cycle operas but not really his fault -- mediocre soloists.
    -- Mediocre is certainly better than totally inadequate -- if only some 1st class conductor would do same for the Verdi canon -- with a first class orchestra & experienced singers. I have the a

    • phoenix

      Alzira DVD reviewed below -- the opera, as the writer notes, is no masterpiece but IMO neither is Tannhäuser -- both suffer from the repetitive writing.

    • Feldmarschallin

      It is a B natural not B flat at the end of Dich, teure Halle.

      • phoenix

        Thanks for reading my comment! Best wishes!

        • CarlottaBorromeo

          “Dich, teure Halle” is supposed to end on a G rather than a B, squally or otherwise…!

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            There is a big exposed b-natural at the climax, in the penultimate phrase, which is near enough the end (which I think you probably know fine well).

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I suppose Phoenix that for Stemme there has been a very definite shift in the 8 years since then into almost exclusively Hochdramatische repertoire, a trend set to continue for her with a diary full of Brunnhildes, plus Isolde, Salome, Minnie, Turandot and Elektra now apparently on the cards as somebody on here mentioned the other day (although she is currently singing Marschallin). The effect you describe (which to my mind sounds unstylish and peculiar, if impressive, though I will take your word for it that it worked) sounds incredibly difficult to do for any singer with those roles in her repertoire, who isn’t as young as she was, and who has a very low centre of vocal gravity to begin with. I’d chalk it up to natural wear and tear.

      • phoenix

        Kurwenal, I only heard it once -- on an Espace2 A l’opéra Saturday radio broadcast -- my recording of it didn’t come out. But I did read a review (I don’t remember if it was on a newsmedia site or a blog) at the time that mentioned the same effect on that same note -- and praised it, too -- so it wasn’t my imagination that time (a rarity indeed!).
        -- I had never heard it sung like that so I was at first surprised, but she incorporated it so well into the aria as if that was the way it should be done -- a very soft, split-second introspective moment of romantic remembrance that she joyously crescendoed as if the Hall would hear her hopes of fulfillment.

  • Archaeopteryx

    I was in the concert performance the CD is based on and I have to say that two people stole the show: Janowski and Gerhaher. Janowski, perhaps the least vain conductor in the world, with his fresh, energetic and pure approach, free from any Wagner-pomp and mud, would have gained the biggest ovations if he had taken the chance to bow alone. No way. He stood in the shadows of the soloists and even pushed the singers rather stroppy on stage when they wanted him to go alone. Very refreshing. And Gerhaher sang Wolfram as it was a Kunstlied, melting the audience with his radiant voice (all wondered how Elisabeth could love Tannhäuser after such an Abendstern).