Review of Träume by Music Web International

I cannot wait to hear Jenufa Gleich in some significant Wagnerian roles.

Music Web International

Music Web International

This is at one and the same time a surprisingly and unexpectedly successful disc. Perhaps I should begin by qualifying the first two of these adjectives. Surprising? Well, Wagner himself countenanced and indeed encouraged performances of excerpts from his operas as part of his campaign to obtain full stagings of the music dramas throughout Europe, but one cannot feel that he ever regarded such presentations as more than advance publicity for a more substantial cause. And although ‘bleeding chunks’ from Wagner continued to be a staple of the concert repertoire for many years (and still feature in programmes today), it is notable that of the operatic excerpts included on this disc only one actually concludes in the manner which Wagner intended, the rest either being provided with slightly abrupt final chords or simply petering out inconclusively.

And unexpected? Well, I had come across the soprano Jenufa Gleich before, when in January 2018 she recorded the role of the Third Norn in the Naxos set of Götterdämmerung originating from Hong Kong. Although this recording had many admirable features, the voice of Gleich was not one that especially impressed itself upon me at the time; I note that in my review I referred merely to the three Norns as “a well-modulated bunch”. But what we have represented here, in a recording made slightly less than two years later, is a voice that now has many much more substantial merits than that.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of those merits comes in the opening of Senta’s ballad from The Flying Dutchman. Wagner not only marks the first phrase to be sung piano with a sudden surge to forte at the final “Jo-hoe!” but adds the additional instruction to the singer “im Grossvaterstuht” – one of those almost untranslatable phrases than I construe to mean “in the manner of a legend”. I have never been quite certain what Wagner might have meant by this in terms of actual sound, but having heard Jenufa Gleich sing the phrase I am sure that this must have been something like what he intended, at once inward and projecting a haunted quality. She then proceeds to give us the ballad with full heroic projection, a thrilling sound which she is at the same time able to fine down to the merest whisper for her wistful hope for the Dutchman’s salvation. Not even the clumsy substitution of woodwind for the choral lines in the closing pages or the cruelly abrupt truncation at the end can disrupt the atmosphere that the singer has created. Senta is a role that has traditionally defeated many sopranos, with its contrasts of lyric and heroic styles; here the singer triumphantly surmounts all the difficulties which the relatively inexperienced Wagner placed in her way.

[…] she does have all the fresh-voiced enthusiasm that is required to assume the role of the virginal Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, delivering both her introductory aria and her farewell prayer with equal conviction and floating many delicate phrases on the way. A further plus is provided by the playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who give us the whole of the Act Two prelude as an introduction to Dich, teure Halle. Again, the world is not so well endowed with sopranos who can essay this part that we can afford to neglect such an evidently well-suited talent.

And almost most spectacularly of all, we are given the whole massive aria of Ada from Wagner’s first opera Die Feen, not even performed until after the composer’s death. So far as I can tell, only Birgit Nilsson has ever commercially recorded the aria Weh mir, so nah’ die fürchterliche Stunde at its full length of nearly a quarter of an hour as a solo item – it is only available in a massive 81-disc box of her complete Decca and DG recordings! – so this is a real Wagnerian rarity, and a thoroughly worthwhile discovery to boot. It has plenty of heft which anticipates the composer’s later development as well as the expected Weberian influences, and at the end we are confronted with a passage which Wagner was later to take almost unchanged into the score of Tannhäuser. Jenufa Gleich throws herself into the music with wild abandon which brings the whole thrillingly to life; and again the orchestra under Fabrice Bollon prove themselves to be thoroughly suited to the Wagnerian ethos. I should add that the recording in the orchestra’s own Hoddinott Hall is excellently balanced, far superior to recordings from some other companies operating in the same acoustic, with an entirely natural forward placement for the strings whose superb articulation is such a feature of their playing.

To add further to the listener’s pleasure, we are provided with three pages of booklet notes by Christopher Wintle which managed to provide us with unexpected and informative insights into the music itself and in particular its relevance to the style of Wagnerian singing. There are perceptive psychological reflections, too – I had never really thought of Ewig war ich as “the sly song of a virgin whose back is right against the wall”, but he makes a very pertinent point. He also brings to our attention many musical features of the settings, including a whole paragraph on Träume which explores the sound of the harmonies in terms not only of technical expertise but also of the dramatic and emotional significance which was clearly of vital importance to Wagner.

And indeed it is the performance of all five of the Wesendonck Lieder concluding this disc which places the crown on a superlative recital. The incipient vulgarity of some elements in Felix Möttl’s orchestration – such as the blatant scoring for the trumpet at the end of Stehe still – are completely forgotten in the rapt ecstasy of Träume and even more the still contemplation of Im Triebhaus, aided by the almost whispered vocal line delivered by the solo singer. For once this listener did not find himself wishing for the later development of this musical material which Wagner supplied in Tristan, but instead found the delivery of the whole to be quite sustaining in its own right. The final element of enjoyment was provided by Mark Stone’s translations of the texts, which clarified some of Mathilde Wesendonck’s cloudier meanings (as well as Wagner’s own sometimes murky German lyricism) without ever descending into modernisms or bathos.

On the basis of this recital disc I cannot wait to hear Jenufa Gleich in complete Wagnerian recordings on a larger scale than the Third Norn, and the sooner the better. She would be ideal now in any of the more lyrical roles such as Elisabeth, Eva or Elsa, but also could give a good account of herself as Senta or Sieglinde. And then in due course perhaps the larger and more heroic parts, as her voice matures and develops. Of course the thorny career path of Wagnerian sopranos is a long and arduous one, and many singers come to grief along the way; but with care she should be able to continue to give us pleasure for years to come.

Paul Corfield Godfrey