Wagner Journal Review of Träume

The voice soars … an appealing voice, clear and unmannered … negotiates its athletic contours impressively … a total success.

Wagner Journal

Bel Canto Wagner
Niall Hoskin enjoys the CD debut of the soprano Jenufa Gleich

Wagner: Träume. ‘Weh’ mir, so nah’ die fürchterliche Stunde’ (Die Feen); ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau!’, ‘Dich, teure Halle’ (Tannhäuser); ‘Traft ihr, das Schiff’ (Der fliegende Holländer); ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich’ (Siegfried); Wesendonck Lieder. Jenufa Gleich (soprano); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Fabrice Bollon. Stone Records 5060192781038 (59 minutes)

This is the first operatic recording from Stone Records, an independent label run by the British singer Mark Stone. It’s also the debut on CD of Jenufa Gleich: her programme echoes that of Birgit Nilsson’s 1971 LP with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. By that stage the Swedish powerhouse was established at the top of the profession and of her career; Gleich on the other hand has only recently come to Wagner: she sang Helmwige, Freia and the Third Norn at Longborough under Anthony Negus, and recorded the last-named role in Jaap van Zweden’s Hong Kong Philharmonic concert Götterdämmerung. Here she collaborates with the French conductor Fabrice Bollon, musical director of the Freiburg Opera. He has considerable operatic and symphonic experience and accompanies sympathetically, drawing fine playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Where the orchestra is given its head in the extended opening of Act II of Tannhäuser, we hear crisp unanimity in the strings and a lovely oboe solo, and throughout there is fine playing from all sections. The recorded sound, clear and warm, not too reverberant, is of the high quality one expects from the producer Phil Rowlands.

Gleich was born of émigré parents in Brooklyn; she studied in New York, mostly with the redoubtable Maria Caruso Farnworth. Many of her roles have been in the bel canto realm; since moving to Italy, she has paradoxically migrated to the Germanic repertoire. Gleich had an avowed agenda in this recording project: to explore and illustrate the influence of bel canto style on Wagner. Readers may recall the composer’s admiration for Bellini’s Norma: he extolled its virtues to the theatregoers of Riga and even wrote an insertion aria for his performances of it there.

Gleich brings to this repertoire an appealing voice, clear and unmannered, well- focused over two octaves, but not heroic in scale. Her diction is exemplary, abetted by what seems to be quite close microphone placement. Most of her German sounds idiomatic, though I wish the language coach Thomas Schmieger had ensured a more authentic ‘e’ sound at the start of ‘Weh’ mir’ and ‘Ewig war ich’. I must applaud the notion of Schmieger’s involvement, however: many recordings and live performances would benefit from a visit from the pronunciation police.

The benefits of the Italianate approach are most evident in the first (and longest) track, Ada’s scena ‘Weh’ mir, so nah’ die fürchterliche Stunde’ from Die Feen. Singer and conductor navigate the changes of mood and tempo most effectively: after the tone of desperation at the start, Gleich produces a delightfully poised piano against pizzicato strings and dotted wind figuration at ‘es huldigt mir die Feenwelt’. Christopher Wintle, who contributes useful notes on ‘Wagner’s Singing Style’ as exemplified in each piece, describes the final Allegro molto e con fuoco as having ‘something of the virtuosity of an Italian cabaletta’. (It is also surely indebted to the final section of Agathe’s Act II aria in Der Freischütz.) Gleich negotiates its athletic contours impressively at Bollon’s crack- ing pace. It’s only a shame that Wagner’s performance directions such as ‘mit großer Wehmut’ (with great melancholy) and ‘mit erstickter Stimme’ (with stifled voice) elicit scant response. The bel canto aesthetic relies for expressiveness on legato and beauty of line, but Wagner increasingly required more specific use of vocal colour.

Elisabeth’s two arias from Tannhäuser suit Gleich’s voice and her approach well: she produces a warm, rich sound for ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau!’, as befits the prayerful tone and the darker colours of the accompanying wind and brass. Good though it is to hear the bass clarinet’s eloquent line here, it seems to me to be too far forward. Bol- lon’s tempo is deliberate, causing the singer to break the phrase ‘als würd’ge Magd dir nahen kann’. ‘Dich, teure Halle’, however, is a total success. (It’s a gift for the right kind of soprano to sing – why else does it crop up so often in recitals and auditions?) Here the enthusiasm in the outer sections is effectively balanced by the regret expressed in the more lightly scored central passage. The voice soars over even the busiest of the string writing.

Read the full review: Wagner Journal PDF