This disc offers a number of surprises. The first,
perhaps, is that such a mixed vocal-orchestral programme – quite
attractive in a concert – should have been assembled on disc at
all. Another is that, after a rather squally performance of the
lively "Zaïde", the voice often swamped by the
over-enthusiastic orchestra, Yvonne Naef comes out with a gorgeously
rich tone in the slow melody of "La captive". It would
seem that she is gifted with a lustrous timbre which "speaks"
rather slowly and which she has difficulty in fining down in music
where sharp precision is required. The problem is that this lustrous
timbre doesn’t seem to be available to her on tap. We hear it
again at times in "Im Treibhaus" and sometimes on individual
single notes, but for much of the time it is replaced by something
which is strong and well-projected, but a little more ordinary.
All the same, the Wagner receives a very fine performance and
my reservation is simply that something even more exceptional
seems to be waiting to come out.
The next surprise is that David Heer, having
acquitted himself with no great refinement or precision in the
Berlioz, turns in an exceptionally understanding performance of
the Mahler. At 10’ 03" we are not that far from the 8-minute
norm of Mengelberg and Walter, light years away from the 14-minute
performances we’ve been having recently. A comparison with the
Walter shows that the extra two minutes give Heer just that little
more breathing space to express the music, which he does with
an impressive control of its ebb and flow. Such details as the
great downward portamento towards the end testify to the care
with which the performance has been prepared. The comparison also
shows that the close, airless recording he receives is not much
advance on the ancient Walter, though I should add that the Walter,
acceptable in this lightly-scored movement, is impossibly constricted
elsewhere. Yes, elsewhere; another surprise is that anyone in
2003 should consider recording just this movement, especially
when it is done so well as to arouse our curiosity as to how Heer
would interpret the complete work.
The next surprise is that the Wesendonck Lieder
are sung in an arrangement by Hans Werner Henze. Not all readers
may know (since programmes do not always acknowledge this) that
the cycle is usually performed in an orchestration by Wagner’s
collaborator Felix Mottl (the original is with piano). Since it
sounds thoroughly Wagnerian it has gone unchallenged down the
years. For much of the time Henze is neither better nor worse,
just different, but his essentially intimate conception means
that the end of "Stehe still!", grand and brassy in
Mottl’s version, comes out somewhat muted. In general Henze’s
pointillist string-writing creates a more voluptuous effect, especially
in "Schmerzen", if sometimes dangerously close to Mantovani’s
"cascading strings". But the real surprise is in "Träume",
where the familiar chugging 8th-notes, literally transcribed
by Mottl from Wagner’s piano part, are replaced by sliding arpeggios.
The effect is so totally different that you might like to use
it as a guessing game, and see how many of your friends identify
the music before the voice enters.
No great surprises in the Siegfried Idyll,
soundly interpreted, decently played but a bit stodgy at times.
For those who think this piece lasts about twenty per cent too
long, the remedy is at hand in Sir Adrian Boult’s performance
which takes 16’ 15" against Heer’s 20’ 38" and never
sounds hurried; if you want something more obviously passionate
then Furtwängler has his seething textures much in evidence
and takes only a few seconds longer than Boult. But even if you
prefer a more expansive view (that authoritative Wagnerian Deryck
Cooke thought Furtwängler too swift, for example) Heer’s
Wagner doesn’t have the distinction of phrasing of his Mahler.
As I said at the beginning, the disc offers a
number of surprises, some more welcome than others.