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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Act II - Hall aria [5.33]; Elizabeth’s Prayer [6.25]
Lohengrin: Act I - Elsa’s dream [5.43]
Tristan and Isolde: Act I - Prelude [11.11]; Act III - Finale – Isolde’s Love Death [6.40]
Götterdämmerung: Act III – Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene [19.50]
Dame Gwyneth Jones (sop)
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Roberto Paternostro
Recorded at the studios of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne, 19-24 August 1990 DDD
CHANDOS CLASSICS CHAN 10286 X [55.56]


 

Gwyneth Jones will be a very familiar name to Wagner fans for her extensive performances of all the Wagner roles in opera houses throughout the world. She has also been highly acclaimed for her renditions of Strauss and Italian opera. As far as Wagner goes, though, there is obviously a huge number of compilation CDs as well as the full operas on disc, so some stiff competition here ...

The collection opens with two episodes from Tannhäuser – the Hall Aria from Act II and Elizabeth’s Prayer from Act III. One is at once impressed by Dame Gwyneth’s rich, heavy and mature voice but I was disappointed by some poor intonation in places – she is, for example, rather flat only three minutes into the track. I would recommend Birgit Nilsson’s version on the Testament label (another compilation disc). Here, the Philharmonia is conducted Leopold Ludwig and is faster, snappier, livelier, and less wallowing and apathetic than Paternostro’s. Nilsson is also beautifully in tune.

Elizabeth’s Prayer is, unfortunately, rather ear-splitting, at the outset at least. Jones is badly out of tune at the very start of the song and scoops up to the notes with painfully sliding swoops. She gets better as the piece goes on, and captures the hushed atmosphere of the prayer well, but I must admit to being rather on tenterhooks thenceforth, dreading the next bout of bad intonation.

Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin follows, in which Dame Gwyneth has a beautifully sweet and light tone. Intonation – if not perfect – is much better. The orchestra here is particularly good, giving a wonderful air of excitement. This aria is also included on the Nilsson disc. Nilsson’s voice is more laboured and weighed down by grief at the start of the dream, when speaking of her loneliness and sorrow. The general feel is more quiet, sensitive and introspective.

One purely orchestral track features on the Chandos disc, namely the prelude to Tristan and Isolde. Paternostro takes it at a very leisurely and unrushed pace, a little too slow, I felt, and consequently lacking drive and propulsion. I deeply missed the heady rush and sense of deep intoxication that I am usually bowled over with (who needs alcohol!?) during this prelude, but which was glaringly absent in this version. Yet the orchestra is lush and romantic, the string playing, in particular, gorgeously rich - staying just this side of slushy. Better versions? Well, comparing it to others was rather telling. From the first note, the Wagner Orchestral Highlights Naxos disc with the Slovak Philharmonic conducted by Michael Halasz was far more throbbing and poignant. The dramatic pauses here were gratifyingly long enough - they’re not quite there in Paternostro - and there are some lovely discreet touches of portamento.  Similarly, on the Phillips label where Karl Böhm conducts the Bayreuther Festspiele (entire opera), it sounds like an entirely different piece. Even more intense than the Naxos version, this one is deeply stirring, as it sobs and throbs, full of passion.

Isolde’s so-called “Love Death” music, from the Finale of Act III of Tristan, ensues. Dame Gwyneth’s rich, full, mature and remarkably powerful voice suits this music, and she comes across as pleasingly radiant, although intonation is still a little dodgy in places. In contrast, Margaret Price on the recent Deutsche Grammophon re-issue with Carlos Kleiber conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (full opera) is very hushed, particularly at the beginning. Price has greater clarity of tone, and is lighter. Both singer and orchestra make more of the climaxes, although the balance is not as good as in Chandos disc, and the orchestra tends to drown Price out. Birgit Nilsson on the Böhm Philips disc is much darker, richer, and more laboured than both Price and Jones.

The Chandos disc concludes with Brünnhilde’s famous immolation scene from Götterdämmerung. Although, once again, I was slightly concerned about Jones’ intonation, her heavy rich tone is perfect for Brünnhilde. It is a brilliant ending to the disc - suitably wild and impassioned, and with the orchestra really going hell for leather. It is extremely interesting to compare this to her performance of this role at Bayreuth just under ten years earlier – a live recording on Philips, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Orchester der Bayreuth Festspiele. On the live recording she is far more sensitive and commanding, creating a darker, blacker and more powerful sound, with fine intonation – she seems to get into the role far better and is incredibly persuasive and effective as Brünnhilde. I still admire Anne Evans’ version of this, too – available on a variety of discs including ASV’s Highlights from The Ring, or on a Götterdämmerung highlights disc on ‘Opera Collection’ with Barenboim conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.

It is undoubted that Dame Gwyneth Jones is one of the finest Wagnerian sopranos of her time, so I was deeply disappointed with this disc – especially on comparing the final track to her Bayreuth recording showing how exquisitely she is able to sing Wagnerian roles. Perhaps the fact that she is no longer quite in her prime has something to do with it, otherwise I would probably put it down to being unable to step fully into character when singing excerpts as opposed to entire operas. There does not particularly appear to be a lack of rapport with the conductor and orchestra, so I am otherwise at a loss to say why this disc is, as a whole, a little spiritless and has bouts of such bad intonation. Whilst I would personally always choose the full opera over a compilation disc, there are plenty of other highlights and collections out there if that’s what you’re after. These include Kirsten Flagstad on the Références label and on the Gold Seal Vocal Series, Flagstad and Nilsson on Decca’s Highlights disc with Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, Frida Leider on Preiser with Beecham and the Covent Garden Opera, Jessye Norman with Tennstedt on EMI’s Opera Scenes and Arias,  and various Nilsson discs, including the one mentioned above. All of these give excellent performances. But if it’s Dame Gwyneth you’re after, go for the full opera rather than this compilation disc.

Em Marshall

 



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