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Transcendent Love: The Passions of Wagner and Strauss
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wesendock Lieder, Op. 91: (Träume [4:40]; Der Engel [3:08]; Stehe still! [3:20]; Im Treibhaus [5:42]; Schmerzen [2:23])
Träume – violin version [5:23]
Prelude to Tristan und Isolde [11:20]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1 [1:52]; Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27 No. 3 [3:13]; Allerseelen, Op. 10 No. 8 [3:11]
Metamorphosen [27:47]
Lisa Gasteen (soprano); John Harding (solo violin)
West Australian Symphony Orchestra/Simone Young
rec. 10-14 July 2007, Perth Concert Hall, Australia. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 4766811 [73:41]

 

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I don’t know what Simone Young was thinking when she put together the programme for this CD: in attempting to construct a creative programme, she ended up making something bizarre. It makes sense to couple the Wesendock Lieder with the Tristan prelude, but why no Liebestod when you have Lisa Gasteen on the disc anyway? The Strauss songs seem a random choice, and if one is looking at the passions of Strauss then surely there are far more appropriate works than Metamorphosen to include. The notes grant us no clues as to these choices. As such this programme seems muddled and confused and we’re forced to consider the works as separate essays rather than as part of a coherent whole.
 

Things don’t begin well, I’m afraid. The WASO provide a good accompaniment to the Wesendock Lieder, though the “throb” in Träume is too pronounced for my taste. The solo violin version of this song is interesting and provides a neat contrast to the way the same material was used in Tristan. I cannot warm to Lisa Gasteen’s singing, however. With typical hype she is often referred to as a “superstar” and as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos at work today. Having experienced her Brünnhilde on stage, however, I was left with the sinking feeling that if she is the greatest Wagner soprano of our time then we are in a bad way indeed. All the virtues and problems of her stage interpretations are mirrored on this disc. She sounds comfortable, if a bit nasal, in her middle register, but there is an unpleasant edge to her voice which permeates every aspect of her singing. These are magnified at the top of her range when an unpleasant “beat” develops above the stave and the shrill steeliness is uncomfortable to listen to for long. Furthermore, and this is a basic error, there are simply too many flat notes, and often these are easy ones too, as in Die Engel. Her voice is certainly big, but this also makes it thick and obtrusive: the faster, lighter passages of Stehe Still elude her. It’s not even as if this is difficult Wagner singing! If the Strauss numbers are a little better then I was left with the uncomfortable suspicion that it is because they are shorter. 

Young must take her share of the blame, however. The Tristan prelude unfolds very slowly, not a crime in itself, but her outworking of the themes is stodgy and inconsistent. There are times when her keeping of time is so rigid that one can sense exactly where the bar lines are, and others where the note values are distended and wilful. Her sense of pacing, so important in this of all works, is almost non-existent. Worse still, she simply loses control at the climax and she seems to have no awareness of the great arc of this work. 

Things improve, however, with Metamorphosen. There is more purpose and pace to this great outpouring and she sets opens with a warm legato, almost as if she if trying to out-Karajan Karajan! She succeeds in highlighting the work’s lyricism, however, and she is helped by extraordinarily powerful playing from the orchestra, by turns intimate and searing. There is excellent recorded sound too, and the solo strings give us a warm bloom that Gasteen robs us of. The final bars bring an increasing sense of decay and the works conclusion sinks into profound sadness.

In spite of this, however, there is too much on this disc to disappoint and not enough to recommend. Sorry, ABC, but you’ll find these works done better elsewhere, particularly at this price.

Simon Thompson


 


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