Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
René Pape
Die Walküre - Wotans Abschied und Feuerzauber
Act III - Wotan
1. Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!
2. Der Augen leuchtendes Paar
3. Loge, hör!
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Act II
4. Fliedermonolog: Was duftet doch der Flieder (Hans Sachs)
5. Hört, ihr Leut (Nachtwächter)
6. Verachtet mir die Meister nicht (Hans Sachs, Volk)
Act I
7. Gott grüss euch (König, Sachsen, Thüringer)
Act III – Gurnemanz, Parsifal
8. O Gnade, höchstes Heil!
9. Und ich, ich bin’s
10. Gesegnet sei, du Reiner
11. Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue
Act III - Wolfram
12. Wie Todesahnung…O du mein holder Abendstern
René Pape (bass); Placido Domingo (ten)
Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden/Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Berlin, Funkhaus Berlin Nalepestrasse, Saal 1, June 2010.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6617 [63:10]

What has happened to René Pape? The moment I started playing this new recital album, warning bells sounded in the background. Was this the voice as I had remembered it from "Das Wunder der Heliane" (Korngold), with its smooth, velvety power and ringing top G flat? That cameo role was recorded as long ago as 1992 and since then Pape has ascended the ranks of bass-baritones until he is now acclaimed, according to the sticker on the front of my review copy, as "the premier basso cantante of our time" (Gramophone) and even "the greatest operatic bass in the world" (FAZ). Yet what I was hearing didn't quite justify those encomiums: a pleasant voice with some agreeable features but too often grey and underpowered. Somewhat rattled and experiencing a crisis of reviewer's confidence, I turned to first one then another in my collection of the greatest exponents of Wotan, specifically recordings of that magnificent conclusion to "Die Walküre" which Pape essays here and which demands the most extraordinary range, power and pathos from a Heldenbariton of the first rank. And I began to listen, not to one, or two, but to no fewer than ten recordings:

Friedrich Schorr (1927, conductor Blech); Marcel Journet - in French (1928, Coppola); Ferdinand Frantz (1949, Moralt and 1954, Fürtwängler); Sigurd Björling (1951, Karajan); Hans Hotter (1953, Krauss and 1958, Ludwig); George London (1961, Leinsdorf); last and definitely least, Theo Adam (1967, Böhm).

Their great, brazen voices rang out across the years and I asked myself whether Pape was really in their company. The answer is clear: not really. He has none of the heft and authority, the blooming top notes, the fullness of tone in the centre of the voice that mark out his predecessors. His tone is somewhat thin, nasal and constricted and he tends to swoop on to top notes (as in "Leb wohl"). Puzzlingly for a singer who prides himself on subtle enunciation of the text, he does not even begin to suggest the heart-breaking tenderness of Wotan's Farewell.

Now; a great deal of this might have something to do with Barenboim's lacklustre conducting. There is simply no ecstasy in his direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which yields in so many respects to their eminent and often incandescent predecessors. Again, I find the claims on the label blurb to be inflated. I have never found Barenboim to be a great Wagnerian and he is here at his enervated worst: conducting which is hopelessly turgid and slack; no pulse, no drama, no sense of inexorable forward momentum.

Disconcerted, I decided to try the other end of the recital: the concluding aria is "O du mein holder Abendstern" from "Tannhäuser - a showpiece, if ever there was one, for a bass-baritone to show off his legato, sustained beauty of tone and ability to colour words affectingly. Once again, my attention began to wander, this time back to Bryn Terfel's beautiful account on his Wagner recital album with Levine. No competition here, either; there is a combination of velvet and steel in Terfel's voice that leaves Pape sounding very ordinary - and once again, I don't hear anything other than a generalised melancholy in Pape's interpretation, whereas Terfel lives Wolfram.

Actually, the best things on this recital are the sandwich items: excerpts from "Die Meistersinger", "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal", especially as in the latter Domingo contributes a lovely, full-toned "reiner Tor" in much-improved German - no strain at all and consistently believable characterisation. Yet even here, Pape is no match for distinguished interpreters of Gurnemanz from the digital stereo era such as Kurt Moll or Robert Lloyd, let alone giants of the past such as Ludwig Weber, Hans Hotter et al. I suppose we should be grateful to have a singer of Pape's distinction able to tackle them in these days of a dearth of Wagnerian singers and yes, I know we cannot go on forever living in the past and that it's invidious constantly to make comparisons to Pape's disadvantage, but once you've heard what the best can do with these extraordinarily challenging and complex roles, it's impossible to get them out of your head.

This is obviously a flagship issue by DG, complete with full, interesting notes, interview and libretto, of a kind increasingly rare today and they will have a lot invested in the obligatory accompanying hype - which means that I shall be in all kinds of trouble from many different quarters for saying what I think about it. However, do bear in mind just how everything of this kind is now mercilessly promoted regardless of objectivity. Others may feel very differently about this recital; I can only tell it as I hear it and for me this CD is a give-away.

Ralph Moore

Great, brazen voices rang out across the years and I asked myself whether Pape was really in their company. The answer is clear: not really.