Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi (1842): Allmächt’ger Vater [6.04]1
Lohengrin (1850): Höchstes Vertraun [4.12]1: In fernem Land [4.50]1: Mein lieber Schwann! [8.25]2
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Fanget an! [3.26]:1 Morgenlich leuchtend [4.31]1
Das Rheingold (1869): Immer ist Undank Loge’s Lohn! [4.48]1
Die Walküre (1870): Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater [5.15]1
Siegfried (1876): Dass der mein Vater nicht ist [9.42]:3 Nun sing’! ich lausche dem Gesang [4.02]3: Selige Ode auf sonniger Höh! [11.14]3
Parsifal (1882): Nur eine Waffe taugt [3.55]1
Jess Thomas (tenor)
1Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Walter Born, 2Anja Silja and Astrid Varnay (sopranos), Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch, 3Catherine Gayer (soprano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, 118-20 March 1963: 32-12 December 1968 and 3 February 1969: 2Bayreuth Festpielhaus, July 1962

During the 1960s the American singer Jess Thomas was regarded as the heir apparent to the reigning Wagnerian heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen. He was much in demand for his Parsifal and his Lohengrin, appearing in recordings of both operas; conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch and Rudolf Kempe respectively. These still remain among the best versions available in the current catalogue.
In the early 1970s I saw him on stage at Covent Garden where he gave a glorious performance of Walther in Die Meistersinger and an even greater assumption of Tristan in the staging that marked Solti’s farewell to the house as Music Director. In the latter he was paired in two performances with Birgit Nilsson, and for once one had the experience of hearing a tenor who could really match that heroic voice in volume and passion. At the same time he was performing and recording Siegfried for Karajan’s Salzburg staging of theRing, and his singing in that role attracted much criticism for his perceived feebleness in the strenuous forging scenes, which I always found puzzling because his singing in Tristan never betrayed any lack of power.
This curious anomaly is finally explained in the informative booklet note that comes with this Eloquence release. Apparently, according to Thomas’s autobiography, he had recorded the forging scene with Karajan under the impression that he was simply ‘marking’ the part for rehearsal purposes. He therefore refrained from using his full voice. However Karajan, who was seeking a more ‘chamber music’ approach to the music of the Ring, used the supposed rehearsal tape without making provision for any further recording sessions. This story might seem unlikely, but Josephine Veasey made a similar complaint when she recorded Fricka in Karajan’s Die Walküre. This makes it all the more unfair that Karajan then replaced Thomas as Siegfried in his recording of Götterdämmerung, and later substituted the young René Kollo as Walther in his recording of Die Meistersinger,neither of which roles Thomas ever had the opportunity to record commercially. This disc contains the only segments of the latter role that were set down in the studio, deriving from a 1963 recorded recital which forms the bulk of this reissue.
The disc opens however with segments from the Karajan Siegfried, omitting the forging scene where Thomas’s heroic voice was so shabbily treated. We have two passages giving us the bulk of the so-called ‘Forest murmurs’ and the long solo scene before Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde on her fire-encircled mountain top. Throughout these excerpts Thomas’s gentle lyricism is a balm to the ear, and he is not short of heroic strength either. His long and perfectly controlled crescendo on the word “Mutter” during the Forest murmurs is an object lesson in how this passage should be sung. Catherine Gayer’s brief contribution as the informative Woodbird lacks allure; it just sounds pretty.
The 1963 recital presents us with passages from a number of Wagnerian roles, and it is a pity that with the exception of the Rienzi excerpt these are all ‘bleeding chunks’ which just fizzle out at the end of the relevant section. Nonetheless we get the opportunity to hear two sections from Thomas’s Walther von Stolzing in Meistersinger - not as smoothly sung as would be the case later in his career - and intriguingly Loge’s narration from Das Rheingold, a role often taken by character tenors in stage productions but which demands real singing in this lyrical passage. Better still are his delivery of Siegmund’s monologue from Die Walküre, a superbly heroic portrayal, and Parsifal’s final address to the Knights although here the sudden cut-off of the music at the end is cruel. His delivery of Rienzi’s prayer begins somewhat clumsily, the ornamentation of the notes not quite clear enough, but soon develops into an impassioned performance with the little gruppetti precisely delivered.
We are also given three excerpts from his assumption of the title role in Lohengrin. Two of these come from the 1963 recital disc, and the segment of the Love Duet beginning Höchstes Vertraun is somewhat isolated out of context; but the delivery of the Narration, beginning at a rather slower speed than in the complete Kempe recording, is rapt and inward in just the right way, rising to a majestic conclusion. After this the inclusion of the final scene in a live performance from Bayreuth under Wolfgang Sawallisch feels a little forlorn; Thomas’s voice shows clear signs of tiredness at the end of a long evening - and since the complete performance was cut, the Farewell would here have followed closely on the heels of the Narration. His address to the swan is a little roughly delivered. The contributions of Anja Silja as Elsa (in her one phrase) and Astrid Varnay as Ortrud do little for our enjoyment; the latter in particular makes a poor and stressed showing by comparison with her live Bayreuth recording nine years earlier which I reviewed enthusiastically in a recent reissue.
Wolfgang Born is not a renowned interpreter of Wagner, but he was for many years first conductor at Karlsruhe as well as an assistant at Bayreuth. He clearly knows how the music should go. He obtains excellent playing from the Berlin Phil - a rather gruff bass trumpet at the beginning of Siegmund’s monologue aside - and he and Thomas work well as a team. The recording quality is well-balanced with the orchestral well in the picture - not always the case in DG recordings from the period - although in the first Meistersinger excerpt Thomas seems to be closer to the microphone than he is elsewhere. He can be heard as Walther in the complete opera conducted by Joseph Keilberth live from the Bavarian State Opera, and his Parsifal and Lohengrin are also available. The recital performances here have a value of their own which makes their reissue most desirable - especially as the original LP did not seem to have lasted long in the catalogue. What would be really valuable would be a complete recording of his Tristan. Have Covent Garden got a copy of his performance with Nilsson and Solti in their archives? It would be even better in video.
Paul Corfield Godfrey