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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser (1845): Act Two, Scenes One and Two [16.03]
Lohengrin (1850): Act Three, Scenes One and Two (incomplete) [25.58]
Die Walküre (1870): Act One, Scene Three [28.09]
Julia Varady (soprano: Elisabeth, Elsa, Sieglinde), Peter Seiffert (tenor: Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Siegmund), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone: Wolfram)
Bavarian Radio Chorus, Bavarian State Orchestra/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
rec. Bavarian Radio Studios, Munich, 20-25 March 1996
EMI CLASSICS RED LINE 7353032 [70.29]

On the back of this CD, EMI promote the 1996 recording as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s “farewell to the public as a vocalist” but in fact his vocal contributions to this disc are minimal. It is as a Wagnerian conductor that he is principally featured here, accompanying his wife Julia Varady in three scenes from the operas – not really ‘bleeding chunks’ in the usually understood sense of the word, since these are substantial excerpts - although one is sadly truncated.
Fischer-Dieskau is a very good Wagnerian conductor, too. As a great singer he fully understands the lyrical nature of Wagner’s orchestral lines, and he encourages his players to realise these to the full even if sometimes forward momentum may suffer. Listen to the oboe counterpoint to Siegmund in Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater (track 12, 3.47) after he has seen the sword, to take one example.
Neither Julia Varady nor Peter Seiffert are Wagnerian singers in the heroic mould; but they are lyrical vocalists with the natural strength and intelligence to ride over the Wagnerian orchestra without any sense of strain. This is Wagnerian bel canto singing at its best, and they blend well in the few passages of duet they have to sing together. Fischer-Dieskau joins in the background of the Tannhäuser duet - presumably his voice was dubbed in afterwards - and he sounds really fresh and sympathetic too.
The action of the scenes recorded here does not call for much in the way of dramatic ‘production’, but the chorus in Lohengrin is properly distanced at the beginning, and approach and withdraw in the prescribed manner. Fischer-Dieskau’s entrance in Tannhäuser is correctly at the rear of the sound-stage. That said, something very odd happens at the end of the Lohengrin excerpt. We have had the whole of the opening Prelude (vigorously conducted) and Bridal Chorus but immediately after Lohengrin’s Hochstes Vertraun the music suddenly comes to a halt. That happens just before Elsa has the chance to pop her fatal question in the dramatic crux to which the whole duet has been leading. Presumably this was done to ensure that the recording fitted onto the CD, but there would have been room for the end of the scene and this sudden halt is most disconcerting.
EMI provide no texts, translations or indeed any notes whatsoever. Black mark. Under the circumstances it is unfortunate that this can only be recommended as a disc of considerable interest to those wishing to hear these particular singers, or to encounter Fischer-Dieskau’s considerable conducting skills. Seiffert has recorded all these roles in complete sets elsewhere, but only Varady’s Sieglinde is otherwise available as part of the live recording of The Ring under Wolfgang Sawallisch. Both Varady and Seiffert are in fine voice throughout, and Seiffert demonstrates just how well a lyrical tenor can cope with Wagner if he has the right sort of voice. One would have loved to hear Varady in complete sets of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin; she did record extracts from Tristan and Götterdämmerung - again with her husband conducting - but obviously she could never have tackled these heavyweight roles in their entirety.
Paul Corfield Godfrey