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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Fliegende Holländer Overture [11:16]
Faust Overture (1855 version) [12:16]
Rienzi Overture [12:32]
Rienzi’s prayer [9:34]
Lohengrin prelude to Act I [9:33]
Lohengrin’s Grail Narration (original version) [10:46]
Tannhäuser Overture [13:36]
Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration [12:00]
Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012)
Fraternité. Air pour l’orchestre (1999) [11:33]
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Semperoper, Dresden, 21 May 2013
Picture Format: 16:9, Disc Format: NTSC, Sound Format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1, Region: 0
C MAJOR 714908 DVD [108:00]

Aside from Bayreuth, Dresden can perhaps stake the strongest claim to be a centre for the Wagner anniversary celebrations. After all, the composer served there for nearly seven years as music director at the court of the Saxon King, and this very orchestra gave the first performances of Rienzi, Holländer and Tannhäuser; Wagner once called them his “miraculous harp”. It is, therefore, no surprise that they pulled out the stops to give this birthday gala on the night before the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, and they focused on Dresden works in the programme. Lohengrin was written in Dresden but not performed there: the composer bade the city a hasty farewell after his participation in the failed revolution of 1848-9 made him a wanted man.
The orchestra has lost none of its power to impress. I was lucky enough to visit the Semperoper in February 2008 - once for a performance by the String Trio, once for The Magic Flute - and it’s an extraordinary space inhabited by extraordinary musicians. They are on display to great effect here. The string sound is particularly impressive: it makes a wonderfully majestic bed for the Rienzi overture, unfolding generously and offsetting the brass very impressively. They also whip up an effective storm for the Dutchman, and it is here that the brass are at their best, injecting a real element of drama into the proceedings with their golden sound that isn’t above letting fly from time to time. They also give a compelling, sinuous performance of the Faust overture, but they excel themselves in a kaleidoscopic rendition of the Tannhäuser Overture, full of sparkle for the Venusberg sections, and redolent with calm majesty for the pilgrims’ music. It’s unfortunate, though, that an ill-chosen close-up on the principal trombone shows him taking lots of breaths mid-line, which means that the ear picks up the breaks all too readily.
As I’ve said before, Christian Thielemann’s Wagner credentials are not in doubt, and he shows a masterful ear for unfolding Wagner’s paragraphs - barring some rather odd playing around with the tempo in the Tannhäuser Overture. Jonas Kaufmann is also on hand to lend a touch of stardust, singing three numbers in which he had already been very convincing on his Wagner recital disc. He is on top form, bringing all of his baritonal warmth to the portrayals of these tortured heroes. It helps that you can see him too as his empathy with the characters is very strong. He also manages to change the tone of his voice at key moments, not just the growth in strength throughout Lohengrin’s narrative, but also the slightly pinched quality when Tannhäuser quotes the Pope.
If Hans Werner Henze seems like an odd bedfellow in this company, he is here because the orchestra had commissioned from him a work to commemorate the Wagner bicentenary. He died in 2012 before the project could be completed, so as a tribute to him they included Fraternité, a prayer that we could all live together in harmony, with a title that is suggestive of the French Revolution. It begins with a slow section that is often very beautiful, and the Dresden strings come into their own here, too. A more violent second section suggests the pain of discord. The final chords on a harp, which echo the work’s introduction, perhaps imply a future is not entirely dark.
So all is good here, but I couldn’t help but wonder how wise it was to issue it as a DVD? The Dresden connection is interesting but, Kaufmann apart, there isn’t much to the visual element that makes it necessary to see what you hear. There are plenty of well-played Wagner recital discs out there that would give this one hearty competition. Furthermore, the surround sound is perfectly fine but not a knockout so, to be honest, the DVD brings little gain over a CD. A one-off birthday present, perhaps, but I wonder for how long it will be around?
Simon Thompson