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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Wesendonck Lieder (1858) [16.19]
Gretchen am Spinnrade (1831) [2.21]
Seven pieces from Goethe’s Faust: Melodrama (1831) [4.06]
Der Tannenbaum (1838) [2.45]
Dors, mon enfant (1839) [2.25]
Attente (1839) [1.53]
Mignonne (1839) [3.13]
Tout n’est qu’images fugitives (1840) [1.48]
Les deux grenadiers (1839) [5.45]
Greeting to Friedrich August (1844) [5.09]
Wesendonck Lieder [Italian version] (1858) [16.12]
Michela Sburlati (soprano), Marco Scolastra (piano)
rec. Auditorium San Domenico, Foligno, 15-17 July 2013
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94451 [62.49]

Wagner’s songs extended from his seven settings from Goethe’s Faust, his first extant work, to the Kindercatechismus written for Cosima’s birthday in the latter years of his life. Nearly all of them date from his earliest career before his return to Germany for the triumphant première of Rienzi in 1842 and his subsequent operatic writings. For that reason many of them are settings of French poets, written during his period of penury in Paris with an eye to the commercial market.

This disc describes itself as “nearly complete” and indeed there are some items missing here. Firstly, we are given only two of the seven Goethe settings, omitting the other songs which were scored either for baritone soloist or chorus. We are also not given Wagner’s two last songs, the 1873 Kindercatechismus — which also involves chorus — and a brief 1871 tribute to a Bavarian innkeeper. These items are included on the only competitive recording of Wagner songs, but the current issue makes amends by also including two recordings of the Wesendonck Lieder – not only the original to Mathilde Wesendonck’s poetry, but also a performance in an Italian translation by no less a figure than Arrigo Boito. The latter is, I believe, a first recording in this form. We are also given an adaptation of a celebratory chorus written for the Saxon king Ernst August which was written during Wagner’s career as Kapellmeister to the court in Dresden. The most serious omission however is one of Wagner’s French songs, an 1840 setting of the Adieux de Mary Stuart which was most certainly written for soprano and piano and whose exclusion seems most odd.

The Wesendonck songs are probably best known today from the orchestral versions by Möttl and Wagner himself, although Möttl’s command of Wagnerian style in orchestration is sometimes a bit over-brash. The original versions with piano have therefore a real validity in their own right although it has to be said that the large-voiced Michela Sburlati sounds as if she would have been quite happy with a more substantial accompaniment. She also has a quite significant vibrato, more like Gwyneth Jones than Jessye Norman, which does not fall altogether comfortably on the ear. When she scales back her volume — which is regrettably seldom — the sound is more amenable, but the slightest increase in tone also brings back the unsteadiness. The opening of Im Triebhaus, taken very fast, is probably an example of this at its worst [track 3, 0.38] and although her response to the text is deeply felt the basic sound of her voice may well deter listeners. Marco Scolastra’s piano is well in the picture and the resonant acoustic is attractive enough.

The earlier songs are by comparison very minor chippings from the composer’s workshop. The two earliest, drawn from a series of settings of scenes from Goethe’s Faust, are basically strophic in form. Gretchen’s spinning wheel totally lacks the charm of Schubert for example. The melodrama, opening with piano tremolos in the best style of Liszt’s orchestral imitations, is a setting of Ach, neige where the spoken voice almost disappears beneath the massive tones which Scolastra conjures from the piano. Der Tannenbaum, probably the best-known of Wagner’s early German settings, is very dramatic indeed, and although Sburlati’s delivery of the text is responsive the unsteadiness of the voice again obtrudes. This also remains a real problem in the set of French songs, with Sburlati’s negotiation of the filigree vocal line at 0.30 in Dors, mon enfant [track 9] sounding really unpleasant. Her forthright delivery of Attente [track 10] is a call-to-arms indeed.

The most substantial of Wagner’s French songs is Les deux grenadiers, a setting of Heine in translation which conjures up a real dramatic storm with some passages which hint at The Flying Dutchman which was to follow three years later. The quotation of the Marseillaise towards the end is a positively revolutionary gesture, which Wagner clearly avoided in his address to the Saxon King who was his employer in 1844. Here, although the Dutchman was behind him, we regress to an earlier and much more conventional style although the repetitions of Sei uns gegrüsst recall Elisabeth’s greeting to the Hall of Song in Tannhäuser. It finishes rather inconclusively, as, in the original, Wagner moved on to a choral entry. The setting of Boito’s translation of the Wesendonck poems has a novelty value but the same unsteadiness which afflicted Sburlati in the German version is again in evidence. The singer has had a substantial operatic career including the role of Isolde, where perhaps her voice is more amenable to a less close examination than in the exposed realm of the song repertoire.

The alternative disc to which I referred earlier, given by soprano Lone Koppel, baritone Bjorn Asker, a chamber choir and pianist Jorgen Ellegard Frederiksen, is — as I have observed — more comprehensive even though it omits the Wesendonck Lieder – which most Wagner completists will have already in other versions. That earlier release on Membran was issued in 2003 although the recordings date from 1988. It also suffered from some fairly indifferent singing from Koppel. The inclusion of additional songs makes it unrivalled in the current catalogue so it comes down to a matter of whether the purchaser wants those items at all — since they are not available elsewhere — or is prepared to settle for this disc with a smaller selection, rather better recorded although not better performed. On the other hand, general purchasers may well decide they don’t need any Wagner songs beyond the Wesendonck set and they won’t really be missing much. This disc comes complete with texts including Boito’s Italian translation of the Wesendonck Lieder. There are no translations although Sandro Cappellano’s substantial booklet notes summarise each of the poems set.

Paul Corfield Godfrey