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Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder - A survey of recordings
By Ralph Moore

I am sometimes tempted to link in my mind Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with Elgar’s Sea Pictures (see my survey) for a number of reasons. Both are Romantic settings of five songs which can be performed in arrangements either for piano or orchestra, are usually sung by a mezzo-soprano or a lower-voiced soprano and are composed to texts whose poetic worth critics have questioned. Neither cycle is typical of the composer’s output yet both are unquestionably masterpieces of enduring popularity. Furthermore, Wagner’s style was indubitably a major influence over Elgar.

Wagner worked on the songs between November 1857 and May 1858 while he and his wife, Minna, were guests of the wealthy Wesendoncks, who offered them refuge in a cottage on their property, after Wagner’s involvement in revolutionary activities necessitated his fleeing Dresden for Switzerland. Their domestic relationship with the Wesendoncks was peculiarly intimate; whether Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, author of the poems Wagner set, were “romantically” – and indeed, adulterously – “involved” is a topic for idle speculation but hardly relevant to the songs’ musical worth. Nonetheless, there is undeniably a sultry, perfumed ambience to these songs, and that erotic atmosphere is enhanced by Wagner quoting themes from Tristan und Isolde, on which he was concurrently working. A keen ear might also detect references to other motifs in the Ring, especially between the first song and Das Rheingold but the musical and thematic connections with Tristan were so strong that Wagner designated two of the songs as "studies" for the opera: “Träume” echoes the love duet in Act 2 and the music of the last song, “Im Treibhaus”, was later elaborated to form the prelude to Act 3. Numerically central, “Im Treibhaus”, could also be said to form the emotional core of, the cycle as a whole; when assessing a recording, I consider it to be artistically pivotal as it is surely the greatest and most affecting of the five songs. Wagner, however, thought otherwise as he wrote to Mathilde that “Träume” was "finer than all I have made!". The argument for that assertion is obvious and his esteem of it is demonstrated by the fact that it was the only song he himself orchestrated; the orchestration of the other four was the later work of the conductor Felix Mottl. That is the form in which they are now most often performed, but you will also hear them sung in concert in the original piano arrangement, of which there are nine examples below. There is also the Henze orchestration which tends to make the cycle sound as if it had been composed by the Schoenberg who wrote Verklärte Nacht – no bad thing, I think.

Originally entitled Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five Poems for a Female Voice), the Wesendonck Lieder, like Berlioz’ Nuits d’été, do not really form a song cycle as such; they are more a collection of songs loosely related thematically, but they make a most satisfying programme. As soon as Mathilde had completed the poems, Wagner began setting them to music, a process which she described as a “supreme transfiguration and consecration” of her words. They deal as much with sorrow, death and alienation as love and joy, typified by the line in “Im Treibhaus”, “Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!” (Our homeland is not here!). Although they are not narratively sequential, there is a discernible psychological and philosophical progress through the songs, which often conclude with a kind of resolution depicted by a shift from a minor to major key, as in “Schmerzen”. Thus, in “Der Engel” and “Stehe still”, we move from the longing for release from earthly cares and the march of time into heavenly redemption, to the fatalistic yearning of two souls to unite and transcend existence by embracing the nothingness of death in “Im Treibhaus”, to an acceptance that in the knowledge of sorrow may reside the source of joy in “Schmerzen”, to the transcendent release of “Träume”, the gentlest of the songs, where love, extinction and oblivion intersect: “Todgeweihtes Haupt! Todgeweihtes Herz!” (Death-devoted head! Death-devoted Heart!) – all ideas specifically connected with Isolde’s “Liebestod”.

There is considerable variety of musical styles within the five, short songs: “Der Engel” gradually spirals upwards through the five brief stanzas before unexpectedly yielding to a sumptuous orchestral postlude; “Stehe still” takes its example from Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” with its restless, driving moto perpetuo 6/8 rhythm in the first section suggesting the inexorable beat of a clock or a machine before the noble serenity of the conclusion; in “Im Treibhaus” slow, repeated, alternating E to F semitones before the musical line creeps upward chromatically create a haunted, spectral effect, perhaps suggestive, too of dripping water; “Schmerzen” is in the full, brave, declamatory mode reminiscent of the Valkyries with a triumphant brass coda; finally, as I have already remarked, for “Träume”, we enter the pulsing rapture of the nocturnal tryst between Tristan and Isolde: “O sink hernieder”…

A great recording must encompass all these moods, deploying a wide range of vocal and orchestral colouring. Too restrained and intimate an affect robs this music of its grandeur yet paradoxically a sense of intimacy must also be retained; this is about how a profound and intense love isolates and insulates the lovers from the world “like two gems upcurl'd/In the recesses of a pearly shell”, as Keats rather coyly puts it.

As ever, I cannot cover every recording; there are probably fifty or so in the catalogue but I have tried to include both the best and a handful to avoid, as a caveat can be as helpful as a recommendation. I consider below thirty-eight recordings sung mostly by dramatic sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos with voices either of Wagnerian proportions or at least the heft to carry these songs off even if, like Janet Baker, they would never have sung a whole Wagnerian operatic role. However, there is nothing to say that these songs should be exclusively the province of female singers and two recordings feature tenors, Jonas Kaufmann and Stuart Skelton; another is sung by a soprano of indeterminate Fach, Cheryl Studer, who for a while sang absolutely anything and everything – and perhaps shouldn’t have - from coloratura bel canto and the Queen of the Night to Isolde and lately, verismo contralto roles…

With a duration of only twenty minutes or so, pairings should be a consideration, I suppose, but I have confined myself to evaluating only these songs as they are surely major artistic creations meriting their own, exclusive recommendations. I am very aware that in attempting to distinguish amongst so many recordings I have in some cases been hypercritical, so even estimable versions by singers who – like all who dedicate themselves to our pleasure in the service of art – are deserving of respect, still emerge as inadequate – but that’s the job of a reviewer or critic: to establish a hierarchy, however subjective. Feel free to demur.

The Recordings
I first consider Kirsten Flagstad’s six recordings as a group before going on to look at the others chronologically, as she was not only the pre-eminent Wagnerian singer of her generation but very much favoured the Wesendonck Lieder as a concert item in the autumn of her career, in that they played to her strengths and made fewer demands in terms of stamina and top notes than the operatic roles which made her famous. She was especially active singing the cycle in 1952; unfortunately, all three recordings from that year are sonically indifferent to poor. The dilemma with her later recordings is that in the 50’s, just as she was prematurely aging and declining in health, the technology of sound engineering in commercial recording dramatically improved with the advent of first mono then stereo LPs made from tape masters replacing 78’s, so her earlier recordings made when she was in fresher voice are comparatively ill-served by the technology then available. Having said that, even as late as 1956, when she made her final and only stereo recording of the songs, as Tennyson remarks, “Tho' much is taken, much abides” to remind us of the glory of Flagstad’s voice. Even if she sounds a tad matronly, the fabled golden tone is intact and her voice remains a mighty, voluminous instrument. She was in fact a remarkably consistent artist so there is little interpretative difference between all six recordings, so I concentrate on the criterion of sound quality rather than interpretative nuances.
Kirsten Flagstad; Gerald Moore (piano) 1948 (studio; mono) EMI

Slightly crackly mono sound with a background swish, an over-prominent piano, some distortion and a distanced voice all do this recording no favours but the steadiness and expressivity of Flagstad’s singing emerge intact and her bell-like top notes float engagingly. Having said that, and with all due respect to her as a supreme artist, she displayed an increasingly tendency to scoop and sing on the flat side as she aged. There is only the merest hint of those flaws here – but I don’t much like the way she “whoops” some high notes and occasional flatness is an issue.

These are straightforward, unsentimental accounts with clear-cut pianistic accompaniment from Gerald Moore – and surprisingly, a wrong note at 3:27 in the second song. “Im Treibhaus” really is taken too fast to make the required mesmeric effect and “Träume”, too, seems rushed.

Kirsten Flagstad; Bruno Walter 1952 (piano) (live mono) Archipel; AS Disc

The sound here is trying as the piano sounds as though it is underwater and there is a lot of coughing - but Flagstad is in much better voice than for her recital with Favaretto below. The sheer amplitude of her voice comes through, despite the adverse acoustic. Walter’s speeds are often brisk, particularly in “Schmerzen”, but Flagstad copes admirably and it is a novelty to hear how skilled the maestro was as a pianist-accompanist.
Kirsten Flagstad; Giorgio Favaretto (piano) 1952 (live; mono) Archipel

This is the least desirable of the five Flagstad options; the sound here is very poor, with a clangourous piano and a lot of fuzzy distortion, and Flagstad is off form, exhibiting an occasional but increasingly marked tendency to sing flat in the upper, especially in “Im Treibhaus”, to the extent that it is at times painful – at least to my ears. Best avoided.

Kirsten Flagstad; Sir Thomas Beecham 1952 (studio; mono) Somm
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The sound here is considerably better than the preceding version with piano recorded the same year but it is still reverberant and distant, and loud notes suffer from overload. Flagstad is in much better voice, however, sounding more animated and energised, and really singing out; any slight scooping is more expressive than the result of any technical insecurity and there are few intonation problems. As you might expect, Beecham proves once again to be a superb Wagner conductor but orchestral detail is rather subsumed into the mushy acoustic. You can, at least, hear two great musicians in a fruitful partnership but obviously this could only be a supplementary recording, given its sonic limitations.

Kirsten Flagstad; Malcolm Sargent 1953 (live; mono) BBC Music; AS disc; GOP
BBC Symphony

Yet again, the inadequacy of the hissy, overloaded sound is frustrating but Flagstad’s voice is better balanced with the orchestra than with Beecham. She is still in good voice, with plenty of resonance, especially in her lower register, but there is marginally more sliding up to notes, one or two flat top notes and just a little unsteadiness in higher, held passages. Sargent conducts indulgently and as far as I can tell, the BBC SO is fine but not, perhaps as refined and sonorous a band as Beecham’s RPO.

This being live, there is a fair amount of irritating coughing, especially at the start of “Im Treibhaus” – and indeed throughout.

Kirsten Flagstad; Hans Knappertsbusch 1956 (studio; stereo) Decca
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

It’s a joy finally to come to a studio recording of Flagstad in decent, if slightly thin and wiry, stereo sound, so clear that we hear the odd chair creak and intake of breath. She is partnered yet again by a great conductor and a top orchestra. She was already in her early sixties here and there is a little more wear in her tone but she sounds little different from the other recordings made earlier in the 50’s. She occasionally snatches and yelps on top notes but for the most part her voice is remarkably well preserved. I like the grainy VPO woodwind and Kna’s direction is ideal: perfect pacing and phrasing – he was a great Wagner conductor and gives his singer rather more space than she has had hitherto from the other conductors above. She takes advantage of that extra room to ensure that her high notes are struck dead on and aesthetically the slower tempi pay dividends, creating a hypnotic concentration.

Despite being the last and latest of her recordings, this is by far the best of the six.

Eileen Farrell; Stokowski 1947 (studio; mono) RCA
Symphony Orchestra

This recording has been overshadowed by the one Farrell made later with Bernstein and which won a Grammy award in 1962, but she is here in freshest voice, already, in her late twenties, a mature Wagner interpreter and the finest Wagnerian never actually to sing a Wagner role on stage. The voice is huge and handsome, soaring over those sustained arcs of melody with unfailing legato and steadiness of line, with a velvety middle and the ability to punch out the top notes in a manner comparable only to that of Nilsson. She can sing softly, too, but the sound is always floating on a big cushion of diaphragmatically supported breath. Her tone is rich throughout the range of the voice and one remarks especially its depth in the lower reaching passages.

It is good, too, to hear the Old Magician, Stokowksi, give these songs the full Romantic treatment; his tempi and phrasing are very flexible. He painstakingly coached Farrell for months, line by line, and the results are beautiful. I still want to hear Baker, Ludwig and Norman in these songs but Farrell's is a worthy interpretation. The clean, undistorted mono sound is remarkably good for 1947; the re-mastering has virtually eliminated all hiss and left the sound full and brilliant. As much as I love this, I marginally prefer Farrell’s later recording with Bernstein - but this is still a treasure.

Astrid Varnay; Leopold Ludwig 1954 (studio; mono) Deutsche Grammophon
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks

The slightly hissy mono here is not too distracting but Varnay’s characteristic scooping as she approaches some notes is something of a tic and her vibrato is quite prominent. Of course, hers was a huge Wagnerian voice – the greatest between Flagstad and Nilsson - and she can fine it down only so far, so I imagine the orchestral version was a necessity given her Fach. Some higher notes are a bit squeezed and scratchy but she also manages a convincing pianissimo, as in the floated top A on “niederschwebt” in “Der Engel”. Sometimes she swoops and sometimes she hits a note dead on, so when she does scoop, I assume that it is for expressive purposes, but it can be irksome. Her highly distinctive timbre perhaps has too much of Ortrud about it to depict a passionate lover but she has such an imposing voice that it probably doesn’t matter. This a large-scale, operatic account of songs which can also be delivered in a more restrained manner; she certainly brings the text alive and I can understand that for some tastes this is a favourite account.

Ludwig is now largely neglected but was in the Knappertsbusch class and tradition of conducting – grand and flexible.

Maureen Forrester; Michael Raucheisen (piano) 1955 (studio; mono) Audite

Maureen Forrester’s distinctive mezzo – really more contralto in timbre - with its flickering vibrato, rich, plaintive timbre and crystalline diction is very well-suited to these songs. The mono recording is perfectly listenable, although the piano could be more in the sound picture compared with the voice, which is very forward – but that makes every word distinguishable. Forrester has deep reserves of tone and excellent breath control, although that shimmer in her vocal production might irritate some listeners. She is unfazed by the swift tempo of the start of “Stehe still” and remains agile and accurate, but I could wish for more repose in “Im Treibhaus”. This recording sounds “old-fashioned” – not so much in sound as in style and I greatly enjoy it.

Eileen Farrell; Leonard Bernstein 1961 (studio; stereo) Sony
New York Philharmonic Orchestra

What a wonderful voice Eileen Farrell possessed: rich, steady, perfectly even throughout its range with enormous reserves of power – the top A on “Glorie” in “Schmerzen” is a wonder - yet she frequently sings quietly, employing a mesmerising mezza voce in “Im Treibhaus”. She retains the lessons and pointers she learned from Stokowski fourteen years previously but has the advantage here of better – if hardly perfect – stereo sound. This is a luxurious version with very slow tempo; Bernstein keeps bringing out moments of individual instrumental colour such as the shining trumpet blast concluding “Schmerzen” and he doesn’t have to rein in his orchestra because Farrell can always ride the climaxes. Yes; the second half of “Stehe still” is excessively dreamy and etiolated – prognostic of his Tristan – but with a voice like Farrell’s, it’s justifiable. The only drawback is the hard treble edge on the recorded sound, despite being remastered. If you are tolerant of faintly antiquated stereo this is a clear winner.
Birgit Nilsson; Leo Taubman (piano) 1961 (studio; stereo) RCA

As much as I am usually a fan, I don’t much enjoy Nilsson’s plaintive, faintly tremulous vocal production here; it is as if she is restraining her huge voice so much that it loses steadiness and she too often slides tentatively into notes. The cliché that her voice is “too cold, forbidding and Nordic” for these steamy, “hothouse” songs has some truth in it. I am not for one minute suggesting that there is anything bad about her singing but I just don’t think the songs and her natural timbre are a good match. The singing is controlled but cool and Taubman’s pianism is sometimes too plainly articulated for my taste.

Christa Ludwig; Otto Klemperer 1962 (studio; stereo) EMI
Philharmonia Orchestra

A great singer, a great conductor and a great orchestra singing great music, beautifully remastered – why hesitate?

Of course, any seasoned music lover will certainly have this music performed by other and it is perfectly possible to prefer other individual readings but Janet Baker is really the only other comparable singer of this era and her voice and Ludwig’s are often quite similar. I still marginally favour Baker’s reading with Boult to Ludwig and Klemperer here, but both singers have their own, inimitable timbre and inflections and when I am listening to Ludwig's glorious sound, I do not find necessarily miss Baker. Ludwig finds just the right mood for each piece and her vocalisation is peerless; she soars over this music effortlessly and bronze lower register is a joy. She betrays no hint of strain in alt and those ringing top Bs are marvellous, even if there is reason to believe that moving up in Fach precipitated Ludwig's vocal crisis in the 70's (burst capillaries on the vocal cords - happily overcome). Klemperer, like Bernstein, takes the songs in stately, swooning fashion because he has a grand voice at his service and the warmth of the Philharmonia matches Ludwig’s amplitude. The sound here, too, is much better than Bernstein got for his recording with Farrell. This must be among the top recommendations.

Marilyn Horne; Henry Lewis 1968 (studio; stereo) Decca
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Decca’s late 60’s stereo sound presents no barrier to enjoying a young Marilyn Horne singing these songs just as, if you are familiar with her voice, you would expect her to. This is not a subtle performance; she takes the listener by storm, with a voice bright in timbre, generous in vibrato and deployed in a very declamatory style. Lewis’ direction is similarly direct. Her German is superb, with pellucid diction, and she does everything right and well. When she lets rip in “Schmerzen”, the volume and resonance are impressive. However, she applies considerable restraint to the last song, finding more delicacy and tenderness. If you like Horne’s mezzo, this will be entirely satisfactory; some nuance might be lacking but this is great singing.

Birgit Nilsson; Colin Davis 1970 (studio; stereo) Philips
London Symphony Orchestra

Returning to the recording studio to tackle these songs but this time in their orchestral incarnation, Nilsson displays the same vocal characteristics which gave me pause in the piano version: hers is just not the right voice for this music and when she starts off, she sounds oddly thin, slack and disembodied – peculiar. I imagine she is trying to soften her hard tone but the result is whiny. The opening of “Stehe still” comes across as petulant and querulous rather than impassioned and Nilsson simply sounds lachrymose in “Im Treibhaus”. Just where I thought she could open up in “Schmerzen” she sounds oddly subdued until she suddenly belts out the top A on “Glorie” then subsides again; this really is a strange performance. Davis’ accompaniment is sumptuous but that would probably have worked better with a more “upholstered” voice such as Jessye Norman’s five years later, rather than Nilsson’s pure, laser sound. As much as I love Nilsson in the right repertoire, I do not think the Wesendonck Lieder were hers to command.

Janet Baker; Reginald Goodall 1971 (live; stereo) BBC Legends
BBC Symphony Orchestra

This live recording from the Albert Hall finds Janet Baker in even better voice than for Boult four years later and there is an argument for preferring Goodall’s conducting, too, which is typically very slow, rapt and concentrated – but there is on fact little difference between their speeds. Certainly, Baker has no trouble with those tempi, singing in a rapturous, full-voiced style with immaculate control of dynamics and tonal colouring – just superb. However, the live sound here is nowhere near as immediate as in the Bout recording and while there is minimal audience noise, mostly a little light coughing between songs, there are two unfortunate harrumphs, one each at the start and the conclusion of “Im Treibhaus”. This is nonetheless a wonderful performance, graced by exquisite, floated pianissimi and then great power; however, it has long been deleted and copies may now be obtained only very expensively; it makes more sense to acquire the classic EMI recording.
Yvonne Minton; Pierre Boulez 1975 (studio; stereo) Sony
London Symphony Orchestra

I have long been of the opinion that the mezzo-soprano of Yvonne Minton is now one of the great neglected voices of the last century, yet for thirty years she was a prominent artist on stage, in the concert hall and in recordings for leading conductors such as Solti, Colin Davis and, as here, Boulez. To some degree she was overshadowed by Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig but that hardly hindered her career.

She was of course a distinguished Wagnerian, performing Brangäne at Bayreuth and was celebrated as Waltraute, Kundry and Fricka, so it was but a small step to these songs

Her big, luscious voice with its particularly attractive vibrato easily encompasses the long lines of these songs. Its sheer amplitude and richness are things to drink in and of course a properly developed lower register is such a bonus in Wagner – or indeed any singing. Some very occasional unsteadiness on held pianissimo notes is the only slight, technical flaw. Boulez’ tempi are often urgent and I do think that the introduction to “Im Treibhaus” is too fast but he never rushes his singer. She has Norman’s gift of making the listener catch his or her breath with the beauty and amplitude of her sustained notes.

This one is something of a sleeper.

Jessye Norman; Colin Davis 1975 (studio; stereo) Philips
London Symphony Orchestra

There is no mistaking the burnished bronze of Jessye Norman’s voluptuous tone when she launches into these most sensuous of songs and she has a conductor already experienced in bringing out their swooning eroticism, giving his singer all the time she needs to swell a note and extract every ounce of passion from those long, floating lines via judicious application of rallentando and rubato. The vibrancy of Norman’s top notes and the trenchancy of her lower register really bring this music alive with throbbing intensity; there is no lusher and more luxurious version. Davis has here a much more sensual soloist than the laser-voiced Nilsson five years earlier with the same orchestra, and he responds accordingly. The stereo, analogue sound is similarly warm and deep – and perhaps it helps that this is paired with the best Vier Letzte Lieder in the catalogue. Time stands still in a daringly prolonged account of “Im Treibhaus” which never drags or seems a moment too long, such is the artistry on display. This is the ultimate Romantic interpretation.

Janet Baker; Sir Adrian Boult 1975 (studio; stereo) EMI
London Philharmonic Orchestra

This has long been many people’s introduction to these songs and deservedly so. I can, however, sympathise with folk who wish the aged Boult had applied a more urgent tempo to the first half of “Stehe still”; fortunately, Baker’s vocalism is so compelling as to distract from that deficiency. Her tonal colouring is so varied and mesmerising that it is hard to prefer any other voice in these songs and the quality of the engineering, too, in combination with the virtuosity of the LPO quickly and easily seduces the listener. There is a peculiarly plaintive quality to Baker’s voce and, as ever, her application of pianissimo is riveting – no other singer finds the emotional heart of “Im Treibhaus” so unerringly. She can drain her voice of affect and vibrato to convey desolation then soar powerfully like Brünnhilde in high-flying phrases like the “Glorie” – stunning.

Perhaps I am too imprinted with this recording to assess it objectively but I think it remains one of the great recordings of Baker’s career.

Agnes Baltsa; Jeffrey Tate 1985 (studio; digital)
London Symphony Orchestra

Agnes Baltsa’s tangy, vibrant mezzo with its trenchant lower register brings a gust of warm, southern wind to blow over these songs, while Tate’s urgent tempi add an emotive air of passion and even quiet desperation. There is always something of Rossini or Carmen about Baltsa’s tone and manner. At times she adopts quite a hard vocal colouring in her timbre and often swells a note with Romantic passion rather than hold its volume steady. Her vehemence when she sings of “schwellende Pulsen” in “Stehe still” makes her sound faintly deranged, yet at the end of the same song there are also, nonetheless, moments of still calm such as where Baltsa sings piano, and her plaintive tone in the opening of “Im Treibhaus” is bleak and drained with despair. This a very “heart-on-sleeve” performance and those who want more repose and detachment will need to look elsewhere

There is no doubting that Baltsa has the technical, vocal and artistic capability to encompass the challenges of these songs, but whether you want what she has to offer will be dependent upon personal taste. I love it.

Sylvia Sass; András Kórodi 1985 (studio; stereo) Hungaroton
Hungaroton State Opera Orchestra

I have always loved Sylvia Sass’ voice; it might be a cliché to say so, but she does indeed have something of “the second Callas” about it. She shares Callas’ special gift of plumbing emotional depths via tonal inflections and vocal colouring, and her account of these songs is no exception. Like Callas, her vibrato could over-broaden but her honeyed timbre, control of dynamics and sheer heft of sound with the ability to “float a note” mezza voce or pianissimo for me weave magic. Again, like Callas, she is technically superb but not perfect. The broad sweep of her voice on crescendos is always thrilling, precisely because one gets the feeling that the voice is always just on the edge of losing control – but doesn’t do so. She first sings “Im Treibhaus” so tenderly, then brings in the dark, “cupped” sound she shares with Callas, bringing a haunting, haunted quality to the music. “Schmerzen” is sung ecstatically, then a rapt, dreamy “Träume” concludes a wonderful recital.

Kórodi’s direction is leisurely and indulgent; for example, he takes inordinately long gaps between phrases in the close of “Stehe still” but that is calculated to throw into relief the power of Sass’ peroration in the song.

Her vocal idiosyncrasies might be too much for some but I place this in the front rank of versions for its intensity and individuality,

Rosemarie Lang; Hans-Peter Frank 1991 (studio; digital) Bis
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra

The late Rosemarie Lang had a good career but to my ears her mezzo-soprano here has a strange, pinched, constricted quality which precludes much variety of tonal colouring and top notes are unsteady, lacking amplitude. The Bis recording, too, is oddly remote – unusual for this label – and I kept turning up the volume on first listening. Tempi are generally swift but that only adds to the rather perfunctory nature of this recording. There is nothing especially wrong with it but there is much more to be found in more searching interpretations by more individual and imposing voices.

Jessye Norman; James Levine (piano) 1991 (live; digital) Orfeo

I briefly reviewed this as part of Norman’s live Salzburg recital:

“This is a rich, powerful performance and Norman’s big, weighty delivery is matched by the dynamism of Levine’s pianism. She deliberately imparts a more burnished quality to her voice; her reserves of breath seem endless, her top A is secure and poised, and her legato is silky.”

Revisiting the recording for this survey confirms my first impressions; there really was no voice like hers and as soon as she starts to sing, the thrill of recognition is instant. Her soft singing is as impressive and as when she opens up; she has it all, technically and aesthetically. To take a random example of her interpretative supremacy, listen to her, rapt, quiet singing in the second half of “Stehe still” before she provides a thrilling conclusion. Next comes the slowest “Im Treibhaus” on record where she and Levine weave enchantment and times stands still – this is the peak of Lieder singing. Levine might not currently be – shall we say? – in favour or fondly remembered but as a musician his pianism is as brilliant and expressive as any and the balance with Norman’s voice is very good, especially for a live recording. Coughing is almost non-existent. This is a unique document of two great artists in full flight.

Marjana Lipovšek; Wlfgang Sawallisch (piano) 1991 (live; digital) Farao Classics

Coming to this straight after listening to Jessye Norman’s recital with Levine on piano, does Ms Lipovšek no favours. The strength of her lower register and steadiness of emission are welcome but in comparison to Norman she sounds too plummy and bottled of tone and higher notes become oddly hollow. She is forceful in a generalised way but you will listen in vain for the kind of nuances and refinements encountered in the best recordings. Sawallisch is an excellent accompanist, gauging tempos ideally and the live recording is perfect, there being virtually no audience noise, but I would not choose this over a dozen other versions.

Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe; Hans Norbert Bihlmaier 1992 (studio; digital) Kontrapunkt
Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra

Here is another fine singer whose voice does not strike me as especially suited to this music. Meyer-Topsøe has a pretty, slightly tremulous but bloodless sound for Wagner; she simply does not enough heft of voice, especially in its upper range. Place her alongside another “Nordic” voice like, to take a random example, Astrid Varnay (yes; I know she was American of Hungarian descent, but she was Swedish-born) and you will hear how pretty trilling of this nature is no substitute for a proper Wagnerian sound in the Flagstad mode; this is not chamber music and the distant, polite accompaniment provided by Hans Norbert Bihlmaier doesn’t help in the weight department. The brief orchestral introduction to “Im Treibhaus” is almost apologetically low-key and doesn’t set us up for any grand, sweeping emotion. This is not how I want the Wesendonck Lieder to sound.
Cheryl Studer; Giuseppe Sinopoli 1993 (studio; digital) DG
Staatskapelle Dresden

At her best, Cheryl Studer was phenomenal but this was nearing a period of vocal crisis for her and incipient problems are audible: there is a fair bit of sliding and scooping and some intonation issues; her voice doesn’t sound settled or evenly registered, so there is a hint of hysteria and tremolo or beat in the top notes and the middle tones are discoloured, unsteady and unsupported. It does not make for comfortable listening and is somehow wrong for the music. Sinopoli’s accompaniment is predictably sensitive and dreamy and he has one of the world’s great orchestras to do his bidding, caught in warm, detailed sound – just lovely, but of little consequence when the solo singer is deficient.

Anne Evans; Tadaaki Otaka 1994 (live, digital) BBC Music
BBC National Orchestra

Distinguished Bayreuth Brünnhilde Dame Anne Evans brings ample voice and temperament to this live Proms performance. Her big, gleaming voice despatches the songs with power, stamina and aplomb. Nuance and subtlety might be in relatively short supply, but to some extent that is the result of her having to fill the vast space of the Albert Hall rather than being a couple of feet from a microphone in the studio. Her diction is excellent; this is proper Wagner singing and she manages by dint of floating her voice an admirable degree of rapture in the slow songs, and her inflection of phrasing is very skilful. I really like Tadaaki Otaka’s flexible, sensitive conducting – and the sound here is very good, too; coughing is minimal except, infuriatingly, during the beautiful orchestral coda to the last song. This was a BBC Music Magazine freebie and can be picked up very reasonably; you could do a lot worse.

Marjana Lipovšek; Wlfgang Sawallisch 1995 (studio; digital) EMI
Philadelphia Orchestra
Henze orch.

Having recorded these songs live four years earlier with Sawallisch as her accompanying pianist, Lipovšek went on to record them here in the reduced orchestration arrangement by Henze, this time with Sawallisch as her conductor. Much of what I observed about her singing in that earlier recording applies here; it is a bit bland and low-key, although the addition of an orchestra results in a broader sweep and a more luxurious sound – albeit in the sparer Henze incarnation. Ultimately, there is nothing special, memorable or striking about this account; it Is more than competently sung but in comparison with the great versions, it fades into the background.

Julia Varady; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau 1997 (studio; digital) Orfeo
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

This was the top recommendation in the BBC Radio 3 Record Review, and while I have no argument with the presenter's taste and for all that I love Julia Varady's voice, it would not be my absolute top choice. (I was also miffed that no mention was made of my own favourite, Janet Baker's lovely account with Sir Adrian Boult conducting; nor did I hear mention of Stephanie Blythe's excellent recording with John Nelson, which is admittedly somewhat hors concours because they use the leaner Henze version for chamber orchestra.)

In general, one wants a large, warm, rich voice with a mezzo hue to do justice to the sensuous quality of these songs; Varady has no problem with power or penetration and her lower register is commendably secure and bronzed, but in the end her voice is bright and shimmering without the warm velvet - or velour upholstery, if you will - of the kind one really wants here. Her accounts are generally considerably faster than most to accommodate the lighter timbre of her soprano; she is some two or three minutes brisker overall than Jessye Norman or Baker and rather more propulsive than grander singers such as Christa Ludwig. Some may prefer that lightness of touch and I have no criticism of her husband, Fischer-Dieskau's conducting; as one might expect from a celebrated Lieder singer, his control of dynamics and expressive nuance are exemplary in their sensitivity.

I don't want to make too much of my reservations, as Varady has such an individual, attractive sound and is doing something a little different with these songs but in the end, I miss the plush sensuality of darker voices in this music and, unlike the orchestra, she never quite manages the dynamic contrast which makes the pianissimi in Janet Baker's singing so striking.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Daniel Blumenthal (piano) 2000 (studio; digital) Cypres

Recorded very early in her career, this recital does not present Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the mature
artist she became and there seems to be more emphasis on maintaining a pure, steady line and plush tone than enhancing expressivity. Her German is good, although occasionally consonants could be crisper. The piano accompaniment is somewhat bland and placed in too resonant an acoustic relative to the closely caught voice, so even her large sound is occasionally swamped. The ease and beauty of her voice are pleasing but tempi are rather brisk and that, in combination with the boomy piano and lack of word-pointing, makes for a rather indifferent listening experience; other recordings offer considerably more.

Stephanie Blythe; John Nelson 2003 (studio; digital) Virgin Classics
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
Henze orch.

I first heard Stephanie Blythe on CD in the US in the summer of 2008 when a friend played the disc "blind". I did not recognise her voice, so compared with everyone else I was a little slow on the uptake, but I knew immediately that here was an artist of rare quality. True contraltos are always a scarce commodity and she is the real thing - although I see that she is sometimes categorised elsewhere as a mezzo. Her voice is a rich, flexible instrument, even if she tends to push that trenchant lower register in a manner which sometimes borders on the vulgar - or at least unmusical. There is far less of that in this earlier recording and singing in German suits her voice admirably; she is a very direct communicator, particularly urgent in the first half of “Stehe still”.

I part company with another reviewer who opines that she sounds similar to Jessye Norman; to me the nearest and most obvious comparison is with Marylin Horne but even then, you would not confuse the two. They are nonetheless similar in timbre, vocal lay-out and temperament, and use their voices similarly - though, if anything, Horne is, surprisingly, more likely to rein it in than Blythe and sing softly. Nor do I find anything to complain about in Blythe's German diction and delivery; the clarity of the recording and the sparse orchestration (more of that below) would quickly reveal deficiencies and I hear none. I find her word-painting to be very sensitive and effective. Finally, to address another complaint, I positively like John Nelson's conducting, which employs plenty of rubato and allows the melodic and harmonic lines to emerge cleanly - but I readily accept that Klemperer, for example, brings more affection and freedom to his treatment of the bar lines; he draws back and leans into phrases more seductively than Nelson.

While great altos are rare, great recordings of the Wesendonck Lieder are not. The gimmick and selling-point here, however, is that Nelson and Blythe have used Hans-Werner Henze's re-working; thus, we have a much lighter, more transparent, chamber sound with the emphasis upon seductive woodwind colours provided by a bassoon and a bass clarinet and interesting textures from the inclusion of a piano part. This was clever marketing, as although some will want Blythe's account on the strength of her artistry alone, this disc also appeals to the Wagner completist. Despite the lack of the cushion of sound provided by a full orchestra, the experience is valid - although there is no way in this version, with its forensic acoustic and close ambience, that Blythe's voice can float off into eternity the way Baker and Ludwig can.

I certainly enjoy the disc very much; it provides a new way to hear some superb music and gives us a souvenir of a wonderful voice. As such, it serves as a desirable supplement to the most widely performed Mottl orchestration.

Susan Bullock; Martin Martineau (piano) 2006 (studio, digital) Avie

Paired with Martin Martineau, one of the doyens of Lieder accompanists, Susan Bullock is recorded in a very resonant acoustic which is slightly startling but adds clarity and a concert room atmosphere. Unfortunately, her singing is rather harsh and tremulous and more than a little sourness creeps into loud, high notes. She also exhibits quite a pronounced vibrato, which as any of my regular readers will know, always perturbs and deters me. Finally, so many singers think that singing softly and holding back will convey rapture but too often, as per here, it just sounds tentative. I do not think this is a success.

Measha Brueggergosman; Franz Welser-Möst 2010 (live; digital) Deutsche Grammophon
The Cleveland Orchestra

Despite knowing that she had gained some rave reviews, I wasn't impressed when a friend first introduced me to Measha Brueggergosman's voice. Although she has a warm vocal personality and good German diction, she sings through the cycle in a capably generalised manner and I find her over-worked vibrato intrusive, her top notes thin and her phrasing lumpy. There is nothing wrong with the playing or conducting, although a little more affection would not have gone amiss. I can point to a score more alluringly sung versions of this lovely set of songs.

Jonas Kaufmann; Donald Runnicles 2012 (digital) Decca
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin

I reviewed this back in 2013 before Kaufmann’s voice took on the unfortunate husky, crooning habit which now characterises his singing. Here, it has the ping and resonance now absent; indeed, the similarity of his timbre to Jon Vickers in his prime is still very evident and only occasionally does he start to sound “throaty”.

For anyone who has not previously heard these songs performed by a tenor, the manner of his delivery will be a surprise. It is rare to hear these songs sung by any voice other than a mezzo-soprano or a dramatic soprano, as designated by Wagner, but Kaufmann certainly makes the case for their interpretation by a tenor of his calibre - even if I won't necessarily be reaching for his version before those by the best mezzos. Although Kaufmann can compete with them in terms of legato and even beauty of tone and his German diction and variety of expression are, of course, excellent, the female voice lends a special erotic frisson to these languorous songs.

The ever-dependable Donald Runnicles oversees the thoroughly idiomatic and gratifying orchestra accompaniment and the digital sound is ideally full and well balanced, allowing to hear how good his orchestra is, even if the very forward placement of Kaufmann’s voice is rather overbearing.

If you want to hear a tenor version and, specifically, Kaufmann in best voice, this is your option.

Nina Stemme; Thomas Dausgaard 2012 (studio; digital) BIS
Swedish Chamber Orchestra

I confess that it has been a while since I enjoyed Nina Stemme’s recordings, especially since a beat began to creep into her tone, no doubt as result of some heavy Wagnerian singing. Even as long ago as 2012, despite her amplitude of tone, I am already troubled by the incipient wobble which I do not hear in versions by favourite singers. As a result, regardless of its other merits, including lovely, transparent playing from Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, this does not make the cut for me. Besides, a heavy vibrato always restricts an artist’s expressive capabilities, and so it proves here in this rather unvaried singing, which does not match the subtlety of the orchestral playing. As I never tire of saying, your taste might not chime with mine, so sample this on YouTube to see if you agree.

Waltraud Meier; Daniel Barenboim 1998 (live; digital) Warner Classics Apex Elatus
Orchestre de Paris

Waltraud Meier is another of those singers who have a large following and whom I acknowledge as a fine artist but whose voice has never much appealed to me, on account of a certain constriction especially in its middle, where it sounds particularly tight or, as the Italians call it, “voce ingolata”; strangely her top notes are freer. Thus, its timbre does not have the warmth or plushness ideal for these sensuous songs, as, like the role of Sieglinde, so much of the tessitura of the music has a lower centre of a gravity than many a Wagner role. As an example, listen to the soft passage in “Stehe still”, from the end of the second stanza, “Daß in selig süßem Vergessen” until the crescendo at the end of the third stanza beginning on the penultimate line, “Erkennt der Mensch des Ew'gen Spur”; it sounds “bottled”, yet the big ending is freer and more agreeable to the ear. The same constricted sound obtains at the start of “Im Treibhaus”; it simply isn’t a free, open, attractive sound, yet the soaring phrases “Malet Zeichen in die Luft” and “Steiget aufwärts, süßer Duft” ring out truly. These inconsistencies are puzzling.

Barenboim is a fine conductor but that is neither here nor there given the vocal issues.

Adrianne Pieczonka; Brian Zeger (piano) 2014 (studio; digital) Delos

I reviewed this in 2015 and found it distinctly underwhelming; here are extracts from that review:

“While I recognise that Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka has an important voice, I do not find myself especially moved or involved while listening to this recital, nor am I able to echo in the same terms the several glowing reviews this disc has received elsewhere.

I find her singing restrained and even rather anonymous, for all her beauty and security of tone. It does not help that for all that Brian Zeger is an accomplished and sensitive accompanist, I prefer these songs in their more sonorous and expansive orchestrated versions. That said, it is certainly true that if you want the piano arrangements then they are as well performed here as you could wish…

…Pieczonka has a large, full voice which is not especially individual or alluring and I do not agree that it is distinguished by its purity: to my ears, there is something of a scratch in the tone and a catch in her heavy vibrato… I desire more sensuality in the Wagner songs, which are necessarily taken rather faster than they would be in their orchestral form. It sounds to me as if she is quite often holding too much back in order to ensure refinement and the ‘still point’ at the centre of deep yearning is not touched.”

My opinion remains unchanged.

Stuart Skelton; Asher Fisch 2018 (studio; digital) ABC Classics
West Australian Symphony Orchestra

This is one of two tenor versions along with Jonas Kaufmann’s. I have not been especially impressed when hearing Stuart Skelton live, nor do I particularly respond to the basic colour of his voice, but he sounds in good form here. He has a “cleaner” vocal profile than Kaufmann’s husky timbre but the quality sometimes turns throaty as he goes above top G. He mostly sings out in a straightforward, large-scale interpretation which rather lacks intimacy and variety but there is clearly an attempt at greater subtlety in his use of mezza voce and falsetto notes in “Im Treibhaus”. At times, he rather dominates the orchestra, which remains in the background, so it is hard to hear some instrumental detail. Asher Fisch direction is similarly penny-plain. I don’t find myself very involved in the playing or singing here but I seem to be in a minority in my response, so by all means sample this on YouTube and make up your own mind. If you want a tenor version, I suggest that Kaufmann’s account is more interesting.

Kathrin Göring 2019; Matthias Foremny (live; digital) Orchestra
Internationale Junge Orchesterakademie

I reviewed this in 2019 and see no reason to revise my judgement:

“Kathrin Göring delivers a pleasant, unexceptionable performance in a voice of no particular tonal distinction, a tendency to allow her vibrato to flap and a yelping attack on notes which starts to obtrude in the second song; nor is the orchestral string tone as sweet as it needs to be. Foremny generally takes the songs much too fast, especially “Im Treibhaus”, robbing them of their grandeur and minimalising their aching, sensuous passion. I cannot think why anyone would choose to hear these lovely songs performed thus when you can hear them delivered far better by any number of singers such as Baker, Norman, Ludwig or Farrell.”

Lise Davidsen; Sir Mark Elder 2020 (live; digital) Decca
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Good as this is, nothing about it compels me to make it a first choice over those I recommend below. I find Davidsen’s pulsing vibrato a tad heavy, and her manner quite aggressive – although interestingly, at the climactic close of “Stehe still”, large as her voice is, something goes wrong with the balance and the orchestra almost drowns her out. Mostly, she sings out grandly and bravely, but you will seek in vain for the kind of subtlety in her delivery of text that similarly large-voiced, Wagnerian singers such as Eileen Farrell and Jessye Norman provide; a lot of the first two stanzas of “Stehe still” are almost shouted and the top G on “in die Luft” in “Im Treibhaus” is devoid of rapt stillness – although she does much better with the prolonged, floated  “süßer Duft.”. Her colouring of words can be strange, too, such that the voice does not sound integrated; listen to example to the last words on the album, “in die Gruft”, in “Träume”, which are harshly intoned. Then again, the top A-flat on “Glorie” in “Schmerzen” is pretty impressive; I guess what I am looking for is more consistency and an “inner” rather “applied” quality to her singing. Until that happens, she will not be among my preferred interpreters of these songs.

There being so many superb recordings, I am reluctant to endorse only one. As with Strauss’ Four Last Songs, I can say that I want a big, velvety female voice also capable of delicacy and am therefore ready to jettison those by lighter, soprano-tilted singers and the two tenors, nor do I ultimately want to hear a piano version over Mottl’s sumptuous orchestration but still indicate my preferences within those limited categories. The Wesendonck aficionado will surely want one example of the greatest Wagnerian soprano singing a favourite concert item, so I have included a Flagstad recording, too. You will notice that both Jessye Norman and Eileen Farrell feature twice in the lists; they have ideal voices for the repertoire and I strongly suggest having at least one of their recordings even if they are not your first choice.

By far the most difficult choice is among modern recordings for full orchestra as there are so many which are deeply rewarding, so I suggest four – on the other hand, it means whichever you choose should satisfy and I could easily have added those by Ludwig, Baltsa or Minton. Nearly all the recordings above can be sampled on YouTube in perfectly listenable sound if you use headphones and that is a good way to sort preferences before purchasing.

Flagstad: Knappertsbusch 1956
Piano version: Jessye Norman; James Levine 1991
Henze orchestration: Stephanie Blythe; John Nelson 2003
Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann; Donald Runnicles 2012
Mottl orchestration (mono): Farrell; Stokowski 1947
Mottl orchestration (stereo/digital): Janet Baker; Sir Adrian Boult 1975*; Jessye Norman; Colin Davis; Eileen Farrell; Leonard Bernstein 1961; Sylvia Sass 1985
First choice overall*
Ralph Moore

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