The Examiner, February 11, 2013
By: Stephen Smoliar
Celebrate the Wagner bicentennial with Jonas Kaufmann on Decca
Celebrate the Wagner bicentennial with Jonas Kaufmann on Decca
In celebration of the 200th anniversary year of the birth of Richard Wagner, tomorrow Decca will release their fifth solo album of Jonas Kaufmann, acclaimed by many as the world’s leading Wagner tenor. The all-Wagner recording will present arias and extended scenes of Kaufmann in six major Wagner roles. In the order of the tracks, these are:

Siegmund in Die Walküre
Siegfried in Siegfried
Cola Rienzi in Rienzi
Tannhäuser in Tannhäuser
Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Lohengrin in Lohengrin

These are followed by the five songs known as the Wesendonck Lieder, settings of poems composed while Wagner was working on Tristan und Isolde (and possibly pursuing an affair with the poems’ author). Wagner wrote these for female voice and piano but then orchestrated the accompaniment for chamber orchestra resources. They were performed in that form beneath Wesendonck’s window for her birthday on December 23, 1857. This new release offers a rare recording of the full cycle by a tenor (although tenors from Lauritz Melchior to Placido Domingo have recorded individual selections).

However, I do not wish to give the impression that this “complete Wesendonck” is the primary virtue of the recording. What is equally impressive is how each of the first six selections shows how Wagner approached a different character type. One the one hand we have the naïve Siegfried, who has yet to discover fear, wandering through the forest in search of the dragon Fafner. At the other extreme we have Tannhäuser returning from his pilgrimage to Rome, convinced of the eternal damnation that awaits him and seduced once more by the lure of Venusberg. Across the breadth of this spectrum, Kaufmann shapes his voice around each individual personality, always expertly reinforced by the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin under the baton of Donald Runnicles, a leading figure in the Wagner repertoire in his own right. (I make this claim on the basis of having personally experienced his conducting the Ring cycle twice, along with a fair share of the rest of the Wagner canon).

Thus, while it is virtually impossible to summarize the full extent of Wagner’s achievements on a single compact disc, this particular distillation of six leading tenor roles complemented by the Wesendonck Lieder provides a remarkably comprehensive view of the composer, whether one is a “perfect Wagnerite” or a novice seeking out a first taste of Wagner’s consummate skill.

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