Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas; via Wikimedia Commons

There are new Wagner recordings and old Wagner recordings, and new issues of the old ones. We’ll start with some of the
new-old Wagner. From Deutsche Grammophon comes a box set called
Great Wagner Conductors. All of them? No, five of them: Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, de Sabata, Elmendorff, and Jochum. These men were born between 1886 and 1892, except for Jochum—who’s the baby of the group. He was born in 1902. All are German, except for de Sabata, the Italian. But he was born in Trieste, so he was a man of the world from the start. Four of the five have enduring fame—not Karl Elmendorff, who’s all but forgotten today. He’s the only one who does not get a picture in the box set’s booklet, poor man.

We hear him in excerpts from The Ring, starting with “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” On this track, he seems somewhat staid and careful. But he is compelling in “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.” Does he deserve the designation “great,” along with the four celebrities? It’s hard to tell at this remove, and from these recordings. But that he was estimable is easy to tell.

By the way, Elmendorff recorded “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” on June 23, 1941, in Berlin. The city was perhaps feeling good about itself that day. The day before, Hitler had broken his pact with Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa—which, blessedly, began the Nazis’ downfall.

Deutsche Grammophon also has a box set called Great Wagner Singers. On the cover are seven famous names: Flagstad, Nilsson, Varnay, Greindl, Hotter, Lorenz, and Melchior. But inside are many less famous names. One of them is Karin Branzell, a Swedish contralto born in 1891. They called her a contralto, yes, but she would be known as a mezzo
today, because the word “contralto” has disappeared—except in reference to Ewa Podles. Branzell is featured in Erda’s music from Das Rheingold, and she is clear and beautiful. The voice seems to travel from 1928 directly into our ear.

Leo Slezak is not a name on the cover—but you may know a story about him. In Lohengrin, there was some mishap, involving the swan-pulled boat. Some blame a stagehand, but, in any case, Slezak missed the boat, literally. And he cracked, “What time’s the next swan?” (Usually, it’s bad news for a tenor to crack, but this is an exception.) In this set, Slezak is heard in music from Lohengrin: “Mein lieber Schwan!” He sets an excellent tenorial example. The biggest Wagner tenor of all, however, is Melchior. We hear him in two of the Wesendonck Lieder—yes, the Wesendonck Lieder, which Wagner specifically designated “for female voice.” Regardless, if he had heard Melchior, he would have given thumbs-up (probably).

On the covers of both of the DG box sets is a painting of scenery. The scenery was designed by Ludwig Sievert for Das Rheingold in 1912. Complete with rainbow bridge, it’s a beguiling evocation of the drama. Would opera houses permit it today? Or would they rule it out as passé? Even to consider the question could make you weep.

From Decca, there is an album of Wagner excerpts from a tenor of this moment, Jonas Kaufmann. In addition to opera excerpts, there are songs—the Wesendonck Lieder, all five. He must figure, “If it was good enough for Melchior . . .” He sings these songs beautifully and intelligently, as he can be expected to do. But does he transport in them, particularly in the final one, “Träume”? In my opinion, no. Ideally, a singer allows himself—herself, traditionally!—to be a transparency in these songs. No sense of self is in the way. Listening, I was keenly aware of Kaufmann. But perhaps others would be less aware, and perhaps I would be too, in future listenings.

Kaufmann is an essentially lyric tenor, and he sings the Wagner that fits his voice. In a studio, however, a lyric tenor can play heldentenor—and Kaufmann does some of that. So did Plácido Domingo, when he recorded the role of Tristan, a role he never attempted onstage. Recordings aren’t necessarily trustworthy: New ones, with their wizardry, can enhance a musician, or make him seem something other than he is. Old ones can cheat a musician—as they may do Karl Elmendorff.

Claudio Abbado, the Italian conductor, has reached his eightieth birthday, and DG is celebrating with a Schumann disc. It features the Symphony No. 2 and is filled out by two overtures: the Manfred and the one to the composer’s sole opera, Genoveva. Oddly, Abbado had never recorded a Schumann symphony, in a lifetime of recording. He does so with his Orchestra Mozart, founded in Bologna in 2004. The symphony was recorded live in Vienna last year. Abbado begins it with unusual warmth—this conductor can be a cool customer, like his friend and countryman Maurizio Pollini (the pianist). As he continues, he is, characteristically, stringent. Also dramatic and exciting. The third movement, Adagio espressivo, breathes very well. Phrasing is a gift, and Abbado clearly has it. Some of the conducting in this symphony is a little punchy—a little period-band-like—for my taste. But it is first-class conducting, and Abbado is upholding the tradition of longevity on the podium.

Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, has made a plethora of recordings, and has now done one of Verdi scenes and arias (DG). She has not been associated with Verdi, except for the role of Violetta—and that is a big exception. She has overwhelmed in this role. At this stage, she seems ripe for Verdi in general. She is more or less made for Lady Macbeth, in that she can smoke and scald as few can. “La luce langue” and the Sleepwalking Scene are indeed formidable. Throughout the disc, Netrebko exhibits her typical flaws, including a tendency to sharp (in languages other than her own). But, in view of her natural musical and theatrical instincts, any flaws are inconsequential. She sweeps all before her. One hears that we’re in a poor age for recordings—the “record” industry, as some of us still call it, is apparently in the tank—but an exception has been made for this Russian star. When she is through, she will be amply documented. She is already, actually.

A second Russian soprano is Julia Lezhneva, just twenty-three years old, at the start of her career: and a big one it will be. She is a brilliant singer, as could be seen—or at least glimpsed—at the Salzburg Festival two years ago. She has a beautiful dark voice, obvious smarts, and a boffo technique. Who could ask for anything more (as a Gershwin wrote)? She has now made a disc called Alleluia (Decca). The word “alleluia” is indeed sung a lot, for this is a disc of motets, by four composers. Three of them are in the canon: Vivaldi, Handel, and Mozart. The fourth is more in the suburbs of the canon: Nicola Porpora, an Italian born eight years after Vivaldi, in 1686. Lezhneva sings with mastery, and, moreover, she sings excitingly. Does she lack anything at all? Well, yes, now that you mention it. You can see a lack in the Mozart Alleluia (from Exsultate, jubilate). Her voice—that beautiful, dark, Slavic soprano—does not have the luminosity of, say, Heidi Grant Murphy. Neither does it have “bendiness”—elasticity, a rubber-band quality—as, again, HGM has. But Lezhneva has so much, you really can’t complain.

The Cypress String Quartet is a very good ensemble, formed in San Francisco in 1996. Until looking into its recent disc, I did not know how it had gotten its name. It comes from Dvorák’s work Cypresses, that composer’s string-quartet treatment of a dozen songs he had written earlier (love songs, as songs tend to be). The CSQ has duly recorded the work, on the Avie label. They have paired it with a proper Dvorák string quartet, that in G major, Op. 106. It would be embarrassing if these players recorded Cypresses badly. And I’m pleased to say they have not. They play these songs in apt style, a style that includes, of course, songfulness.

Yolanda Kondonassis was born and raised just where you would expect someone of that mellifluous, all-American name to have been born and raised: Norman, Oklahoma. Today, she may well be the most recorded harpist in the world. Is that “on the order of celebrating the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas”? (I have borrowed a line from William F. Buckley Jr.) Maybe, but that does not negate Kondonassis’s achievement. She is an excellent musician, and she has mastered an instrument of many possibilities. It can do more than convey the celestial (although it does that particularly well). For a label called Azica, Kondonassis has now made a disc of American music for solo harp. It comes beautifully packaged. And it contains some “world premiere recordings,” as you would expect: A harp piece, more than most pieces, is lucky to make it onto vinyl, or its modern equivalent. Some composers are familiar, such as John Cage, and others are not so familiar, such as Hannah Lash (born in 1981). It’s good to see Norman Dello Joio represented. He was a commendable composer of midcentury, and, as readers of The New Criterion have heard, his son Justin is a commendable composer of now. Whether the son has written for solo harp, I can’t say.

For the past few years, Steinway & Sons has been in the record business, and they turn out piano recordings, naturally. One has the title A Folk Song Runs Through It, a title that must be inspired by Norman Maclean’s story of 1976, which became a movie in 1992: A River Runs Through It. On the cover of the album is an arresting and apt painting by Chagall, I and the Village. The music is by three composers: Janácek, Bartók, and Kodály. Some of the music is explicitly folk—e.g., Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances—and some of it is merely folk-tinged (such as the same composer’s sonata). All of these pieces have something in common: lovability—a lovability that comes from their composers’ love for the people’s music. As I listened to this disc, I was struck by nostalgia, for some reason. I thought of pianists past—such as Lili Kraus and Rudolf Firkušný—and I thought of the world that the music embodies, or calls up. The pianist here is an American, Andrew Rangell, who plays the music very well: with sympathy for what it is, and love of it, I think. In addition, he has written top-drawer liner notes.

Another CD from Steinway is called Exiles’ Café, whose title comes from a piece by Michael Sahl (an American composer born in 1934): Tango from the Exiles’ Café. The language on the back cover, and in the CD booklet, tends to the pretentious. The exiles’ café is a place “both real and metaphorical,” inhabited by “dream-chasers,” etc. As regular readers know, I am skeptical of recital programs with themes. Similarly, I am skeptical of CDs with themes. Just play or sing what you want—good and worthy music—and dispense with the theme justification, or conceit. But Exiles’ Café, I found, is a good idea. The music, by a variety of composers, writing in different styles, in different periods, does indeed have commonalities: longing, exoticism, wistfulness. I was glad to see my prejudice rebuked.

The disc begins with a set that could be on Andrew Rangell’s disc: Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík. There are pieces from Chopin, Martin?, Weill, and about ten others. A Rachmaninoff piece, Fragments, is amazingly sad. Ending the disc is an item from a set of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, a young American. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Addio.” The pianist is Lara Downes, and what is true of Rangell is true of her: She plays intelligently, sympathetically, and well.

A third Steinway CD is A Grand Romance, on whose cover the “a” in “Grand” is a grand piano with its lid up. It sort of looks like an “a”—in its capital form. The idea may be a little cutesy, but it works. The music is a smorgasbord of old-fashioned morceaux, composed by virtuosi of the Romantic era. It was only near the beginning of the twentieth century that composers and performers split; they used to be one, essentially. The composer-pianists represented here include Henselt, Moszkowski, and Bortkiewicz. The pieces are discoveries and rediscoveries, both. Anton Rubinstein’s Rêve angélique used to be a staple, but fell by the way. Our pianist is Jeffrey Biegel, winningly eager, and always competent. You could ask for more sparkling in a piece like Moszkowski’s Etin-celles—probably the least obscure piece in this collection of obscurities. It was a Horowitz staple. And its name means “Sparks.” But Biegel’s ambition, and defiance of fashion, is to be admired. In a liner note, he explains that his teacher, Adele Marcus, recommended that he listen to recordings by one of her own teachers, Josef Lhévinne. That is wise advice for any piano student, or person.

Aleksandra Kurzak, a Polish soprano, has made an album called Bel Raggio (Decca). It is a collection of Rossini arias—beginning with the “title aria,” which is from Semiramide. But some of the other arias are from less familiar operas: Matilde di Shabran, for example, and, very unfamiliar, Sigismondo. What is that, or who is that? Sigismondo is the King of Poland. And Kurzak is quoted as saying, in the liner notes, that she wished “to leave a small Polish mark” on her CD. She sings with great security and aplomb. She also gives no hint of slumming or clowning or condescension. She takes her Rossini seriously, and she knows that he can be a dramatic composer, as well as a hoot. Is there anything wrong with her? One could say this: There is a certain want of Italian sunshine, or Italian sauce. This is an ingredient of Rossini—a key ingredient—and it’s hard to go out and buy. Some people seem to have it in the blood, and they aren’t necessarily Italian. Italianità strikes people in all corners. And some Italians seem to have a deficiency.

I have mentioned two Polish singers so far in this round-up: Podles and Kurzak. (Sigismondo doesn’t count.) We will now look at a third, namely Piotr Beczala, the tenor. On the cover of his new album (DG), he’s in a tuxedo and holding a top hat. Inside, he’s wearing the top hat, and a monocle to boot. Why? This album is a tribute to Richard Tauber, the Austrian tenor who summed up Viennese charm in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. (He got out after the Anschluss, emigrating to Britain.) One song we associate with Tauber is the most famous tenor aria in all of operetta: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from Das Land des Lächelns, by Franz Lehár. On this album, Beczala sings this number twice: on the opening track, in English (“You are my heart’s delight”), and on the closing track, in the original. Plus, he or DG titles his album Heart’s Delight.

By the way, I mentioned charm, above, and I also mentioned Lehár. I have a friend—I’ve written about her in these pages—who recites a list of the most charming men she has met in her life. One of them is Lehár.

Also on this album is the most famous duet in all of operetta: “Lippen schweigen,” from The Merry Widow (again, by Lehár). For this number, Beczala brings on a big-time star, Anna Netrebko. Given her Russian timbre, she is an exceptionally dark widow. A chilly one, too. But, ultimately, of course, an effective one. Furthermore, Beczala sings a duet with Tauber himself—and what they sing is “Du bist die Welt für mich,” taken from an operetta by none other than Richard Tauber, Der singende Traum. Thanks to modern technology, singers are recording duets with singers long gone. For a Christmas album three years ago, Bryn Terfel recorded “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby.

Throughout Heart’s Delight, Beczala sings with his customary beauty and sincerity. I have worried, for the past several seasons, that he’s pushing his lyric instrument too hard. I think he has taken on roles a size or two too big for him, and has threatened his bloom. But (a) it’s his career, and (b) there’s plenty of Beczala voice left.

With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which he is music director, Gustavo Dudamel has recorded Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (DG). The mere fact of this recording may strike some as offensive, or at least presumptuous: The Mahler Ninth is possibly the profoundest symphony by one of our profoundest composers. It is also, in effect, his farewell: his final symphony (complete). Dudamel is a whippersnapper, sometimes guilty of callowness. Should he have conducted—have recorded—this symphony at this stage? Should he not have waited for an increase in wisdom, and probably some gray hair?

The recording was done live in Disney Hall. The first movement bears Dudamel’s personal stamp, but this music can bear personal stamps. In other words, there’s room for interpretation. Dudamel brings a certain freshness and spontaneity. The second movement begins puckish, and later has some nuttiness and abandon. I believe Mahler would appreciate this. The third movement, in my judgment, is dry and brusque, at least in part—overly so. But its vigor cannot be denied, and its vigor is right. Then we get to the concluding Adagio, Mahler’s Abschied, if you will. Does it transport? Mainly, I think. It’s a little this-worldly. And the last pages are a little mannered. But other listeners may have a different view. And, as I said about something earlier, so might I, in future listenings. I would not recommend throwing away your Barbirolli. But there’s no doubt that Dudamel has something valid, often wonderful, to say.

I have called him a “whippersnapper,” and he is thirty-two. I should remember that Mahler wasn’t all that old when he died—fifty. And Dudamel is already one year older than the very, very profound Schubert when he died.

We will end with Tine Thing Helseth, the attractive blonde trumpeter from Norway. I have mentioned her looks—is that a terrible offense? Maybe, but I don’t believe her career would be so large without those looks. I believe the same about the trumpeter from Britain, Alison Balsom. They are probably the two best-known classical trumpeters in the world. If they were fat, homely men, would they be as well known? Would they grace so many CD covers? No one can answer those questions in the affirmative. Life is unfair, as President Kennedy wasn’t the first to say. And Helseth is a splendid musician (as is Balsom).

The Norwegian’s latest album is Tine (EMI)—although Tine Thing might have been the thing. The album gives us a recital program. Helseth is accompanied by Kathryn Stott, the fine British pianist who is best known for accompanying Yo-Yo Ma, the starry cellist. In common with most trumpet programs, this program includes both music originally composed for trumpet and transcriptions—no trumpeter can live on original music alone. An example of original music here would be the Hindemith sonata. An example of a transcription would be Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise—one of the most transcribed pieces in musical history. Can a trumpet bring it off? It can, yes, in Helseth’s hands. In virtually everything she plays, she is reliable—reliable in sound, technique, and thought. Because I have heard her in the flesh, and not in studio recordings alone, I can say this with confidence.

The last two pieces on the disc come from the pen of Fritz Kreisler. Obviously, a trumpet can’t do what a violin can. But Helseth provides a respectable approximation. In the Marche miniature viennoise, she is a Gypsy trumpeter (a phrase I never expected to write). The closing piece, Toy Soldiers’ March, is adorable. Some musicians don’t know how to treat an adorable miniature, but this trumpeter and her pianist do.

Tine Thing Helseth, TTH, bids fair to be the world’s favorite trumpeter, after Wynton Marsalis, and she may even give him a run for his money. I hereby suggest to her publicists a slogan: “It don’t mean Tine Thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 1, on page 56
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