What has happened to René Pape? The moment I started playing this new recital album, warning bells sounded in the background. Was this the voice as I had remembered it from "Das Wunder der Heliane", with its smooth, velvety power and ringing top G flat? That cameo role was recorded as long ago as 1992 and since then Pape has ascended the ranks of bass-baritones until he is now acclaimed, according to the sticker on the front of my review copy, as "the premier basso cantante of our time" (Gramophone) and even "the greatest operatic bass in the world" (FAZ). Yet what I was hearing didn't quite justify those encomiums: a pleasant voice with some agreeable features but too often grey and underpowered. Somewhat rattled and experiencing a crisis of reviewer's confidence, I turned to first one then another in my collection of the greatest exponents of Wotan, specifically recordings of that magnificent conclusion to "Die Walküre" which Pape essays here and which demands the most extraordinary range, power and pathos from a Heldenbariton of the first rank. And I began to listen, not to one, or two, but to no fewer than ten recordings:
Friedrich Schorr (1927, conductor Blech); Marcel Journet - in French (1928, Coppola); Ferdinand Frantz (1949, Moralt and 1954, Fürtwängler); Sigurd Björling (1951, Karajan); Hans Hotter (1953, Krauss and 1958, Ludwig); George London (1961, Leinsdorf); last and definitely least, Theo Adam (1967, Böhm).
Their great, brazen voices rang out across the years and I asked myself whether Pape was really in their company. The answer is clear: not really. He has none of the heft and authority, the blooming top notes, the fullness of tone in the centre of the voice that marks out his predecessors. His tone is somewhat thin, nasal and constricted and he tends to swoop on to top notes (as in "Leb wohl"). Puzzlingly for a singer who prides himself on subtle enunciation of the text, he does not even begin to suggest the heart-breaking tenderness of Wotan's Farewell.
Now; a great deal of this might have something to do with Barenboim's lacklustre conducting. There is simply no ecstasy in his direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which yields in so many respects to their eminent and often incandescent predecessors. Again, I find the claims on the label blurb to be inflated. I have never found Barenboim to be a great Wagnerian and he is here at his enervated worst: conducting which is hopelessly turgid and slack; no pulse, no drama, no sense of inexorable forward momentum.
Disconcerted, I decided to try the other end of the recital: the concluding aria is "O du mein holder Abendstern" from "Tannhäuser - a showpiece, if ever there was one, for a bass-baritone to show off his legato, sustained beauty of tone and ability to colour words affectingly. Once again, my attention began to wander, this time back to Bryn Terfel's beautiful account on his Wagner recital album with Levine. No competition here, either; there is a combination of velvet and steel in Terfel's voice that leaves Pape sounding very ordinary - and once again, I don't hear anything other than a generalised melancholy in Pape's interpretation, whereas Terfel lives Wolfram.
Actually, the best things on this recital are the sandwich items: excerpts from "Die Meistersinger", "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal", especially as in the latter Domingo contributes a lovely, full-toned "reiner Tor" in much-improved German - no strain at all and consistently believable characterisation. Yet even here, Pape is no match for distinguished interpreters of Gurnemanz from the digital stereo era such as Kurt Moll or Robert Lloyd, let alone giants of the past such as Ludwig Weber, Hans Hotter et al. I suppose we should be grateful to have a singer of Pape's distinction able to tackle them in these days of a dearth of Wagnerian singers and yes, I know we cannot go on forever living in the past and that it's invidious constantly to make comparisons to Pape's disadvantage, but once you've heard what the best can do with these extraordinarily challenging and complex roles, it's impossible to get them out of your head.
This is obviously a flagship issue by DG, complete with full, interesting notes, interview and libretto, of a kind increasingly rare today and they will have a lot invested in the obligatory accompanying hype - which means that I shall be in all kinds of trouble from many different quarters for saying what I think about it. However, do bear in mind just how everything of this kind is now mercilessly promoted regardless of objectivity. Others may feel very differently about this recital; I can only tell it as I hear it and for me this CD is a give-away.Read more ›
I'm going to disagree with Ralph Moore here -- I found this a most affecting and beautiful recital, and its greatest strengths to me were where RM saw the greatest weakness -- in the long excerpts from "Walkure" and "Parsifal." First of all, though, everything on this album is beautifully voiced -- there is literally not an ugly note or phrase on the disc. The "Meistersinger" pieces are beautifully sung, though I don't see them as giving Pape the space to create a movement of mood and feeling in the way that the "Walkure" (15+ continuous minutes) and "Parsifal" (23+ continuous minutes) sections do. You can't pack a whole Hans Sachs into one passage, and Pape sings expressively enough for the dramatic situations that Sachs finds himself in. Also, I had no quarrel with his "Tannhauser" aria -- it isn't Fischer-Dieskau or Terfel, but it works on its own terms as effectively as theirs. Wolfram's sorrow and decency find more than adequate expression. In the "Walkure" and "Parsifal" extracts not only is the singing beautiful but the expressiveness deepens as the scene goes on, and Pape's sense of what the words mean and his dynamic and tonal adjustments to communicate that meaning are masterful. Just listen to "Wie des Erlosten Leiden du gelitten/die letzte Last entnimm nun seinen Haupt!" (from "Parsifal"). The scene has built beautifully to that moment, and the change of feeling thereafter is perfectly registered. All this isn't to say that Hotter or Moll or Schorr or Adam weren't marvelous too -- at this level, comparison doesn't seem to me to be necessary. It's also good to hear Domingo, well into his 60's and with just a touch of unevenness, sing Parsifal's lines very well and expressively.
Critical to the success of this recital is Barenboim's conducting, which is right on the money here, fully responsive to both Wagner and his soloist, and most important of all, the quality of the recorded orchestral sound is sensationally good. I'm not sure that I've heard better-accompanied Wagner singing. This is a great disc.Read more ›
There's no getting away from the fact that this is a superb voice, arguably the best of its type around today and a fitting successor to the great Kurt Moll. (Although Herr Papé's voice is a notch higher than Moll's, it is blessed with the same sumptuous velvet tone and encompasses much of the same repertoire, even if the younger singer is clearly destined to undertake Wagner's great bass-baritone, as opposed to bass, roles)
This is indisputably a gorgeous basso cantante voice and, as the illuminating sleeve-notes make clear, Papé's approach to the singing of Wagner is very much a bel canto one, there is not a hint of the infamous "Bayreuth bark" here!
We are treated here to scenes from five operas. In Wotan's famous farewell to his daughter from "Die Walküre", Herr Papé gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what a significant exponent of this role he will undoubtedly become. Pogner has long been Papé's role in "Die Meistersinger", but it is clear that he has the vocal wherewithal to become a great Sachs and the excerpts here demonstrate that he can cope with ease with both the introspective and public utterances of the character. We are also given a brief snippet of the Nightwatchman's music; these are perhaps among the most beautiful few bars in all opera, but it seems a curious inclusion here. He is on familiar ground with Heinrich's address from "Lohengrin". But although one can only admire the ease and tonal beauty with which he dispatches Wolfram's song to the Evening Star from "Tannhäuser", I have to say that I prefer to hear a lyric baritone voice (Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, Allen) in this music. A substantial part of the disc is given over to "Parsifal", where Papé reprises his familiar role of Gurnemanz and is partnered most effectively by Plácido Domingo, whose German is here rather less "personal" than it sometimes is. The wonderful accompaniment comes from the great Staatskapelle Berlin and the Chor der Staatsoper unter den Linden under the sensitive direction of none other than Daniel Barenboim.
So why have I failed to award this disc five stars? Well, at times lovely singing is not quite enough and there is somehow something missing here, something that, for instance, Sir John Tomlinson, a singer who commands a less beautiful tone and whose native language is, of course, not German, can supply in abundance; in the programme notes, Papé extols the virtues of singing words and music in Wagner, but somehow he does not quite carry this off here.Read more ›