Classical CD and DVD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Aug 29, 2013 - Page 11

The Wotan of the Century at His Best: Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Pfitzner

Various orchestras and conductors

Documents 600052 (10 CD set)

Wagner dominates new releases at the moment as 2013 is the bicentenary of his birth. Over the next few months we’ll be reviewing some of the boxed sets of historic material issued in tribute to the great man.

But first a word about the Taipei performance of his Die Walkure that was cancelled because of Typhoon Soulik. In my previous music review column, I urged the National Symphony Orchestra to stage a revival for the benefit of the many disappointed patrons.

The orchestra’s administration has now replied that this will unfortunately be impossible as Taipei’s National Theater is fully booked until the end of 2014. In the meantime, the orchestra is preparing for their next opera production, Richard Strauss’ Salome. This, please note, is probably the first mention anywhere of this new venture.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, Hans Hotter set the standard by which all other singers of the role of Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle were judged. Now the Documents label bas brought out a 10-CD set entitled The Wotan of the Century at His Best. At US$21.50 from www.prestoclassical.com, it’s a remarkable bargain. It’s even cheaper from www.amazon.co.uk at US$15.50. At the time of writing it’s not yet available from Amazon in the US.

Hotter started singing the role of Wotan, chief of the ancient Norse gods, in the 1930s and continued into the 1960s. The long extracts that make up the Die Walkure disk, CD two of the set, all date from the 1950s.

First comes the initial encounter with his daughter Brunnhilde (sung by Birgit Nilsson, with Karajan conducting the La Scala, Milan orchestra in 1958), followed by the protracted encounter with his wife Fricka and subsequent scene with Brunnhilde (Rita Gorr and Astrid Varnay respectively, at Bayreuth in 1958, conducted by Knappertsbusch). The CD ends with the culminating scene with Brunnhilde (Martha Modl). Joseph Keilberth conducts the Bayreuth forces, this time in 1953.

Hotter’s Wotan is memorable indeed. Not only did he stand 6 feet, 4 inches tall — he also had the massive voice to match. But sheer volume isn’t what matters most with this role, and probably not with any. The whole point about Wotan is that he’s a divided man — powerful and at times vengeful, but at the same time riven with self-doubt. He’s an easy victim for his proud wife who’s fueled by jealousy resulting from his innumerable affairs, and in Die Walkure she decides to take a stand in defending a wronged husband, brutal wife abuser though he undoubtedly is.

So Wotan has to be commanding on some occasions, submissive on others, and, at the opera’s end, loving toward his favorite daughter Brunnhilde. Hotter is all these things. There are, it’s true, times on this CD when the immense power of the women singers, especially Modl, threatens to overwhelm him. But it never quite succeeds, and Hotter remains the bass-baritone who outlasts them all.

It’s astonishing to listen to these extracts from so long ago. The famous Bayreuth sound — unique, apparently because the orchestra is below stage-level and the auditorium largely constructed of wood — I found hard to appreciate or indeed to identify. But all the orchestral playing is strong on this CD.

For the rest, it’s marvelous to hear Hotter as Sachs in the congenial harmonies of a Bayreuth Die Meistersinger from 1956, under Cluytens, with Fischer-Dieskau and Windgassen also in the cast (CD 6). And how surprising to hear him as the Speaker in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, from Cologne in 1954, with a mellifluous Rudolf Schock as Tamino (CD 7). Extracts from a very early Falstaff, sung in German in 1939, distinguish CD 8.

Bach Around the World

Yehudi Menuhin, Bobby McFerrin, John Eliot Gardiner

ANRM-22080

This month’s stumbled-upon treasure is titled Bach Around the World. It’s a compilation of items from Oxford to Tokyo featuring the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s absolutely delightful, and has a rather strange history.

Apparently it was sold by EuroArts Entertainment, the original makers in 2000, to Public Television for transmission in the US. It seems, however, to have had a second life in the East as a DVD where it can be found in many an unexpected corner with cover details in Chinese, Korean or Japanese.

We’ve identified a version available on Amazon’s Japanese pages — look for the catalog numbers ANRM-22080 and/or JAN 4560292371494. But it might be easier simply to keep your eyes open at your neighborhood night-market.

Either way, it’s both as good an introduction to Bach’s incomparable music as you could find anywhere, and a very high-quality eclectic recital in its own right.

There’s organist Ton Koopman playing the famous Toccata and Fuge, cellist Anner Bylsma playing the Sarabande from the First Cello Suite, Andrei Gavrilov playing the opening Prelude from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier, Bobby McFerrin singing before a large open-air audience in Leipzig, Yehudi Menuhin playing the Prelude from the Partita in E Major in 1943, the Keller String Quartet playing a transposition from The Art of Fuge, John Eliot Gardiner talking about Bach’s church music, plus the opening chorus from the St John Passion from Tokyo and the Sanctus from the B Minor Mass from Leipzig. It’s an extraordinary collection — 17 items in all. What a find!