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Hugo Wolf: Verborgenheit – Er ist’s – Elfenlied – Anakreons Grab – Mignon
Richard Strauss: Befreit, Op. 39 No.4
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7

Renée Fleming (soprano), Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Recorded live at the Semperoper Dresden, (September 1, 2012) – 106’
Opus Arte OA BD7127 D – Picture format: 1080i 16:9 – Sound format: LPCM 2.0, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1–All Regions – Subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean – Blu-ray disc and booklet with an essay in English, French, and German; texts in German and translations in English

Concert programming is an art. Occasionally it can be so inspired that it elevates the audience’s level of appreciation for and understanding of a piece to a higher plane. Oftentimes, however, it can land with a thud in its actual presentation while it was theoretically more meaningful. This recording from Christian Thielemann’s inaugural concert as the Dresden Staatskapelle’s music director unfortunately lands in the latter category. While the pairing of the supreme romantic songwriter Hugo Wolf and his compatriot Anton Bruckner may have looked good on paper, the Wolf songs (arranged for orchestra) are enough of a disappointment to leave one scratching his head. Thankfully, the Bruckner is a rewarding, if not perfect, performance.

The issues with the Wolf songs aren’t poor performances. On the contrary, Ms. Fleming lends her voluptuous voice to these masterpieces with admirable dedication. Likewise, Mr. Thielemann’s deferential support is caring and even breathtaking at times. The issue with these Wolf songs are the arrangements for orchestra that range from the acceptable (Anakreons Grab) to the unfortunate (Er ist’s). These mini-masterpieces of intimacy are mostly just out of place in these settings. Verborgenheit tends to slip into the melodramatic rather than arresting. Er ist’s sounds campy and is the most cloying of the group (orchestrated by the composer). Elfenlied is among the most satisfying. It’s orchestration by Günther Raphael is understated and much more efficient. Ms. Fleming’s impeccable diction and agility of voice pay of here.

Vocally, Anakreons Grab and Mignon are the closest of all the Wolf songs to her fach, allowing Ms. Fleming to spin luscious, majestic phrases with little effort and emotional power. Both arrangements by the composer are serviceably but not particularly illuminating. The encore of Richard Strauss’ Befreit is a welcome palate-cleanser. Compared to the Wolf songs, its musical coherence and economical emotional impact is refreshing and Ms. Fleming’s performance is superbly measured and poignant.

In contrast to the first half, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (Robert Haas edition) is a muscular display of the heretofore restrained Staatskapelle. Thielemann leads a persuasive performance that is illuminating, but not without its problems. For such a tall man with a large wingspan, Thielemann often appears understated in his gestures. This works wonderfully well in this piece as Bruckner’s lyricism, combined with the Staatskapelle’s radiant colors, makes for some exquisite sonorities.

Thielemann’s Bruckner is effervescent and crisp, but not rushed. This serves best in the long first movement that, while occasionally meandering, is lithe. The strings never push too much on their rich tone and the resulting phrasing is exceedingly graceful. Thielemann takes care to pace the movement well, with climaxes that are well-anticipated but refrain from being bombastic. Credit is due to the outstanding brass of the Staatskapelle who play with such forceful control.

The Adagio is rapturous and while fervent is more endearing than saccharine. Woodwind solos were outstanding throughout. The Scherzo is nimble with interplay between the sections finely observed. The dynamic abilities of the Staatskapelle is beautifully captured here. Thielemann knows when to relax his hand and when to give a shove and that results in finely paced movements. The final movement is always controlled and well realized. Though, ensemble is lacking occasionally here and most notably in the final chord of the piece that finds the strings arriving late in a puzzling conclusion.

Overall, the performance is quite satisfactory and often quite good. One gets the sense that the Dresdeners are quite happy with their new music director as the crowd gives him an enthusiastic ovation at the end. Captured here on Blu-ray, the picture is quite pleasent, warm and crisp. The wide shots of the glorious Semperoper are a wonderful touch. Sound is good, but a touch on the cramped side with the soundstage not sounding particularly wide and hall ambiance missing some detail. Inexplicably, there were no subtitles for the Wolf songs on the menu or accessible via remote control despite the packaging indicating them. This appears to be an unfortunate error.

On balance, this disc is quite middling. The Lieder should not be attractive except to the most devoted connoisseurs of Hugo Wolf’s songs, and while Ms. Fleming is in great voice, her strengths are better experienced elsewhere. The pairing of Thielemann and the Staatskapelle is one that at times seems ideal. They seem to share an affinity for the homogeneity of sound that the Staatskapelle can produce and the maestro’s interpretations here are quite invigorating. While this impression isn’t overwhelmingly strong, it is an enticing sign of things to come.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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