“Are we looking at a new chapter in the history of singing Wagner’s heroic tenor parts?” asks Jürgen Kesting in the booklet note to this new issue excitedly. He then gets straight to the crux of the question: “What exactly is a heroic tenor?”. In his 1949 book Wagner Nights
Ernest Newman gave a rather discouraging answer, referring to “some amphora Heldentenor who looks and behaves like an overgrown Boy Scout, and gives the spectator the impression of a man whose mental development was arrested at the age of twelve and has been in custody ever since.” To make his scorn even more evident, he adds in a footnote a definition of an amphora: “a two-handled, big-bellied vessel, usually of clay, with a longish or shortish neck and a mouth apportioned to the size.”
Well, Klaus-Florian Vogt, slim and handsome, is certainly no Heldentenor in Newman’s ‘amphora’ sense, and he is certainly not an unintelligent singer; but is he a tenor suited to Wagner’s heroic parts? Many of those who have succeeded in this repertoire have been baritones who have converted to the upper range, and retain to a greater or lesser degree their original baritonal timbre. They have been assisted by Wagner’s often surprising reluctance to exploit the upper reaches of the tenor register – there are two high Cs for Siegfried and one for Walther, none of them sustained or even really essential, and none at all in the parts of Tristan, Parsifal, Siegmund or any of Wagner’s earlier works. These baritonal heroic tenors however come to grief when they have to tackle operas by Strauss or Korngold, which require the same type of voice but where the higher notes are freely employed. There have also been some natural tenors who have the strength and force to ride over Wagner’s sometimes turbulent orchestra. These are usually big-voiced lyric tenors who have the stamina to extend their voices further; one thinks of singers like Jess Thomas, Alberto Remedios or René Kollo, all of whom pioneered the employment of this kind of voice in parts such as Siegfried or Tristan - Plácido Domingo is really a combination of both types.
It seems that Klaus-Florian Vogt is being viewed as a descendant of this latter species of Heldentenor, using a basically lighter voice than usual in Wagnerian roles generally regarded as the preserve of more heavyweight singers - in all senses of the word. His voice is however of a different kind from those cited in the last paragraph. It is significant that the eleven tracks on this CD are all of the lighter passages in the roles of Siegfried and Tristan, and only the two sections of Siegmund which we are given here really fall within the full-scale Wagnerian fach.
These are bleeding chunks of Wagner indeed; only one of these eleven tracks ends in the manner which Wagner prescribed rather than tailing away as the music moves on.
Vogt has made his reputation in the title role of Lohengrin
, where his silvery timbre is appropriate to the other-worldly nature of the swan knight; but as I pointed out in my review of his Bayreuth stage performance enshrined on DVD last year (review
) he is severely stretched by the more strenuously dramatic portions of the role. We are here only given his ‘farewell’ Mein lieber schwan
which gives the best impression of his assumption of the role, with a beautifully floated opening but a lack of sheer heft in the later stages.
He is shortly to undertake Parsifal
at Bayreuth, but again he is less impressive in the highly dramatic Amfortas! Die Wunde!
than in the more sheerly lyrical final Nur eine Waffe taugt.
I wish tenors would not allow the music to fade away at the last line; Wagner as usual gives no indication of dynamics to his singer, but the word Schrein!
should surely be delivered as a ringing instruction rather than be subjected to a melting diminuendo
to match the underlying orchestration. I think that René Kollo was the first tenor – in his recording for Solti – to do this. Actually Vogt matches Kollo is some other respects too, as a lyric tenor stretching himself into heavier Wagnerian roles, although his voice seems naturally smaller than Kollo’s; but even from a fairly early stage in his career Kollo’s voice suffered from the transition, firstlybecoming more acidic in tone and later acquiring a disastrous wobble. Vogt must be extremely careful not to allow himself to make a similar mistake.
In the two extracts from Die Meistersinger
- for some peculiar reason given here in the wrong order - he shows other similarities to Kollo, but one cannot imagine this voice soaring above the ensemble in the final verse of Fanget an!
(omitted here) any more than Kollo was able to do. Similarly in the extracts from Die Walküre
the voice lacks the heroic ring needed at the climactic moments, and it seems perverse to omit the ‘spring song’ preceding Du bist der Lenz
which one would have thought fitted Vogt’s voice perfectly. Camilla Nylund is quite impressive in the latter scene, as she is in the opening of the love duet from Tristan
which is however spoilt by a most unconvincing ending which tails away into a brief extract from Brangaene’s warning before halting abruptly.
The best tracks here come with the extracts from the two early operas. In the prayer from Rienzi
Vogt is very good indeed, with the flexibility to manoeuvre his way around the sometimes delicate filigree of the vocal writing; but in Erik’s sugary cavatina from Der fliegende Holländer
the tempo is simply too fast. Wagner himself declared: “Whoever sings Erik’s cavatina … in sugary style does me a sad disservice; it ought to breathe sorrow and affliction.” Well, Vogt is not sugary in style, but at this speed there is little sense of “sorrow and affliction” – just a nice lyrical tenor going through the motions. It is a pity that we are given none of Tannhäuser
here – Vogt might have shown strain in the ‘Rome narration’ but it would have been enjoyable to hear his version of the hymn to Venus which so often taxes more beefy tenors with its delicate writing.
Jonathan Nott faithfully followsthe dictates of the music in these small-scale performances, and the orchestra plays well for him; but his only original touch is the introduction of an unmarked accelerando
in the closing bars of the First Act of Die Walküre
which reduces the already excited orchestra to a gabble. This is the only extract on this disc which actually ends as Wagner indicated; everywhere else except in Rienzi
the music simply fades out or ends inconclusively as the orchestra drifts away into the music that Wagner intended to follow.
It should be noted that in his recent review
of Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner recital my colleague Jim Pritchard took a diametrically opposed view of the nature of a heroic tenor, lauding Vogt’s clear tenor at the expense of Kaufmann’s more baritonal resonance. I agree that Kaufmann’s voice has a very low-lying feel to it, but this is surely preferable to the sound of too small a voice – however sweetly produced – pushing at the limits of its dramatic capabilities. One hopes that Vogt will not be tempted into the heavier reaches of the Wagnerian repertory, when one does indeed need a truly “heroic tenor” – however that may be defined.
Paul Corfield Godfrey