Wagner: Arias and Duets from Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Die Walküre

Petra Maria Schnitzer, Peter Seiffert; Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer (Orfeo C 760 091 A)

5 April 2010 2 stars

Schnitzer/Seiffert DuetsThe Munich-based label Orfeo has long maintained an interesting catalog of recordings that have showcased unusual repertoire and first-rate singers. I had looked forward to hearing this new disc of Wagner scenes by the husband and wife team of tenor Peter Seiffert and soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer for a number of reasons.

First, the fine conductor is Ulf Schirmer, who I have enjoyed immensely elsewhere on Orfeo recordings. Second, though he has had a long career on the stage, Seiffert has made relatively few recordings (and Schnitzer, even fewer). Third, discs of Wagner arias seem to come around fairly seldom, and those with entire scenes such as this one, appear even less often. And last – but not least – I have recently been enjoying the new DVD of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen recorded in Valencia under Zubin Mehta, and featuring the duo on this recording in the roles of siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde. Unfortunately, despite Schirmer's expert leadership and some fine singing from Seiffert, the recording overall is surprisingly disappointing.

Petra Maria Schnitzer appears to be a relatively young woman, and when her voice is not pushed to the limit by Wagner's heavy demands, there is a youthful, lyric beauty to her singing. These moments are fleeting, however, since her three roles on this disc – Elsa, Elisabeth, and Sieglinde – all require a firm line, exceptional breath control, and a 'jugendliche dramatische' vocal amplitude (at a minimum). This last characteristic is critical. A soprano undertaking these roles simply must have the facility to produce the volume required to carry over Wagner's robust orchestrations. In addition, she needs to ascend comfortably to the highest register without forcing, or else the beauty inherent in her vocal lines quickly evaporates. Despite the fact that a glance at her international engagements indicates that Schnitzer is singing these roles routinely, to my ears she is unequivocally over-parted in this repertoire. As such, she must relentlessly push her natural instrument to generate the necessary breadth and volume, and this results in a good deal of under-pitch singing through the passaggio and, even more damaging, a mostly shrill high register.

Schnitzer tends to sound best when the tessitura stays low and she can sing quietly. Elisabeth's 'Allmächt'ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen!' is her best solo on the disc: she shows off plenty of handsome tone, but could benefit from longer-breathed phrasing. Elsewhere, the problems mentioned above tend to be intrusive. Her Elsa sounds tentative and pushed, with no 'float' in the voice, while Sieglinde stretches her to the absolute limit of her abilities, with poor results. Elisabeth's 'Dich, teure Halle' as well as her long duet with Tannhäuser are severely marred by under-pitch singing.

Fortunately, Seiffert has much more to offer, singing with ringing tone, firm line, and energy to spare throughout his long and challenging program. He is no longer a young man, and a slightly obtrusive beat has crept into the voice. This is especially obvious at the expected times, when the vocal line is both high and loud. Otherwise, he is very impressive. Lohengrin's 'In fernem Land' rings out with all the sober sincerity the drama requires, though some modulation of the generally forte volume level of his singing would have been welcome. Seiffert vividly characterizes all the shifting moods of Tannhäuser's long scene 'Hör an, Wolfram! Hör an!', with superb breath control and diction. Finally, he is at his absolute best as Siegmund, singing through a twenty-minute chunk of the first act with vigor and a true heldentenor amplitude. His 'Winterstürme' is among the most loving and delicately phrased versions I've heard – a true melding of voice, emotion, and text, making an indelible impression.

Ulf Schirmer supports the singers with insight and a firm hand throughout the program. Under his leadership, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester play with all the detail, energy, and cohesion this music needs in order to leap off the page into three dimensions. It is fascinating to listen to Schirmer mold phrases and drive his musicians forward while accommodating his singers – even to the point of pulling back and interrupting the dramatic flow. An example is Elsa's 'Einsam in trüben Tagen', the tempo of which ebbs and flows according to the breathing and phrasing needs of the singer. The ethereal forward momentum that should propel this scene drains away as Schnitzer rather deliberately picks her way through the music. Schirmer supports the soprano appropriately, but one can sense the grinding of gears as he pulls the reins in doing so. Fascinatingly, Schirmer conducts the same orchestra in this aria on soprano Adrianne Pieczonka's album of Wagner and Strauss arias (also on Orfeo) and the result is entirely different. In the latter case, singer, conductor, and orchestra truly perform 'in sync' and we hear the mastery of all participants.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this disc. Seiffert has been a hard-working artist for many years and deserves to be heard. Perhaps Orfeo has plans to make additional recordings with him (sooner than later, I hope), but the current disc is largely a disappointment due to factors beyond his control. Both his Siegmund and Tannhäuser are available on DVD, so perhaps it would be best to look elsewhere for the time being, and hope he records a solo album in the future.

By David Laviska