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Johan Botha & ORF Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien & Simone Young Richard Wagner OC 346 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 346
Release date02/07/2004
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Wagner, Richard

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      Johan Botha tenor
      1 Regina Schörg soprano
      2 Michaela Schuster soprano
      Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
      Simone Young conductor

      Remembering a Pledge Fulfilled
      by Wilhelm Sinkovicz

      What an amazement – a new recording of Bohème at the Vienna Volksoper? This is in and of itself a risky venture. Operalovers are a spoiled lot – especially when Puccini and beautiful singing are concerned. And Viennese audiences are especially picky. They are true melomaniacs – continuing to prefer Donizetti over Richard Wagner’s so-called advances in the 19th century, for example. And the seventies and eighties were an era of beautiful voices. This brings us, however, to the small paradox that beautiful voices don’t always mean beautiful singing. Stated even more emphatically: beautiful voices and beautiful singing have less and less to do with each other. Recent opera history has seen a quick-changing succession of amazing new voices, but the main focus is increasingly on a pure – often perceived as erotic – timbre. Truth to tell, these vocal phenomena – whether celebrated for their Italianità or their sensuality – are less and less capable of real singing. Actually, they don’t really sing at all, if one measures them by the standards of true bel canto singing. Even Verdi’s contemporaries missed this in his works, because the master placed too much emphasis on expression and too little on the art of composing balanced vocal lines. This was the argument of critics mourning the end of the bel canto genre as found in its zenith in the works of Rossini and Bellini. According to purists, Verdi – and later Puccini, to an even greater extent – ultimately contributed to the downfall of the art of singing. And singers in the 20th century have taken this modern vocal style, vulgarized it even more – and then applied it to every type of music imaginable. If one compares this to the artificial vocal artistry of singers from the early ages of the gramophone, who wanted to save at least some remnants of bel canto culture on wax cylinders, then what was practiced on opera stages of the world towards the end of the 20th century must be simply and brutally called noise. With some colors and shades, but still noise. What does this have to do with a CD of Wagner’s works? A lot. We’re talking about Johan Botha, of course. About Johan P. Botha, as his name was printed on the program of the Vienna Volksoper. He appeared in the role of Rudolf in a new German-language production of Bohème, and was the reason that connoisseurs in the audience sat up and pricked their ears at his first entrance: a singer with discernable phrasing and finely chiseled vocal modulations long thought to have died out; heard in recent history only from a few little-known outsiders…

      Vienna regulars still rhapsodize about the big aria and Botha’s high C, brilliantly begun and slowly reduced to a piano, about his pianissimos in the duets – specifically the one in the third act. And everyone who said at the time that the South African tenor’s voice would begin to develop from the lyric to the heldentenor was right. What listeners heard was a pledge. And it was quickly fulfilled. Botha soon began making forays into the world of German opera. And because he could really sing – as he had sufficiently proven with Puccini – it seemed as though the Italian heldentenor roles had been composed just for him. When had a tenor sung such a Radames? With such sparkling clear and brilliant development – but also such profound and careful shaping in the often overlooked chamber musical scenes in this work.

      Vienna has become Botha’s artistic home. This showed itself in the tenor’s lack of conceit when it came to supporting the Volksoper – the “little sister” of the Vienna State Opera – in an ambitious undertaking: Wagner’s Meisteringer von Nürnberg. No one could have imagined a better Walther von Stolzing than Botha – and despite the fact that the tenor has long been engaged at the larger, international, more fashionable theater on Vienna’s Ring – he sang alongside Falk Struckmann’s Hans Sachs and gave his triumphal debut in a role which has come into disrepute as unsingable.

      This was Botha’s debut as an incredible Wagner singer, and the tenor has confirmed this fact many times since. Whenever Botha learned a new Wagner role, audience at the premieres always reported a touch of the legendary. In Botha’s first Vienna Lohengrin, for example, amazement was rampant in scenes where the main character – where most colleagues are fighting an uphill battle to muster their vocal reserves and simply survive – sang and sang and sang – brilliantly and with no apparent effort. During the Grail narration, he stems his powerful body against the sword which has been driven into the ground, and, well, narrates – every syllable clear, perfectly phrased and articulated. If Wagner had known Botha, he wouldn’t have deleted the second part of this monolog, which hardly any singer now dares to take on. And we finally hear this part again on this CD. Together with Simone Young, one of the tenor’s most significant partners on the conducting podium, Botha has accomplished a studio performance which he previously realized on stage with Daniel Barenboim in Berlin – as the first tenor in half a century and to the astonishment of the audience.

      Such positive shocks happen regularly during Botha’s performances. To recount another example, Botha was performing Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde under Giuseppe Sinopoli at the Vienna State Opera. It was time for the tenor entrance in Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, one of the horrors of every singer, where mercifully, wave after wave of orchestral melody more than once covers up and washes away the singer’s helplessness. This time, the Vienna Philharmonic played for all it was worth, nowhere holding back. Botha shone through all fortissimos, remained perfectly relaxed even when Mahler requires the singer to hold a high A for several bars and decrescendo to a piano. Botha did it. “Does he know how hard that is?!“ whispered one or another in the audience. “Let’s hope no one tells him!“ was the answer.

      Since then, fans can’t wait for the next new Botha role, especially in Wagner and Richard Strauss operas, which have been completely orphaned in recent years. Finally, a Kaiser for Frau ohne Schatten who is worthy of this title; finally one who is not afraid to take on Apollo in Daphne. It was perfectly logical to expect that the new Parsifal (2004, Vienna State Opera) would be child’s play for Botha. Just as his involvement in the concertante performance of Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy (recently released on CD) helped rehabilitate a completely misunderstood work. Then, there are the assets of this unmistakable tenor voice to marvel at: radiance with no loss of power at the top of the range, a range of colors allowing every possible expressive nuance and – the really amazing thing in a singer with so much power – the ability to carefully model phrases and adapt them perfectly to the text at hand.

      Vienna’s music-lovers are already excited that Botha will soon be singing a new Wagner role: Erik in Flying Dutchman. And they are already speculating about what his Tristan would be like. Most assume that they won’t have to wait much longer. When one listens to this CD, one can already imagine Siegmund.

      Dr. Wilhelm Sinkovicz is the lead music reviewer of the Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse.
      Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
        Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
        • 1.„Fanget an!”07:03
        • 2.„Am stillen Herd in Winterszeit”04:44
        • 3.„Morgendlich leuchtet”05:07
      • Der fliegende Holländer
        • 4.„Bleib’ Senta! Bleib nur einen Augenblick!” 112:27
        • 5.„Was mußt’ ich hören!”
          „Willst jenes Tag’s du nicht dich mehr entsinnen” 1
      • Lohengrin
        • 6.„In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten”10:25
      • Die Walküre
        • 7.„Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” 215:50
      • Parsifal
        • 8.„Nur eine Waffe taugt”06:32
      • Total:01:08:17