First Listen: Cleveland Orchestra Performs Wagner

When it comes to controversial classical-music maverick Richard Wagner, it's hard to find an album that appeals to newcomers and diehards alike. But Franz Welser-Most's new recording with the Cleveland Orchestra contains something for everybody. Recorded live at Cleveland's Severance Hall, the orchestra presents a diverse collection of Wagner's operatic orchestral music, from the neglected overture to Rienzi (the 29-year-old Wagner's first hit opera) to the ubiquitous "Ride of the Valkyries" and the harmonically forward-looking "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde.

At the heart of the album lies Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman's eloquent interpretation of the Wesendonck Lieder. The piece was originally titled "Five Poems for Female Voice," and the female in question was Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of one of Wagner's benefactors. While living in a cottage (with his own wife) on the Wesendonck estate, Wagner fell deeply in love with Mathilde, whose poetry provides the basis of these songs. Whether their affair was ever consummated has never been proven definitively, but the unfulfilled yearning that fuels the music is palpable.

Brueggergosman joins the ranks of Birgit Nilsson, Jessye Norman and Kirstin Flagstad in recording this classic song cycle. Though she had open-heart surgery less than a year ago, there's no evidence that Brueggergosman let that slow her down. Critics have praised the vibrant personality she brings to performances, and some are even calling her Jessye Norman's heir -- not bad for a singer barely into her 30s. Brueggergosman's first recording on the Deutsche Gramophon label was 2007's Surprise, a collection of amusing cabaret songs which won her a Juno Award (Canada's Grammy) for Classical Album of the Year. With the Wesendonck Lieder, she demonstrates her versatility, navigating Wagner's tortured, mysterious musical landscape with sensitivity and finesse.

Hear the album in its entirety until its release on July 27. Please leave your thoughts on Measha Brueggergosman, the Cleveland Orchestra, Richard Wagner, Franz Welser-Most and this collection in the comments section below.

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