The Gramophone Choice
Katarina Dalayman (sop) Brünnhilde Lars Cleveman (ten) Siegfried Attila Jun (bass) Hagen Peter Coleman-Wright (bass-bar) Gunther Nancy Gustafson (sop) Gutrune Andrew Shore (bar) Alberich Susan Bickley (mez) Waltraute Miranda Keys (sop) Yvonne Howard (mez) Ceri Williams (contr) Norns Katherine Broderick (sop) Madeleine Shaw, Leah‑Marian Jones (mezs) Rhinemaidens Hallé Choir; BBC Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Chorus; Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus; Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLD7525; MP3 disc CDHLM7530
(4h 44’ · DDD · S). Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon
Recorded live, this performance serves as both culmination of, and progress report on, Sir Mark Elder’s first decade with the Hallé. It gives the players, in extenso, the chance to display their current skills and to show how the Hallé has come to reacquire, under Elder, its verve in Romantic 19th- and early-20th-century scores.
Although Elder was an early student of both Georg Solti and Edward Downes, relatively quick Wagnerians, his own Wagner has more parallels in texturing and overall Klang to the 1970s ENO Ring performances under Reginald Goodall. There is evidence of how Elder has absorbed Goodall-like detail and patience, and passed it on to his players: the wind-playing throughout, the needlepoint-accurate placing and enunciation of the timpani part, or the tricky string concertato under Gutrune’s final, vain attempt to denounce Brünnhilde in Act 3.
But Elder uses time to put distinct space or style into a particular scene more than to make grand, weighty effects. His Act 1 Gibich court, characterfully inhabited by experienced vocal actors Peter Coleman-Wright and Nancy Gustafson, is rather French in its instrumental cadenzas and trills – a reference Wagner surely intended. And much of Act 3’s longer-than-usual playing time is used, in the hunters’ feast scene that precedes Siegfried’s murder, for careful observation of Wagner’s pauses and tempo changes to achieve a tension not normally attained until the Funeral March proper.
The situation of a concert performance – including here the splitting of the opera over two nights – allows for greater freshness of voice and accuracy in passages like Siegfried’s exit aria in Act 2 (‘Munter, ihr Mannen!’) or the intervals Brünnhilde has to negotiate in her Act 2 accusations. Attila Jun not only sounds like one of the blackest Hagens since the Greindl/Frick heyday but can place his bleating sheep imitations and other cadential moments spot on the note. Rhinemaidens and Norns are rich individually and together. Susan Bickley makes Waltraute’s tale a tragedy of loss more than a disguised plea for the ring, and Andrew Shore returns his Alberich from Bayreuth with interest.
The whole is topped by a serious and quite dark pair from Sweden. Lars Cleveman is a thinking, tragic Siegfried, well matching his conductor’s conception of the work. His Brünnhilde, Katarina Dalayman, brings a good mixture of soprano and mezzo colours to the role, by turns steely and strong, or touchingly vulnerable. Her Immolation is unusually visionary and clear-sighted.
The recording quality plays to, or has used, the hall and the performance well, accommodating the large full chorus. There is a goodly space around the orchestra, the singers and important solos never sounding artificially engineered. Off- or near-stage perspectives are convincingly realised. This release on the Hallé’s own label intriguingly offers the opera on either a single MP3 disc or a five-CD set, making the new performance competitive and immediately tempting as a second-option choice. In any event it’s the most compelling and best-cast Götterdämmerung on disc since Barenboim’s from Bayreuth.
Astrid Varnay (sop) Brünnhilde Bernd Aldenhoff (ten) Siegfried Ludwig Weber (bass) Hagen Hermann Uhde (bar) Gunther Martha Mödl (sop) Gutrune, Third Norn Heinrich Pflanzl (bass) Alberich Elisabeth Höngen (mez) Waltraute Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (sop) Woglinde Hanna Ludwig (sop) Wellgunde Hertha Töpper (mez) Flosshilde Ruth Siewert (mez) First Norn Ira Malaniuk (mez) Second Norn Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Hans Knappertsbusch
Testament mono d SBT4175 (4h 41' · ADD · S/T/t) Recorded live 1951. Buy from Amazon
Testament awakened this sleeping Brünnhilde after half a century in Decca’s vaults, held there because of an age-old dispute over rights between that company and EMI. This is a fitting memorial, alongside the exactly contemporaneous Parsifal (Teldec), to the phoenix-like reincarnation of Bayreuth post-war and to Wieland Wagner’s genius as a producer and gatherer of all the talents to the Green Hill. The other hero of the occasion, as with Parsifal, is Knappertsbusch. From the first bars of the Prologue he takes us right into the work, as concerned as three notable Norns (Mödl the most arresting of the three when prophesying the conflagration to come) with the inevitability of the tragic events portrayed within. He then takes us from Stygian gloom to mountain-top ecstasy with a masterly touch few equal. There we meet Varnay’s youthful, vibrant, womanly heroine. Beside her is Aldenhoff’s not-so-lovely Siegfried, yet once you become accustomed to his aggrandising, extrovert moments you hear a Heldentenor in the old mould, alive to every word and communicating with his audience. Later, arriving at Gibichung Hall, you meet the most forthright, articulate Gunther in Uhde. His greeting to Siegfried, ‘Begrüsse froh, O Held’, makes one realise why Uhde is pre- eminent in this role. Beside him is Weber’s louring, gloating, ambitious Hagen. What intelligence there is in every bar he sings (try ‘Ein Weib weiss ich’ or the whole of the Watch). As Gutrune, Mödl isn’t your usual sweet-toned milksop but a women not afraid to show her deep emotions. The great mezzo Höngen as Waltraute conveys with amazing immediacy Wotan’s despair, and, with a shudder in her tone at ‘Da brach sich sein Blick’, the tenderness of his thoughts on his beloved Brünnhilde, makes one feel it to be the most moving moment in the whole Ring and consoling us for occasionally grainy tone.
Throughout Act 2, Knappertsbusch is trenchant in characterising the tremendous conflicts depicted therein. Weber rouses the vassals with vigorous enthusiasm. Varnay is tremendous in her denunciations of Siegfried, Aldenhoff as vivid in his replies. Such immediacy can only be found in the opera house – damn the momentary lapses in ensemble, the few distractions when scenery is being moved or the audience coughs. In Act 3 the Rhinemaidens, led by Schwarzkopf, are too backwardly placed, the sole blot on the sound picture. In Siegfried’s Narration, Aldenhoff captures the vitality of his earlier exploits, supported by gloriously rippling strings, and sings a fulsome death-song. Knappertsbusch, eagerly supported by Bayreuth’s hand-picked orchestra (all individually named in the accompanying booklet), unleashes all the tremendous import of the Funeral March. Finally, Varnay carries all before her, in better voice than later at Bayreuth, in a visionary account of the Immolation that rightly crowns a noble interpretation of her role and the whole work. The recording is superior even to that of the 1951 Parsifal, with only a few passages of uncertain balance to fault it, supporting an experience nobody ought to miss.
Heinz Kruse (ten) Siegfried John Bröcheler (bass-bar) Wanderer Jeannine Altmeyer (sop) Brünnhilde Graham Clark (ten) Mime Henk Smit (bar) Alberich Anne Gjevang (contr) Erda Carsten Stabell (bass) Fafner Stefan Pangratz (treb) Woodbird Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / Hartmut Haenchen
Stage director Pierre Audi
Video director Misjel Vermeiren
Opus Arte DVD OA0948D (4h 33’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 1999. Buy from Amazon
Jeannine Altmeyer (sop) Brünnhilde Heinz Kruse (ten) Siegfried Kurt Rydl (bass) Hagen Wolfgang Schöne (bass-bar) Gunther Eva-Maria Bundschuh (sop) Gutrune Henk Smit (bass) Alberich Anne Gjevang (mez) Waltraute Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra / Hartmut Haenchen
Stage director Pierre Audi
Video director Hans Hulscher
Opus Arte DVD OA0949D (4h 29’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 1999. Buy from Amazon
The Pierre Audi Amsterdam Ring wholly justifies Opus Arte’s decision to follow up so soon its uneven Harry Kupfer/Barcelona cycle. Audi and designer George Tsypin work with a varying series of thrillingly lit (Wolfgang Goebbel) acting areas, Hartmut Haenchen’s orchestra(s) constantly visible in a manner reminiscent of Baroque theatre. There may be reservations about Haenchen’s straight, low-profile interpretation of the music (given in the new critical edition, here featuring colourful percussion and sound effects, and some new brass pitches at the opening of Act 3 of Götterdämmerung), or the harshness of Eiko Ishioka’s far from conventionally beautiful Japanese theatrical costumes. But there can surely be few about the freshness of Audi’s theatrical thinking, and his reinvention of ‘deconstructionist’ effects – Fafner as his own mouth; a fierily lit and smoked platform to walk into; or the Wanderer’s spear presented for Siegfried to break as a huge, ceiling-high, world ash tree-like totem. The visible Woodbird (at last, as Wagner wished, taken by a boy) with his white, waif-like cockade of hair is also a moving presence, especially at the violent death of Mime.
Audi has cast and used his singing actors well. Altmeyer goes from strength to strength, proving how right she was that Brünnhilde was her role. Clark delivers another variation on his widely travelled Mime, now older, more worried, perhaps more frightening. Gjevang, a matchless Erda, then unveils a Waltraute that for textual understanding, projection and sheer intensity you’d have to have on a desert island. Her Act 1 colleagues in Götterdämmerung – Rydl’s neurotic, exhibitionist Hagen and the identical-looking Sebastian/Viola incestuous Gibichungs of Bundschuh and Schöne – provide compulsive acting too. And when Siegfried comes to the rock with the tarnhelm? You’ll have to see (and hear!) for yourself.
A black mark, though, to Opus Arte for forgetting (totally) the chorus in Götterdämmerung – viewers intrigued by their Cuprinol-advertisement wooden-puppet look may want to know who they are. The Netherlands Philharmonic lack, in the final pages of Götterdämmerung, the necessary lustrous string tone; in Siegfried, their Rotterdam colleagues are idiomatically magnificent. If you’re buying individually, the Audi Götterdämmerung is mandatory.