The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has been nominated for Gramophone's Orchestra of the Year Award 2019, presented with Apple Music. The Award is decided by public vote and you can vote for them at the Gramophone Awards page. The article below was originally printed in November 2016, when the orchestra were part-way through their Ring cycle with conductor Jaap van Zweden for Naxos.
Just over a year ago, I wrote in these pages about a heartening new development in the story of opera on record: a lavish studio recording of Aida being made by Warner Classics. That went on to win a Gramophone Award and suggested a return to a lost world of star-studded studio recordings of large-scale opera. But if that Aida rightly garnered the headlines, there’s another project underway that is perhaps just as worthy of attention: a minor revolution, perhaps, to complement the possible revival hinted at by Warner’s Aida.
Given that it was Wagner’s Ring and Georg Solti’s famous Decca recording of it that might be seen as the starting point of opera recording at its most ambitious, it is apt that this project also involves Wagner’s grand tetralogy. But what also makes this project remarkable is the fact that the label is Naxos – although its founder, Klaus Heymann, has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
Naxos’s opera catalogue shouldn’t be underestimated, and already includes a Ring cycle, the release of a live recording from Stuttgart. This is very different, however, as Heymann tells me when we meet the day after the first of the two concert performances of Die Walküre that form the basis for the new recording of the ‘first day’ of the cycle (Naxos’s recording of the Das Rheingold was released a year ago, and the same pattern of recording early in the year and releasing in the autumn is planned for the subsequent instalments). The venue is the Hong Kong Cultural Concert Hall on the waterfront of Kowloon, just along from where you can catch the famous Star Ferry, one of the few relics of old Empire days that has survived the wave of modernisation that’s swept over the former principality, over to Hong Kong Island.
Heymann talks with well-earned confidence – there’s hardly an industry storm that this canny operator hasn’t successfully weathered – and makes it clear how close to his heart, and to his adopted home of 40 years, this project is. Yet he admits that he was initially sceptical. It was the brainchild of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s recently installed conductor Jaap van Zweden, who, having performed the rest of the Wagner canon in his role as chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (with which he recorded a well received Parsifal with Challenge Classics) was determined to do a Ring cycle. He was determined, too, to do it with Matthias Goerne – associated more often with Lieder than with the heavier end of the Germanic operatic spectrum – as Wotan.
‘They came to me, as we’re the local record company of the orchestra, and asked what I thought,’ Heymann explains. ‘I said, “It’s crazy! Who do you think is going to buy it?” And then, you know, they were discussing casts: Goerne is a selling point; the orchestra can probably play it,’ he adds with a touch of characteristically laconic understatement. When the rest of the cast started to take shape, so the viability of the project also seemed to grow in Heymann’s eyes, with the luxurious conditions for the recording also playing a role. For the Rheingold there was a dress rehearsal, two performances and two patch sessions. For Die Walküre, it’s the same pair of performances plus dress rehearsal, as well as a generous six patch sessions: ‘These are, in a way, ideal conditions that you just don’t have nowadays,’ he says.
And Heymann is confident in his cast, too – with good reason. Besides the eye-catching inclusion of Goerne, there is Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund, arguably the finest before the public today, as well as a clutch of other experienced Wagnerians: Falk Struckmann, himself a fine Wotan earlier in his career, is Hunding; Petra Lang is Brünnhilde and Michelle DeYoung Fricka; Heidi Melton, English National Opera’s recent Isolde opposite Skelton’s Tristan, is Sieglinde. There is a top-notch clutch of international Valkyries, too. ‘It’s difficult to find a cast like that even in a major opera house today,’ Heymann says. ‘Stuart is fantastic as Siegmund; Matthias Goerne – the diction, the expression! How they all sing in tune!’ He cites, as the icing on the cake, the fact that his wife, the violinist Takako Nishizaki, approves: ‘She was sitting next to me at the concert last night,’ he recalls, ‘and she can be very fussy about singer intonation and vibrato!’
Much of his confidence in the second instalment of the cycle comes from the reception of the Rheingold. ‘Jaap was actually not quite so sure that he wanted to have it released on record. It was a risky thing, and we would get compared with all the great Wagner conductors. And it’s a Hong Kong orchestra. I expected people to say, “A Ring from Hong Kong? Brwar!”’ – he accompanies his exclamation with a gesture of dismissiveness. ‘But we had only one bad review in Luxembourg; everything else was extremely positive.’
There has also been a subsequent boost, which not even Heymann could have had predicted: the extra interest in the project that has been generated from Van Zweden being appointed to the helm of the New York Philharmonic. And the two singers I speak to, Skelton and Goerne, have nothing but praise for the Dutch maestro, whose work not just as an orchestral trainer but also as a clear-sighted Wagnerian shines through at the performance, the second of the two, that I attend – as do the benefits for cast and players of a long two-week rehearsal period.
‘This is a normal sort of rehearsal period you need for an opera like this – but for a staged version,’ Goerne tells me. Here, he says, it was ‘just with the focus on the music.’ He’s full of praise, too, for the orchestra: ‘We should not forget that we’re 5000 km away from the places where Wagner is usually played. It’s the first time for them, and the result, I think, is astonishing – the orchestra! The ease!’
As we talk, the baritone is keen to brush away the suggestion that Wotan might be seen as a departure for him, although he admits, as is his normal practice, that he didn’t consider the role until he got a firm offer from Van Zweden to be involved: ‘He asked me, and I said, “I think I can do this.” You sing just Wotan’s Farewell in a concert, that is not so difficult. It becomes more difficult when you have to sing for these two hours before it!’
A pragmatic approach to the nuts and bolts of the singing is matched by a clear fascination with the role, as well as some firmly held views on what Wagner singing can and should be. It’s no surprise that Goerne should advocate a joined-up way of thinking concerning not just the notes but also the way they and the words fit together. ‘This scene with Brünnhilde is so interesting,’ he explains, referring to Act 3’s extended negotiation and farewell between Wotan and his daughter, ‘and he becomes very ironic. This sort of Ironie’ – Goerne pronounces the word with its rich German intonation – ‘and sarcasm, what’s inside, this is so difficult to project. It looks so easy but has to be so lyrical; this is so difficult to do.
‘The words and the meaning are so compressed and complex,’ he continues. ‘Wagner’s also using a very strange kind of German. But it’s a masterpiece.’ Goerne has very clear views about how this German should be communicated, about how many, he feels, overemphasise it. ‘The articulation of the words is overdone,’ he says, spitting out a random selection of consonants to underline his point. ‘The consonants get louder than the vowel before, then you might have in the diminuendo a very strong “T”, which sits as this kind of mark at the end, so that everything that comes before it is a little bit useless. There’s not enough piano; there’s not enough lyrical sound; there aren’t enough differences – and the differences are what makes it clear that we’re talking about something that’s human.’
I ask if he sees his own approach as anything new, but he views it in fact as being rooted in a long tradition of a more lyrical approach to this music. ‘We had Ferdinand Frantz,’ he says, referring to the Wotan on Fürtwängler’s famous 1954 Vienna recording of Die Walküre. Listening to that recording, one can hear exactly what he means.
However, it’s an approach that is only really possible with a sympathetic orchestra and conductor, as Goerne makes clear. ‘What’s astonishing here is that the orchestra is never too loud, and even when they play loud, it’s not aggressive.’ He refers to van Zweden’s enormous knowledge as an orchestral musician – the conductor spent two decades, from the age of 18, as leader of the Concertgebouw Orchestra – as paying dividends in the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s string section in particular: ‘They have a rich sound, which gives the impression of being very dramatic, but it’s still mezzo-forte sometimes – amazing!’
Goerne comes across as relaxed, but that’s nothing compared with the easy-going confidence Skelton conveys when I meet him. It’s January and the tenor still has his first Tristans to look forward to later in the year, in Baden-Baden and New York, as well as at English National Opera in London. But he’s clearly relishing revisiting a favourite role in Siegmund, one that he has recorded three times already, albeit in live recordings from staged productions. ‘It’s an absolute gift of a role,’ he tells me, ‘and he’s been very kind to me over a long period of time.’ It’s certainly kind to him in the performance I attend, too, where he sings it with a thrilling heroism and confidence.
In our conversation, Skelton can’t conceal his enthusiasm for the project. ‘I love this orchestra: such an incredibly talented group. And Jaap has an amazing set of ears for the details of the score. I know most of the people in the cast – in this repertoire you tend to work with the same people – and it’s been a barrel of laughs. I love it! It’s terrific to be playing with a young orchestra, an orchestra that doesn’t get to play this repertoire very often, and to see them embrace it so enthusiastically.’
When I meet van Zweden himself, he exudes much of the same controlled energy that comes across in his precise, disciplined platform manner. He’s reluctant to be drawn into the specific details of how he has managed to train his players to tackle Wagner with an ease that would be the envy of many an opera house orchestra – or maybe he just knows it’s a process that’s difficult to put into words. But the extent to which he believes in his players is clear. ‘People would expect any orchestra, but not a Hong Kong orchestra, to do this well, to pull this off. But this orchestra has so much talent, and is such a force by itself already that I knew they’d be strong enough.’
His earlier experience in having to familiarise the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, an orchestra similarly used to playing just the symphonic repertoire, with Wagner must have come in handy, I suggest. But van Zweden simply emphasises the two orchestras’ shared enthusiasm. ‘The eagerness is the same,’ he says, while also bluntly noting one major advantage his Dutch players had: the Concertgebouw hall itself. ‘Although this hall’s really good, it’s not the Concertgebouw, let’s be honest!’ He describes the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s Concert Hall, a rough contemporary of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (with which it perhaps bears a passing visual if not sonic resemblance), as ‘perhaps a little direct and dry’. But he talked to the series’ producer and engineer Phil Rowlands – who is admiringly invoked by all the people I speak to – in order to achieve the sound he wanted. ‘I told him that I would like to have just a little bit more space in the sound than that which we hear on stage. That cost us a little bit of time in the beginning, but now I think he’s happy with what he hears back.’
Van Zweden doesn’t underplay his experience working as the Concertgebouw’s leader, but is clear about his own approach – one that shows what a good match for Goerne’s Wotan, in particular, this conductor is. ‘The thing is, the key point, I would say, is to get inspired by the singers. Because after all these years, I think the voice is the instrument of music-making. When you hear Stuart or the other singers open up, you get inspired by them. I told the orchestra that we need to get in with these voices, to try and have this communication with these voices – especially in the strings.’
More broadly the whole project fits in with van Zweden’s plan to claim a strong position on the global musical map for his Hong Kong band. When we speak, he’s just finished conducting a Beethoven cycle with them, and Bruckner and Mahler cycles are major parts of their forthcoming plans. ‘This is an orchestra that is very young, only 41 years old,’ he tells me, ‘and I told them that if they really want to make history for themselves, they need to pick up the big pieces.’
Time will tell whether the Hong Kong Philharmonic does make history with its Ring – the cast announced for Siegfried in January already has some additional eye-catching elements that include Simon O’Neill in the title-role and Melton graduating to Brünnhilde. But few will argue that there are any bigger pieces out there with which these musicians can prove themselves to the world, or that there is any record company better placed to help them than Naxos.