WAGNER Siegfried (Elder)
This new Siegfried completes Mark Elder and the Hallé’s Ring, nine years in the making from concerts in Manchester and Edinburgh to record release. This is not, of course, the first time that a symphony orchestra without regular experience of work in an opera theatre’s pit has done this. The Vienna Symphony were responsible for the earliest complete single project Ring cycle one can now collect on disc (1948 49 under Rudolf Moralt); Furtwängler and the RAI Rome followed a few years later; and the most recent rival to the Hallé’s set (the Hong Kong Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden) was completed only last year. And that’s not to mention the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan (studio-recorded first, then performed in the theatre), Ascher Fisch with the Seattle Symphony or the two cycles (Dresden Staatskapelle and Berlin Radio Symphony) under Marek Janowski. A long time ago (although within living memory) a concert based symphony orchestra was often considered a better option for recording Wagner’s tricky part-writing; nowadays we tend to prefer the natural practical experience of a band used to playing with singers.
One of Elder’s principal achievements in this cycle – and nowhere more so than in this newcomer – is that he has got this special sheen of stage experience from his symphony orchestra. It’s more than just a question of thoroughly accomplished technical playing; it’s a question of living with and feeling the drama of these scores through the colour and pace of their rendering of the score. For that alone these recordings deserve a competitive place in today’s catalogues from which you can now access around 40 recordings of the complete cycle. Elder has also deepened and refined his own handling of Wagner, balancing a Reginald Goodall-like quest for detail – and integrating some quite generous tempos – with a Furtwängler- or Solti-like attention to the drama.
The casting, as throughout the cycle, shows awareness of new and upcoming achievements. To state the obvious, Siegfried is a big sing, and Simon O’Neill – whose clear attention to and projection of the text is both praiseworthy and ever-increasing – can sound pushed in heavier passages into a thinner, more ‘character’ tone. This doesn’t spoil an overall impression of youthful ardour and freshness of approach, an important common factor throughout this cast, be it in the approaches of the experienced (and here not over-mannered) Mime of Gerhard Siegel or the exciting relative newcomers, Iain Paterson’s Wanderer/Wotan and Rachel Nicholls’s Brünnhilde. As in his Rheingold performance (7/18), Paterson’s god – refreshingly strong in the high-lying passages at the start of Act 3 – is suave and assured without any trace of the cynical manipulator that had become almost a cliché copied from various stage productions. Nicholls sounds every inch the fresh and young Valkyrie, without that mock goddess grandeur that many older interpreters have brought to this part of the role. Her text is not quite as ‘in’ the voice yet as it will surely become but the emotions are clarion-clear.
The newness of approach, evidently relished by the conductor, is further touched on in Malin Christensson’s clear but full-sounding Woodbird and the Siegfried’s horn-playing of the young, BBC award-winning Ben Goldscheider, which really does sound fresh and rustic, not like knocking off a routine practised umpteen times before. Strong contributions also from, especially, Martin Winkler’s Alberich (quite frightening in his confrontation with Wotan), Clive Bayley’s Fafner (with a voice trumpet that sounds more acoustic than electric) and Anna Larsson’s familiar Erda. As before in the cycle, the recording presents thoroughly convincing balances for the work.
An outstanding achievement, then, and one which should be placed very high in the ‘form order’ of competing versions – especially of newer Siegfrieds – it’s now almost impossible to draw up. The performance’s concentration makes for compelling and important listening. There’s a link to download a libretto and English translation.