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Alberto Remedios - Siegfried
Gregory Dempsey - Mime
Norman Bailey - Wanderer
Derek Hammond-Stroud - Alberich
Clifford Grant - Fafner
Anne Collins - Erda
Rita Hunter - Brünnhilde
Maurine London - Voice of the Woodbird

Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra/Reginald Goodall
CHANDOS CHAN 3045(4), 4 discs [63.10, 67.34, 74.33, 73.01], Mid-price
Crotchet  £34 AmazonUK   AmazonUS $51.27

Wagner's Siegfried - an opera that took over 20 years to complete, which introduces the central character of the Ring and contains one of the longest and most intense love duets in all music - remains to this day the least popular of the cycle. Jon Vickers refused to contemplate singing Siegfried describing the role as 'thankless' and conductors have not always been successful in recording the work. Solti's otherwise fine recording has a weak Mime (the highly mannered Gerhard Stolze); Furtwängler, in Rome, has a strained Siegfried in Ludwig Suthaus (Solti's Windgassen being a particular triumph, although he is even more persuasive for Karl Böhm). Karajan, worst of all, suffers from poor casting even beyond his Siegfried, Jess Thomas. Goodall's recording is by no means perfect but it has a consistency all of these recordings lack, and a coherence which somehow achieves an equilibrium between the Tristanesque third act and the mythic first and second acts.

Siegfried is a comparatively dark work which possibly adds to its enduring unpopularity - with tenor/bass dominating the vocal character of the work. The orchestration in part mirrors this - with crashing brass sounds, low strings and gut-wrenching woodwind predominating. The pedestrian gait of the work (at least compared with the preceding operas) is highlighted by the singular lack of on-stage action. Very few scenes in Siegfried require more than two characters on stage at a single time. Some performances, the one under review here and Solti's, positively meld this into interpretations of incredible intensity and tautness. Others, notably Karajan's, achieve breadth but at the cost of electricity. Solti is notably faster than Goodall (over 40 minutes so) and his performance does have a vitality Goodall's doesn't (in the Forging Scene, for example). Solti's Forging Scene is highly dramatic (albeit mechanical) whereas Goodall's ultimately lacks momentum. However, Goodall's slower tempo adds such weight to the playing that his scene alone conveys the terror of the music. When Siegfried kills Fafner Goodall is again slower than Solti but there is never a hint that the Goodall performance is anything other than mercurial. Goodall, often an acerbic man in life, brings genuine wit to the Mime/Wanderer exchanges. Here only Furtwängler rivals Goodall's understanding of the music. Where Goodall outflanks all is in the lyricism of the reflective passages. Hearing Goodall's magnificent account of the Forest Murmurs scene in Act II is symptomatic of his approach to the entire opera. Here we have Wagner summoning up a lush canvas - from undulating cellos to the effect of divided strings shimmering in the distance. Goodall literally paints this music before our eyes and ears - the appearance of the woodbird conveyed by startling oboe and flute melodies. Listen to how Goodall weaves a sound of woody calm throughout much of this act, largely skipped over by Solti, and you have a performance which is utterly magical in its colouring.

Come to Act III and Goodall is simply in a class of his own. The orchestral playing is fabulous - so beautiful one imagines what made it possible. In no other performance does the striking parallel with Wagner's paean to love, Siegfried Idyll, appear so startlingly vivid. There is, indeed, a breadth and nobility throughout Goodall's reading of this act which makes his performance unique - it is almost as if Goodall is conducting Italian opera. The scene between Erda and the Wanderer is sublime, the duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde splendidly evocative. It all falls inspirationally into place in a way no other recording of this act seems to. It is quite possibly Goodall's single greatest achievement.

The main problem with many performances, although the triumph in this one, is the casting of Siegfried. It is possibly the most daunting role in all opera and only one singer has successfully, and unequivocally, scaled its heights - Lauritz Melchior. Goodall's Alberto Remedios is the nearest we have to a great post-war performance (confirmed to the Earl of Harewood by Furtwängler's widow, Elisabeth, after she heard one of the early performances) - his singing is magnificent, strong, lyrical, and tirelessly successful in conveying the youthful exuberance and all round characterisation of the role. It is all the more remarkable because this recording emanates from live performances: there is little suggestion of Remedios flagging whatsoever during his long duet with Brünnhilde, an equally fine Rita Hunter in imperious form.

There are, in fact, very few weak links in the casting. Norman Bailey is a towering Wanderer - no longer the all knowing God but someone willing to welcome the destruction of the Gods as he bequeaths his kingdom to Siegfried. Gregory Dempsey is a suitably odious Mime - jocular and evil. Derek Hammond-Stroud is a brooding Alberich, Anne Collins an authoritative and profound Erda. All remarkably fine and all the equal or near equal of their more famous continental rivals.

This is probably the finest Siegfried on record, a wondrous performance which doesn't begin to hint at the problems which almost scuppered it. Although this performance dates from late in 1973 (and was recorded earlier in the cycle than either The Valkyrie or Twilight of the Gods to capture Remedios's Siegfried in full blossom) it ran into difficulty early on. Rita Hunter was, at the close of 1972, understudying Birgit Nilsson at the Metropolitan Opera House and was needed in London to start rehearsals for the love duet. On her return in January she soon absconded to Munich to cover for an indisposed Nilsson but Hunter's mother died and she returned to Liverpool for the funeral rather than attend Goodall's rehearsals of Acts I and II (in which, of course, she has no role). The ensuing row was never healed with Goodall and Hunter blaming each other for the fractiousness. To make matters worse, Goodall also inflamed Norman Bailey, singing his first Wanderer. Bailey had been singing Kurwenal in Tristan at Covent Garden when the first performance of Siegfried had been scheduled - Goodall taking Bailey's defection as a personal affront. Relations between singers and conductor may never have been as perfect as they once were but, fortunately, the recorded results speaks volumes for the levels of artistry obtained in difficult (though by no means unique) circumstances.

Chandos' remastering of this set is exemplary - with a sound similar in resonance to that which was given to The Valkyrie. It is an extremely fine achievement for a remarkable and lasting performance.

Marc Bridle

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