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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold - music drama in one act (1869)
Wolfgang Probst (bass-baritone) … Wotan
Motti Kaston (baritone) .. Donner
Bernhard Schneider (tenor) ... Froh
Robert Kunzli (tenor) ... Loge
Michaela Schuster (mezzo) ... Fricka
Helga Ros Indridadottir (mezzo) ... Freia
Mette Ejsing (contralto) ... Erda
Esa Ruuttunen (bass-baritone) ... Alberich
Eberhard Francesco Lorenz (tenor) ... Mime
Roland Bracht (bass) ... Fasolt
Phillip Ens (bass) ... Fafner
Catriona Smith (soprano) ...Woglinde
Maria Theresa Ullrich (mezzo) ...Wellgunde
Margarete Joswig (mezzo) ... Floβhilde

Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek
rec. live, Staatsoper Stutgart, Germany, 28 September, 29 December 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.660170-71 [72:14 + 76:22]
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A theme of Rheingold is 'making' things. Building a castle, agreeing contracts, attempting to ‘make love’, undertaking a quest, securing power and, of course, forging an almost all-powerful ring. Linked with this, Peter Conway, in his book A Song of Love and Death, also argues Rheingold is partly about the industry of opera itself. The battering anvils of the Nibelung and the construction project of the gods are thereby a metaphor for Wagner's art.

Böhm drives this industriousness through forward-leaning tempi and Solti via (over)energetic conducting. Goodall's live account reveals a deeper, more majestic inexorable power with tempi that are so grand that his Rheingold is spread over 3 CDs. Lothar Zagrosek and his fine Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra begin their new Naxos Ring cycle charting a middle course with overall timings of about 150 minutes, almost exactly the same as Barenboim.

But the stop-watch tells only part of the story. Zagrosek’s saturated orchestral sound is far less brassy than Solti, and to a lesser extent, Barenboim, whose Bayreuth brass section is wonderful in any event. Throughout Zagrosek's recording I keep noticing a beautiful darkness and depth to the soundstage with the double basses and cellos thrillingly present.

Much of Zagrosek’s phrasing just feels longer and deeper. If the orchestral crescendo building to Donner’s hammer blow is less exciting than the quicker Barenboim then, my goodness, the revealed orchestral colours and internal balances, such as the clear violin figures gathering prominence, bring much compensation. Another excellent example is the final brass peroration as the gods enter Valhalla. Zagrosek does not yet have the rhythmic snap of Barenboim, Krauss or Solti, but like Goodall is more deeply majestic. Yet Zagrosek can be mercurially exciting when needed, especially after Alberich uses the ring in scene 3. His rhythms are not too insistent and the brass never blare unduly; the music remains poetic rather than 'pushed'. So whilst Zagrosek is quicker than Goodall this is still a darkly glittering world where Wotan can truly sing "Terrible now I find the power of the curse".

Furtwängler (live 1953, Rome) also recognises the dark undercurrents but brings a physical dramatic power to crescendi, that leaves me cheering. I occasionally miss that in Zagrosek's Rheingold. When in scene 4 Alberich calls and then dismisses the oppressed Nibelungs Furtwängler is more overwhelming, evoking mounting terror despite the limitation of the sound and his orchestra.

This Stuttgart Staatsopera production is supported by some of the best Ring sound engineering I have heard. The orchestra is spread across a wide-screen sound picture, which is appropriate considering the CDs were lifted from a DVD film soundtrack. Solti's producer John Culshaw may have reconsidered his aversion to live recordings if only he had heard such engineering which here reveals Wagner's miraculous orchestration, with voices clear but never too forward. Unfortunately the Nibelung’s industrious metalwork at the opening of scene 3 sounds too polite and tinkly. And why use a drum rather than an anvil for Donner’s hammer-blow? That hammer-blow and subsequent thunder do not fill the stage as impressively as for Goodall or Barenboim. Yet Naxos's overall dynamic range is impressive and when listening through headphones I was forced to turn down the volume when the brass opened out in the final coda.

This is a live theatre recording so the voices move about a real stage, sometimes even shifting across speakers in between lines. There is the occasional barely perceptible cough and warm applause at the end. Although the microphones are close, you can sense the theatre acoustic.

From the start the dark swells and currents at the bottom of the Rhine are beautifully evoked. Listen to those basses and how Wagner tubas emerge, flow and meld! Zagrosek holds a firm line throughout, building the scene patiently towards the culmination as the Ring is snatched away.

Zagrosek's cheated Rheinmaidens are full of character with lovely voices. We also meet one of the stars of the show: Esa Ruuttunen's Alberich. If not as darkly metallic as Neidlinger (try the 1955 Siegfried on Testament reviewed here) he modulates his voice to show Alberich's comic failures at wooing the ladies and malicious cunning when he exacts his revenge. Later in scene 3 Ruuttunen forms a brilliant partnership with Eberhard Francesco Lorenz's youthful Mime who cleverly sounds like a whining underling within well sung phrasing.

In scene 2 we meet the gods and, sadly, the gaping hole at the centre of this Rheingold: Wolfgang Probst's inadequate Wotan. Comparisons with Barenboim’s John Tomlinson or Norman Bailey for Goodall are cruel. The moment they start to sing you know that you are encountering a commanding leader of the Gods. Probst's key distinction is an unsteady voice. For instance Zagrosek and the orchestra open out towards Wotan’s anchoring declaration "So grüß' ich die Burg, sicher vor Bang' und Grau'n!" but the moment is undermined of any mix of grandeur and arrogance as Probst's vibrato widens under pressure. And just listen to how loose his voice sounds spread across the single subsequent "Walhall". How can Wotan command the Gods and the stage with such a tremulous voice?

Some singers allay vocal flaws with an intensity of expression but here Probst does not fully counter Anna Russell's (tongue-in-cheek?) assertion that Wotan is a "crashing bore". Try Wotan's first two minutes with the Barenboim recording and the contrast is startling. Probst simply does not have the chest resonance, colours or energy that Tomlinson uses to lift Wotan's character from the barlines.

The rest of the gods are better but are not as distinguished as the Nibelung pair. Donner also suffers from unsteadiness. His cry "Dunstig Gedämpf! Schwebend Gedüft!" has all the power of a flag flapping in the wind and his upper voice sounds increasingly unsteady under pressure. Bodo Brinkmann for Barenboim is not only steady but seizes the dramatic power of the moment with surer energy. I like Scuster’s Fricka. Her voice has a bright metallic edge which evokes imperiousness, though Barenboim's Linda Finnie worries and nags more obviously. The giants are imposing and the death noises as Fasolt is killed are truly impressive. This lurid murder would not be out of place on CSI!

It is interesting to compare Robert Kunzli’s Loge with Graham Clarke for Barenboim. Clarke is clearly a great character singer with a harder, narrower voice which he uses more vibrantly, leaving no doubt of Loge’s cunning mind. Kunzli has a more open lyric light-filled voice – a beautifully sung Loge but less intense. I’ve debated the merits of both in my mind and must leave you decide which to prefer.

So this Rheingold is recommended to those who like to hear Wagner's orchestration revealed though fine sound engineering and excellent conducting. The beautifully deep bass colours stand out in my mind. However the set is dragged down by some unheroic gods. If you want a modern live Rheingold in outstanding sound and superbly theatrical cast I'd prefer Barenboim. And Barenboim's Rheingold with full libretto occasionally pops up in Warner box set sales for about the same price as these Naxos CDs.

Naxos say a full German libretto and an English translation can be found on their website. Unfortunately on the day I looked there was a German libretto with no corresponding translation or track numbers. The booklet has a brief essay, a cued synopsis and biographies of the singers.

David Harbin


Colin Clarke has also listened to this set

After a somewhat lukewarm response to Leif Segerstam's Tristan late last year (review), it is a pleasure to welcome this altogether more enjoyable Rheingold. If it looks familiar, try the TDK DVD version [review].

We move to Germany – Stuttgart, to be accurate - for a performance that immediately feels more Wagnerian. The natural unfolding (literally – of E flat major) of the Prelude is well handled by the conductor, and the recording immediately shows itself to be detailed. This is streets ahead orchestrally of the ENO Rhinegold at the Coliseum that I heard a while back. In fact the orchestra perform well throughout, brass having a fair measure of weight for the Walhall moments. Talking of brass, the horn rusticity at the 'Gold'ne Äpfeln' motif is most effective.

Zagrosek's conducting, though, is variable. He slightly mis-times the 'Rheingold' arrival point in Scene 1, missing the ecstasy here, and he is woefully - and puzzlingly - pedestrian immediately thereafter. Suddenly, he becomes too smooth ... rather like a Karajan in Wagner but without the Berliner Philharmoniker! He can steam through sections which seem naturally to resist this sort of treatment for example the passage around a very impressive 'Vollendet is das ew'ge Werk'. In this respect he reminds me of Paul Daniel at the Coliseum. Yet his tempo treatment of the giants' music is apt - nice and heavy without being stodgy - and he – pardon the pun – illuminates Loge with a nicely flickering orchestra. The Scene 3 games with the Tarnhelm are gripping dramatically. Finally, Zagrosek underplays the crucial tritone at the heart of the Curse: C major arpeggion in Alberich's line agains a rolling F sharp in the bass.

The Rhinemaidens of the first scene are light and dance-y, a good complement to the initially rather dull-of-voice Alberich, Esa Ruuttunen who improves substantially, going on to renounce Love in no uncertain terms. Loge himself (Robert Künzli) is generally excellent although at times he is caught too far back in the recording balance.

Erda (Mette Ejsing) is not as omnisciently matronly as some, but quite as wobbly of vibrato as others. Wotan (Wolfgang Probst) has a commanding vocal presence and balances the big-voiced Michaela Schuster (Fricka) perfectly. Of the two giants, Fafner (Philip Ens) is the one who sounds a bit light to be a giant - although Freia's screams are mightily convincing!

Production-wise, the break between the CDs is a little puzzling. It feels cruel, and then you learn that there are only 46 seconds of Scene 3 on CD 1! On the recording front, though, this Rheingold is excellent. Pure and clear and capable of handling all of the larger climaxes, the sonics provide much enjoyment in themselves.

The synopsis is all but unreadable. Someone should be introduced to the idea of paragraphs.

Overall, despite my many caveats, there is enough here to make me eager to hear their Walküre.

Colin Clarke





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