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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Katarina Dalayman (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Lars Cleveman (tenor) – Siegfried
Attila Jun (bass) – Hagen
Andrew Shore (bass-baritone) – Alberich
Peter Coleman-Wright (bass-baritone) – Gunther
Nancy Gustafson (soprano) – Gutrune
Susan Bickley (mezzo) – Waltraute
Ceri Williams (mezzo), Yvonne Howard (mezzo), Miranda Keys (soprano) – Norns
Katherine Broderick (soprano), Madeleine Shaw (mezzo), Leah-Marian Jones (mezzo) – Rhinemaidens
Hallé Choir; BBC Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Chorus; The Royal Opera Chorus
The Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9-10 May 2009. DDD.
Libretto and English translation included on both versions as a pdf document.
HALLÉ CDHLD7525 [5 CDs: 55:02+67:16+70:48+44:02+46:56] or CDHLM7530 (mp3 edition, 320kbps) [284:04]

Experience Classicsonline

 
We already knew from an earlier CD of highlights what an accomplished Wagner conductor Mark Elder is (CDHLL7517 – see review), so I was keen to see how well that accomplishment holds up across the whole span of Götterdämmerung, especially when there are so many excellent recordings already in the catalogue. Having missed the broadcast on BBC Radio 3, I was very pleased to receive the CDs for review.
 
My consideration of this recording occurs in three phases. The first concerns the question whether this or any other performance can convince me that Götterdämmerung really is the worthy culmination of the Ring cycle, when the heart of the action of the Germanic legends of Sigurð/Siegfried, the slaying of the dragon and his braving of the flames to woo the Valkyrie Brynhild/Brünnhilde lies in its predecessor, Siegfried.
 
Götterdämmerung is different from the rest of the Ring cycle in that Wagner makes much more use of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, though he adapts the story considerably and omits the second half, whereas in the earlier operas in the cycle he had based the plot on his own imaginative reworking of the legend of the fabulous hoard of Rhine gold and on the Norse Völsungasaga with its account of Sigmund’s/Siegmund’s death at the hands of Oðin/Wotan – to which Wagner adds his incestuous love of Sieglinde – and the growth to manhood of Siegfried. In the saga and the Edda, the incestuous relationship with Signy produced Sigurð’s half-brother, Sinfjötli; Sigurð was the offspring of Sigmund and Hiordis.
 
In Götterdämmerung the drama is intense but more internal, almost ‘domestic’, though Wagner takes up earlier themes in Hagen’s revenge for his father Alberich and the destruction of Valhalla which follows the return of the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. We are back in the world of Norse mythology at the conclusion, Ragnarök, which means the downfall of the Gods rather than just their twilight, as recounted in the poetic Edda.
 
The answer to my first question depends to a large extent on the other two phases, the first of which concerns the comparison between the performances of Elder and his team and those of Solti and Karajan, the two versions which I know best; I own the former on CD, owned the latter on LP and downloaded the current release from passionato:
 
Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Claire Watson, Gottlob Frick, Gustav Neidlinger, Helen Watts, Anita Valkki, Grace Hoffman, Lucia Popp, Gwyneth Jones, Maureen Guy; Vienna Philharmonic Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
DECCA 455 5692 [4 CDs: 62:49 + 57:26 + 67:04 + 77:50]
 
Helga Dernesch, Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Catarina Ligendza, Helge Brilioth, Thomas Stewart, Lili Chookasian, Zoltan Kelemen, Karl Ridderbusch; Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1969. ADD.
DG ORIGINALS 457 7952 [4 CDs: 64:31 + 60:16 + 78:50 + 71:45] – on CD or from passionato.com (320 kbps mp3)
 
The third phase involves the internal comparison between Elder on 5 ‘normal’ CDs and the same recording on one mp3 CD. Nimbus already have two such mp3 offerings with the complete Haydn symphonies – see review – and the complete organ works of J.S. Bach which I reviewed recently in both formats – see review.
 
If you were expecting that the Hallé performance would fail to match those illustrious predecessors, let me say at once that you would be wrong. I knew what favourable reviews the live performances had received and that Katarina Dalyman and Lars Cleveman had shone in the Stockholm Ring – see reviews by Göran Forsling of Siegfried here and Götterdämmerung here, but I was still a little sceptical that a cast largely unknown internationally could equal the likes of Nilsson, Windgassen and Fischer-Dieskau (Decca) or Dernesch, Janowitz and Stewart (DG). I suppose that I was expecting some kind of good also-ran, like the Janowski Ring on Eurodisc/RCA, no longer available but a decent bargain when it was.
 
Solti’s Siegfried, Wolfgang Windgassen, was the Siegfried of his day and his performance still takes a great deal of beating. I’ve just been listening to him singing a truncated account of Brünnhilde, heilige Braut on a recent DG Spotlight reissue, Wolfgang Windgassen singt Wagner (477 6543, with the Munich Philharmonic and Leopold Ludwig, in good mono sound, CD or download from passionato.com.) Apart from the truncation – the music should lead straight into the Funeral March – this is an apt reminder of Windgassen at his freshest. Yet his voice sounds almost as fresh, several years later, on the Solti recording, allowing for the slightly slower pace, which also permits him to put a little more drama into his singing. Helge Brilioth and Karajan polish it off in just over four minutes, which looks rather too fast but works quite well in practice, while Elder closely matches Solti’s more sedate tempo. I don’t think that either Cleveman or Brilioth quite matches either of the Windgassen versions: both are a little more tentative and less heroic, but it’s a close-run thing.
 
There are those who prefer Helga Dernesch as Brünnhilde even to Birgit Nilsson; certainly both are glorious in the role, but Katarina Dalayman is hardly put to shame by comparison, though her voice is recorded less forward than Dernesch in particular. In all three versions Brünnhilde’s Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde comes as a ray of sunshine after the darkness of the scene with the Norns.
 
Very occasionally, in the more dramatic scenes, Dalayman’s German diction slips a little. Occasionally, too, the recording favours the orchestra to the extent that her words are almost lost, an almost inevitable consequence of live recording.
 
Detailed comparisons with the Decca and DG casts, however, soon proved unnecessary. Allowing for the fact that they were performing live, the Hallé singers can hold their heads high in the company of their predecessors. Nor is Elder’s direction eclipsed by Solti or Karajan: his tempi, generally broader than Karajan’s and slightly faster than Solti’s, work well and his concept of the work is convincing.
 
As regards the comparison between the two formats, I found little to choose between the 5-disc conventional set and the single-disc mp3. The multi-disc set is housed in an ingenious box designed to hold up to six discs in the same size of case that normally holds up to four, but it still takes up twice the shelf space of the mp3 – quite a consideration if your collection is bursting at the seams. In fact, the new recording in both formats and its two older competitors sound very well indeed. See below, however, for some detailed advice on how to play the mp3; it won’t play on most CD players.
 
Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine at the end of the Prologue is one of those great life-enhancing pieces of music: little wonder that it is often excerpted in a purely orchestral form. Even Beecham, who maintained a selective attitude to Wagner – though he conducted the Ring at Covent Garden, he classified Parsifal alongside Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius as ‘holy water in a German beer barrel’ – recorded this chunk on a Columbia recording which used to be available on Philips. Perhaps someone might rescue and reissue that recording, last seen on Sony SMK89889 – see review.
 
That Beecham performance remains a classic, but all three more recent competitors give it a good run for its money. At 5:53 Elder is a minute faster than Solti and almost a minute slower than Karajan. Heard on their own, the two older versions sound fine, but close comparison suggests that Karajan is a little too eager to get the hero on his way and Solti a little too tardy, while Elder’s journey strikes me as just about right.
 
As well as the Rhine Journey, Beecham recorded the Funeral Music, Hier sitz’ich zur Wacht from Act 1 and Hoi-ho! from Act 3 with Ludwig Weber, Herbert Hanssen, the Covent Garden Chorus and the LPO live in 1936 (Dutton CDEA5023). I note from the Dutton website that stocks of this CD are running low and may not be replenished.
 
Hier sitz’ich aur Wacht was a favourite ‘bleeding chunk’ in the days when that was about all that we had. At one time I owned a DGG 7” EP of Josef Greindl singing it, with an excerpt from Meistersinger on the reverse. Attila Jun offers a very dark account on the Hallé recording, though I think he is slightly eclipsed for power by Gottlob Frick on the Solti recording. The ensuing orchestral interlude, which takes us from the hall to Brünnhilde’s rock, has been mentioned as a prime example of Solti’s ability to handle what might otherwise be a long-winded transition. Solti certainly does avoid the tedium with the assistance of some virtuoso playing from the VPO. At 6:30, Elder is again a little faster than Solti and a little slower than Karajan, and the augmented Hallé don’t quite match the power of their Viennese and Berlin counterparts, but the new version doesn’t fall far short of equalling its predecessors.
 
The following dialogue between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, too, can sometimes seem to outstay its welcome, but again Elder, with the assistance of some excellent singing from Katarina Dalayman and Susan Bickley, makes it seem far less of a low point.
 
Snippets such as Beecham’s aside, it was not until Decca took the extremely risky decision to record the whole Ring cycle under Solti that we had a worthy and fully complete version of Götterdämmerung on record. I discount the 1956 Decca recording: though Flagstad and Svanholm remained in good voice and Fjeldstad was a sympathetic conductor, even if at the time, the rest of the enterprise failed to receive general acclaim. There had been an earlier Decca recording of Act 1 of Die Walküre with Knappertsbusch at the helm (Eloquence 466 6782, with Siegfried’s Death Music) and another of the Todersverkündigung and Act 3 of Walküre under Solti, with Kirsten Flagstad, past her best but still impressive, in both. Acts 1 and 3 are also available on Eloquence 480 1892 – see review.
 
We now know that Decca recorded Knappertsbusch’s Götterdämmerung (SBT4175) and Keilberth’s (twice, on SBT 41393 – see review – and SBT 41433 – see review), both at Bayreuth, but none of these saw the light of open day until Testament recently issued them to great acclaim. Clemens Krauss’s live 1953 recording of The Ring, with its strong cast, survives in a transfer which cannot make much of the rather crumbly original sound.
 
The Culshaw/Solti Ring enterprise which culminated in Götterdämmerung was rightly seen at the time as ground-breaking and remains, for me, the template by which to judge the rest, but it must not be regarded as so definitive as to eclipse all others. The Karajan recordings which followed a few years later suffered partly by comparison with Solti and partly because of a less than ideal Siegfried, with Jess Thomas in the title role. Götterdämmerung was far preferable vocally, yet it has always been seen as an also-ran.
 
I very much hope that this new Hallé recording does not also come to be seen as the good also-ran which I initially expected. It can take on both Solti and Karajan without having to make allowance for the fact that it is a live recording competing with studio versions.
 
To take one more example, Siegfried’s Funeral March and Brünnhilde’s Immolation from the end of the opera are rightly regarded as highlights of the Solti recording – if you don’t own the complete set and don’t intend to, they can be found on an inexpensive Decca CD, along with excerpts from the other Ring operas (458 2102, apparently no longer available on CD; download from passionato.com).
 
For this episode Wagner returns to his Norse source material: das Nibelungenlied updates matters by giving Siegfried a Christian burial and seems to forget Brünnhilde. The latter part of the poem then moves to Kriemhild’s (= Gutrune’s) marriage to Etzel (Attila) and her eventual revenge on Hagen and Gunther. The Prose Edda gives the most succinct account of the Nordic versions, somewhat expanded in Chapter 32 of Wagner’s source, the Völsunga Saga:
 
Eftir þat lagði Brynhildr sik sverði, ok var hon brennd með Sigurði
 
(After this Brynhild stabbed herself with a sword and she was burned with Sigurd.)
 
For the benefit of those tempted to economise by purchasing the Naxos recording (8.660179-82), I listened first via the Naxos Music Library to Luana de Vol’s account of the Immolation. As Ian Bailey writes in his review, “She manages to keep something in reserve for the Immolation scene, and certainly doesn’t disgrace herself, although she is inevitably found wanting in relation to the great shadows of the past such as Nilsson and Varnay.” Göran Forsling was also appreciative: “She has insight, dramatic conviction, an expressive way with words and in the immolation scene ... she sings beautifully” – see review. Like both of them, I was somewhat surprised to find myself enjoying her performance and I continued listening from Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort to the end of the opera. Available for just over £17 on CD – which is actually a few pounds cheaper than downloading it from classicsonline or passionato – this was a genuine bargain for those who must economise until the new Hallé recording decisively displaced it in terms of value and performance.
 
Listening to that Hallé recording immediately afterwards was like seeing a well-known painting that has been restored. Katarina Dalayman’s voice possesses greater power than de Vol’s, but, crucially, also greater brightness and variety of expression. Lothar Zagrosek has a genuine feeling for Wagner and his Stuttgart Opera Orchestra plays well, but Mark Elder has the surer touch and his augmented Hallé give their all. Comparing like with like – the Hallé mp3 with the Naxos Music Library mp3 – the new recording also sounds slightly more open. The difference makes the whole more involving and the ending sounds truly cataclysmic.
 
The qualities of Helga Dernesch’s performance at this juncture are complementary to Dalayman’s; in particular, she sounds more commanding in Schweigt eures Jammers jauchzender Schwall – she really does sound like an adult chiding children who are crying over spilt milk: Kinder hört’ich/greinen nach der Mutter/da Süße Milch sie verschüttet – but her voice also has the freshness which Dalayman possesses and which de Vol rather lacks. In both versions, I was so involved in the singing of Brünnhilde that I found it almost an anti-climax when Alberich interposed his last bid for the ring.
 
If anything, Birgit Nilsson is even more imperious as she bids the squabbling infants cease their clamour; she even sounds uncannily like Kirsten Flagstad in her prime, had she been better recorded. If I had to choose just one desert island version of this scene, then, it would have to be Nilsson and Solti on Decca and the recording still has a strong claim to sound the best of all, despite its age. The ending is even more cataclysmic – even Alberich’s fatal greed didn’t seem like an intrusion this time.
 
Yet it’s only by playing the four versions consecutively – the Building a Library process which emphasises differences not otherwise apparent – that Dalayman and Dernesch are surpassed. Heard in their own context, both convey the drama of the scene very effectively.
 
In order to achieve a level playing field in comparing the different recordings, as far as possible, I played both of the conventional CD recordings (Elder and Solti) via my Arcam Solo and the two mp3 versions (Elder and Karajan) via Squeezebox, but again through the amplifier of the Arcam Solo.
 
Potential purchasers of the mp3 version should take note of the following advice:
 

  • Don’t play the disc directly on a compatible CD, DVD or SACD deck. That method is fine for the mp3 Nimbus Bach recording which I reviewed recently, since the minute gaps which the player introduces between some tracks are not noticeable in the silence. It won’t work with Wagner, however, where the music is continuous – you’ll hear minute dropouts.

  • Insert the mp3 disc in your computer, create a folder on your hard drive or mp3 player, then drag and drop the mp3 files from the disc to that.

  • If you have Squeezebox or similar, create an album in that folder and drag to there.

  • Don’t try to listen or sync to your mp3 player via the Windows Media Player – it inserts 2-second gaps.

  • If you have an iPod, import the tracks into the iTunes jukebox and sync from there. Make sure that the jukebox is set for gap-free play.

  • For all other mp3 players, download the free version of Winamp and play or sync the files from there.

 
Wyastone, who manufacture Hallé CDs, offer the following advice for transferring files to iTunes:
 
1. Put the CD in the drive, open it and select all the mp3 files.
2. Copy them to the iTunes library, where all your other music files are stored. On a PC these are in My Documents / My Music / iTunes / iTunes Music.
3. Once they have copied (this takes a few minutes) create a new folder in the same window, move the files into it and name it appropriately.
3. Open iTunes
4. Select ‘Add folder to Library’, and browse for the new Wagner folder.
5. Select the folder and the files should appear in your iTunes window instantly.
 
The recording is made at rather a low level in both formats; I found myself turning up the volume by about 5dB right from the opening. The first part of the Prologue is dark and mysterious, with the Norns weaving their spells, but I think you will want to hear it at much higher than your usual volume. Once that is done, the recording is good: by the time that Siegfried gets started on his journey down the Rhine, the guns have begun to blaze.
 
Listening to Karajan on DG immediately afterwards, however, even in 320kbps mp3, revealed that the current transfer of the 1960s analogue sound has worn very well. The fact that the DG is at a higher level, and that the recording favours the voices more than the Hallé, complicates the comparison but I certainly felt that no allowance had to be made for the age of the recording, now sounding much better than I recall it on LP.
 
That the Solti recording also still sounds very well almost goes without saying, even on my copy on 414 1152, which pre-dates the most recent re-mastering.
 
Immediately after hearing the Karajan and Solti versions of the Prologue I played the Elder on mp3 and, paradoxically, thought the sound slightly more open in that form than on the 5-CD Hallé set, more closely approaching the immediacy of the rivals, though the voices of the Norns still sound slightly backward, even with a volume boost.
 
One of the advantages of the Decca studio recording, made in Sonicstage, a kind of aural forerunner of CGI technology, is the ability to make the spirit of Alberich sound sufficiently ghostly in his appeal to Hagen for revenge, Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn? The effect, however, is not overdone, so the live Hallé recording is not at too much of a disadvantage. Andrew Shore fails to inject quite the same menace into his voice that Gustav Neidlinger achieves – Attila Jun’s Alberich sounds the more dominant voice, whereas the boot is on the other foot on Decca – and Elder takes a little longer over this episode than Solti or Karajan. Without the aid of technology, Alberich’s voice and the accompaniment fade away at the end almost as effectively as on the Decca and DG recordings. Of the three versions, Karajan achieves the most sleep-like mood at the start and the greatest sense of urgency and menace, with the able assistance of the well-matched voices of Zoltan Kelemen and Karl Ridderbusch but, again, hearing the recordings in sequence emphasises the differences between three very good accounts.
 
There is a very detailed synopsis in the Hallé booklet, which is virtually common to both versions. The libretto and a good, idiomatic English translation are included on CD 5 of the multi-disc set and on the single mp3 disc as a pdf document. You will need to print this out, as the CD cannot be in the player and the computer at the same time. Better still, arm yourself with The Ring of the Nibelung (Faber, 1977), the complete original text with Andrew Porter’s performance-friendly translation, if you can find a copy: it’s out of print, but there are several offers of used copies online as I write.
 
I’m definitely not planning to dispose of Solti’s Götterdämmerung and I’m very pleased to renew the acquaintance of the Karajan, but the new Hallé recording certainly takes its place alongside them. John Culshaw, discussing the Solti recording which he had master-minded, wrote of how all concerned had been aware that their recording might be around in some form for a hundred years or more. I’m sure that his prediction was correct. I’m also sure that the Karajan suffered by comparison and deserves its own acclaim.
 
The Hallé now joins these and the Keilberth recordings as a strong recommendation. It also comes with a very favourable price differential in both formats: the Keilberth recordings sell for around £44, the Solti set for around £35 and the Karajan for a pound or so less. Even as a download, the Karajan costs £21.99 from passionato, which is comparable with the price of the 5-CD Hallé set direct from MusicWeb International, while the mp3 costs little more than half that amount.
 
Which version of the Elder recording I shall play will, I think, be determined by convenience. The mp3, complete on Squeeze Center, offers the ability to listen to the whole opera right through. Both the 5-CD and the single mp3 disc offer very good value for money, but I don’t think that the slight (if any) superiority of sound of the conventional set overcomes the inconvenience of having to change discs. Both sound well.
 
Not a replacement, then, for Solti, Karajan or Keilberth, but an excellent addition to anyone’s Wagner collection, at a very reasonable price. It’s a measure of the quality of all three versions that I compared that when I listened to a particular track, I couldn’t tear myself away until several tracks later. I may not quite have managed to hear the whole opera in one go in the new recording, but I did listen to each evening’s segment complete. I guess that Elder offers as convincing an answer as his rivals to my overarching question whether Götterdämmerung really can convince me as much as Rheingold and Siegfried; I just hadn’t been listening attentively enough. Now I need to convince myself about the first two acts of die Walküre.
 
Brian Wilson
 
 


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