Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
‘In fernem Land’ [5:43]
Die Walküre:
‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’ [6:30]
‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ [3:13]
‘Siegmund heiss’ ich und Siegmund bin ich!’ [3:38]
‘Selige Öde auf wonniger Höh’!’ [7:00]
’Das ist kein Mann’ [7:52]
Prologue: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [6:17]
‘Mime heiss ein mürrischer Zwerg’ [4:54]
‘In Leid zu dem Wipfel’ [3:28]
’Errätst du auch dieser Raben Geraun’?’ [2:13]
’Brünnhilde! Helige Braut!’ [3:51]
Trauermusik/Funeral March [8:13]
‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ [9:56]
‘Nur eine Waffe taugt!’ [6:42]
Simon O’Neill; Susan Bullock (Sieglinde and Kundry); Sir John Tomlinson (Hagen); Thomas Grace (Gunther)
NBR New Zealand Opera Chapman Tripp Chorus; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Pietari Inkinen
rec. in concert at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 27-29, 31 August 2009
EMI CLASSICS 4 57817 2 [79:42]

I have been fortunate during the longevity of my interest in Wagner performances to have heard most of the heroic tenors of recent generations live. These include the famous names of recent decades such as Jess Thomas, Spas Wenkoff, James King, Jon Vickers, René Kollo, Siegfried Jerusalem and singers of the present, such as, Peter Seiffert, Johan Bohta, Christian Franz and Ben Heppner. To make this list manageable I have had to edit out many other significant names, whilst peerless for me above all these distinguished names was Alberto Remedios, the British tenor, who showed you could sing a breadth of Wagner ‘leading man’ roles effortlessly, yet with vocal heft and Italianate lyricism. I stress the point that I have experienced these voices live – the best way to do it – as recordings - as we know - can cover up a multitude of vocal sins. Too many ‘best’ lists depend on hearing voices of the ‘golden age’ distilled by the recording process, ancient or modern.

What if anything has this to do with Simon O’Neill’s intriguing new CD? When I read that there is a currently a dearth of Wagner heldentenors it is mainly because there is a lack of truly great Wagner coaches and conductors willing to spend time nurturing new talent. Also there is the problem that if managements know a tenor can get through Siegfried that becomes all they are asked for. The young New Zealander, Simon O’Neill, is a great hope for the future; he already sings Lohengrin, Siegmund and Parsifal to much acclaim in international opera houses and is beginning to add some of the weightier Wagner repertoire soon such as Walther and, presumably, Siegfried.

In the CD booklet Simon O’Neill credits his teacher, Sir Donald McIntyre and his ‘Wagnerian team’ Lionel Friend, Anthony Negus and David Syrus for his ‘vocal development’ and ‘guidance through these roles’. These collaborators have extensive knowledge of Wagner performance and preparation and are a ‘coaching team’ to be treasured. Indeed I would have been happier had either Friend or Negus conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra rather than their young Finnish music director, Pietari Inkinen. While the playing of the New Zealanders is subtle and refined throughout, the quality of the accompaniment varied depending, I guess, on how exposed Maestro Inkinen has been to these works. The recording naturally will never allow Simon O’Neill’s vocal artistry to be swamped but, his Lohengrin remained rather earthbound when it should be seeking Monsalvat and although the final moments of Die Walküre were suitably incandescent, sadly Siegfried’s Rhine Journey seemed to be taking place on a mill pond rather than on the torrents of one of the world’s longest rivers.

Luxury casting gives us all-too-brief moments from John Tomlinson’s baleful Hagen and Susan Bullock sounding more at ease as Kundry than Sieglinde. This recording was made in concert and this may have had some effect on Simon O’Neill’s interpretations. Lohengrin’s ‘In fernem Land’, for instance, is perhaps a touch too darkly baritonal and, as hinted at above, too little is made of the sublime ‘von Himmel eine Taube’ moment, when his Lohengrin recently at Covent Garden had more radiance and the much brighter, steelier, sound that he employs here mainly for Siegfried. It might equally be a matter of this extremely talented tenor settling on his truer voice.

To a crowded catalogue of Wagner excerpts comes this important testament to the continuing development of this important new artist and something that will be interesting to come back to in future years when it becomes clearer how far Simon O’Neill’s star will rise. The concept of Wagner’s fathers and sons leads to the bloodiest of ‘bleeding chunks’ but seldom does the listener’s attention flag. O’Neill’s singing has radiance, drama and vigorous intensity. His impeccable diction is joined with an ability to overcome confidently all the vocal challenges from singing with softer tones for Siegfried’s ‘Selige Öde’ and his death to full-blooming top notes such as Siegmund’s ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ He sings securely, easily and lyrically in the upper register which makes all the Siegfried highlights possibly the best moments on this CD.

Jim Pritchard