This second instalment in Frankfurt Opera's new Ring Cycle
has some high expectations to meet. The Rhinegold that
was released earlier this year is a very fine recording indeed,
with excellent sound engineering, uniformly admirable singing
and a really distinctive interpretive approach from Sebastian
Weigle. Die Walküre poses different, and in many respects,
greater challenges, at least from a musical point of view. Ensemble
is the key in Rhinegold, but Walküre relies on exceptional
solo singing from the leads. This it gets, although while all
the singers are good, one or two of them really stand out.
As with the previous Rhinegold recording, what really makes
this Walküre distinctive is the contribution of conductor Sebastian
Weigle. His patience with this music is wonderful. He knows
that Wagner needs no help in building up his climaxes or creating
the drama that the story needs. So tempos are usually steady,
and build-ups are achieved through dynamics and orchestral colour
rather than accelerando. At the start, the storm is raging in
the orchestra, but it is not an all-out assault, instead it
is menacing, with a steady pace and moderate dynamics. Weigle
gets all the drama he needs from the tone of the orchestra and
the carefully graded articulations. Similarly, The Ride of the
Valkyries achieves a continuous sense of ecstatic power, but
without excesses of tempo or dynamics.
Weigle never seems to exert too much control over the proceedings.
He keeps the orchestra tightly synchronised, but the singers
do occasionally enter ahead or behind his beat. The music doesn't
suffer, in fact it adds to the sense of theatre. In a time when
audio recordings of staged Wagner operas are rapidly losing
ground to those of concert performances, the feeling of actually
being in the theatre is a valuable asset, and this recording
really gives you that sense.
The sound recording plays an important part in this effect.
Somehow, the team manages to give the singers a sense of placement
on the stage, but without any of them actually sounding distant.
A subtle use of the stereo array is a key to this I suspect.
Almost every new recording of Wagner these days, be it audio
or video, has both a surround and stereo mix, and the stereo
usually comes out as a second best. But here it is used to good
effect. The balance between the pit and the stage is ideal.
The tone of the string section can sometimes sound a little
dull, but the woodwind and brass are crisp and vibrant throughout.
Weigle often gets a real bite out of the brass, a tone that
has volume but also has edge. That is a real strength of this
orchestra, and comes over well in the recording.
Among the singers, the real standout performance is from Eva-Maria
Westbroek as Sieglinde. She has everything this part needs:
warmth, passion, humanity, precision and stamina. Over the last
couple of years, Westbroek has been singing the role in houses
around Europe, and receiving acclaim for it everywhere. She
has already recorded it twice, at Bayreuth and with the Berlin
Philharmonic, but even so, her performance here alone compellingly
justifies buying the set.
Frank van Aken is the ideal partner for her as Siegmund. The
two are in fact husband and wife, and their musical interaction
is spectacular. Westbroek has an open, powerful sound, which
she mediates with controlled but never excessive vibrato. van
Aken gives pretty much exactly the same sound but an octave
lower. And he too has the power, control and stamina to ensure
that every phrase is ideally presented.
Terje Stensvold is an effective Wotan, but not a particularly
loud one. He brings gravitas to the role, mainly through the
richness of his tone. He sings the lower notes like a true bass,
but imparts that bass richness to the upper notes as well. Martina
Dike is appropriately stern and disciplined as Fricka. Her singing
has an almost Baroque sensibility, and you could almost imagine
her singing Bach cantatas in this style, albeit under 1950s
performance conventions. Again, chemistry is the secret to her
success, and she provides an excellent complement to Stensvold,
with a similar sense of drama in her voice but a similar moderation
to her dynamics.
The one voice in the cast that I have reservations about is
Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde. She too is a seasoned Wagnerian,
and is much acclaimed around the world for her interpretation
of the role. Some of her singing here is very good. The Annunciation
of Death scene is emotive but steely of tone, an ideal combination.
But the louder and higher passages, of which there are many,
often grate, and there is little continuity between the these
and the quieter ones. She has a kind of vibrato where the volume
fluctuates rather than the pitch, and that can get wearing on
the ear. Its a tough part and there are certainly inferior performances
to this available elsewhere, but in a cast that is otherwise
excellent, she is the one slightly weak link.
Otherwise, this is a very fine Walküre. There is no shortage
of competition, and even Oehms is currently engaged in another
Ring Cycle project with Hamburg Opera. But like the Rhinegold
before it, this Walküre has the particular advantage of having
Sebastian Weigle at the podium. His measured approach isn't
going to be to everybody's taste, but he is one of the few Wagner
conductors working today who does something distinctive with
the music. His control of the orchestra is ideal, but so too
is his intuition for giving the singers the freedom they need.
There are plenty of musical challenges ahead in the last two
instalments, but Frankfurt Opera should be feeling confident
that their conductor has what it takes.
Masterwork Index: Die