You must have experienced the incongruity of a party which was
buzzing but where you just could not get into the spirit of
things. Well, Sir Reginald Goodall’s legendary Ring cycle, famous
for stately tempi plus attention to beauteous orchestral detail,
has many admirers, including Sir Mark Elder. Not me. Too often
I felt Goodall left the handbrake on, smothering the Ring’s
natural flow under his affected concept.
Both conductors raise questions of why listeners may associate
the magisterial and monumental with slower-than-the-norm tempi
and the extent to which attention to internal orchestral textures,
singing lines and transparency can buoy speeds which would otherwise
sag. Also we are challenged as to how a performance may establish
and maintain its own dramatic time-frame, confounding an audience’s
Elder’s 2010 live Götterdämmerung (reviewed here
and this new Die Walkure are surely under Goodall’s
spell not least as both feature deliberate tempi, although both
sets are far more flexible than Goodall’s recordings. Elder’s
Act I Prelude at once establishes a beautifully shaped storm
with transparent orchestral colours, founded on clear lower
strings. Dark energies emerge through rhythmic surge within
the lower strings and the capping timpani open with cushioned
attack rather than a thunderous crack. This is a micro-span
within a 65-plus minute overarching line that structurally anchors
all of Act I. Yet measured control dominates Elder’s storm whereas
Karajan seizes the listener by the throat and flings her or
him into a vortex, somewhat undermined by too distant timpani.
Similarly Elder’s Act II prelude and Act III Ride are oddly
civilised, barely airborne in either trampling tempi or spirit.
Furtwängler (1953) evokes both energy and craziness.
Certainly Elder and the Hallé can raise temperatures, such as
in the seamless upsweep towards Siegmund claiming Notung and
the magisterial power of the orchestral arch as Wotan kisses
away Brünnhilde’s godhead. Elder’s Magic Fire Music
is the set’s highlight, beautifully steered with real command
and dramatic immersion. Just occasionally I wanted to seize
my CD player and shout “just get on with it!”. The Act II Invocation
of Death leading towards Wotan despatching Hunding is too
weighty and much of Wotan’s conversations with Brünnhilde in
Act III are too self-consciously profound, as if trapped within
a grand Edwardian oratorio. The hard-to-find Dohnanyi/Cleveland
(Decca) has greater dramatic bite here and the quality of the
Clevelanders’ playing shows that those vital internal details
need not lose clarity within swifter tempi.
Elder’s singers delivered a great night out in those Manchester
concert performances, but are they super-special for posterity?
Gundula Janowitz sang prettily as Sieglinde for Karajan (DG)
but with little register of Wagner’s development of light, Spring
and love. At the other end of the scale Leonie Rysanek’s Sieglinde
in Böhm’s Ring (Decca) evokes not only ardour but also
a frank sexuality, clearly attracted to her new-found twin,
culminating in a primal, near orgasmic scream, as Siegmund wins
Nothung. Stig Andersen and Yvonne Howard’s incestuous siblings
lie somewhere between these extremes but with unevenness under
pressure, particularly from Anderson. They don ‘t come close
to eclipsing from memory the distinguished vocal chops of John
Vickers, Rysanek or, Flagstad. Where is the chemistry of Melchior
and Lehmann both in the studio (EMI) or live (Myto) as voices
open out in abandon and each revels in the other’s singing?
Try also the celebrated pairing of Peter Seiffert and Petra
Maria Schnitzer in a DVD performance (reviewed
here) you’ll want to enjoy time and time again.
The opening of Act II brings further disappointment with Susan
Bullock’s titular Brünnhilde. For me this is particularly sad
as I heard Bullock sing Isolde in Nottingham 2003 and was floored
by the sheer power of her voice and that ‘pinging’ quality which
allowed her voice to laser through the orchestra and hit the
back of the auditorium. By 2011 Bullock retains that fresh tone,
and her diction is absolutely clear, but there is a worrying
vibrato under pressure as the support underpinning her voice
evaporates. Bullock’s beautiful inward singing at the start
of her final confrontation with Wotan shows what might have
been if her Brünnhilde had been captured ten years earlier.
Egils Silins’s Wotan is authoritative and well-acted and I enjoyed
the blazing, metallic tones of Susan Bickley’s Fricka, but would
you invest in this set for them?
Certainly future generations need a record of the Hallé Orchestra’s
splendid playing, resurgent under Elder’s baton. Imagine the
section rehearsals to get this attention to inner balances and
colours! I wondered if the timpani’s soft-focused attacks, and
much else, was influenced by the Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan
partnership and their emphasis on gorgeous textures in Wagner?
All the Hallé musicians are rightly named in the accompanying
booklet as they are the heroes of this Die Walküre.
Steve Portnoi’s sound engineering is certainly in the front
rank, boasting bloom, a wide sound-stage and voices forward
but beautifully integrated so all Wagner’s orchestral wonders
ring out. It’s all very natural. Someone should send Portnoi
to the BBC to sort out the overtly multi-miked horrors foisted
on Radio 3 opera listeners these days.
Barenboim and Karajan remain the safest bet for a modern stereo
Die Walküre. Zubin Mehta’s Valencia cast mostly trump
their Manchester counterparts, although for all of Jennifer
Wilson’s warmth and power I’ve watched better acting on a Schwarzenegger
movie. She is best heard, not seen. Between his 1953 Rome and
1954 studio recordings, Furtwängler is unassailed for immersion
into Wagner’s drama. Only Clemens Krauss comes close. Janowski’s
second attempt at recording The Ring is pencilled in
for 2013 and the cast, including Petra Lang as Brünnhilde, looks
intriguing. Perhaps you should be putting your occasional pennies
into a glass jar for this instead?
see also reviews by
Brian Wilson (RECORDING
OF THE MONTH May) and Gavin