Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre – music-drama in three acts (1870)
Stig Fogh Andersen (tenor) – Siegmund
Yvonne Howard (soprano) – Sieglinde
Clive Bayley (bass) – Hunding
Egils Silins (bass) – Wotan
Susan Bullock (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Susan Bickley (mezzo) – Fricka
Miranda Keys (soprano) – Gerhilde
Elaine McKrill (contralto) – Ortlinde
Sarah Castle (mezzo) – Waltraute
Linda Finnie (mezzo) – Schwertleite
Katherine Broderick (soprano) – Helmwige
Alison Kettlewell (speaker) – Siegrune
Ceri Williams (mezzo) – Grimgerde
Leah Marian Jones (mezzo) - Roßweiße
The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 15-16 July 2011 and in rehearsal. DDD.
Booklet with synopsis included. Text and translation on CD 5.
HALLÉ CDHLD7531 [5 CDs: 71:32 + 68:13 + 30:59 + 77:13]
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 preconceptions.
Elder’s 2010 live Götterdämmerung (reviewed here and 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?
David Harbin
... is this super-special for posterity?