I have not heard Marek Janowski’s Das Rheingold - the earliest release from his cycle of Ring opera concert performances but was present in Berlin for Die Walküre in November 2012. I subsequently missed this Siegfried but returned later in March this year for Götterdämmerung. It brought to a conclusion the Wagner concert series that the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin presented at the Philharmonie and Marek Janowski conducted. All ten parts were recorded by the PentaTone label and Deutschlandradio Kultur for release on SACDs before the end of this Wagner bicentenary year.
As I have written previously: Janowski, a celebrated Wagner conductor, made the first digital recording of the complete Ring cycle between 1980 and 1983 for RCA Red Seal (Sony 886919 15482 5). That was with the Staatskapelle Dresden. With these new performances his intention is to focus attention entirely on Wagner’s music without any directorial distractions. This point is emphasised by Norbert Lammert, president of the German Bundestag, in his ‘greeting’ in the accompanying booklet. There is also a full German/English libretto and interesting background notes on the opera by Steffen Georgi translated into French, as well as, English. Janowski wants to make it possible to hear some of the nuances in Wagner's works that can often be lost in the opera house. At the same time this concentration on the voices and the music - along with the excellent acoustics of Berlin’s famous Philharmonie - gave the best possible conditions for a live recording.
When I was watching in the Philharmonie it was obvious that there was some concession to spatial separation and the balance of the singers. As heard on the SACDs with their magnificent sound for Die Walküre, it was clear that the Valkyries were singing in a line on the far left. Hunding declaimed from his placing to the back on the right of - what in the concert hall - was a crowded platform. It can be clearly heard that in this Siegfried there is again an attempt to repeat this. Something of a cave-like atmosphere is created for most of Fafner’s utterances with the Woodbird sounding suitably high up and Erda in Act III somewhat down below.
Again a director’s Konzept is not missed. As a result the theatrical impact of Siegfried that Marek Janowski can bring out in the performance is never compromised: as Dr Lammert writes: ‘Instead of this, he invites a clear reflection of the essentials, of the music. In this way, he speaks from his heart to many long-time aficionados of Wagner’s works, and this will gain many more friends for the composer.’
It is possible that conductors have a lot to answer for over the dearth of genuine Wagner singers in recent decades. Since the halcyon days of Alberto Remedios rarely is a Siegfried heard who can sing the entire role as written. Often - as with Stephen Gould here - there must be compromises. Although it only needs eight singers, Siegfried is notorious as the most difficult of the four Ring operas to cast successfully. This is on account of the perceived extreme vocal challenge of singing its eponymous hero. Here Gould, one of the leading heldentenors of this generation, with his basically baritonal voice, seems to have the stamina and the power for the role. However the speed that Janowski wants for the ‘Forging Scene’ means that he just about gets his words out and hits his top notes. The pluses are evident in Act II during the 'Forest Murmurs' soliloquy and his dialogue with Sophie Klussmann’s piping Woodbird. In those instances there is eloquently tender singing of great lyrical beauty. Gould appears to get to the end of the opera only on great strength of will rather than with any vocal ease. Faced with a rather shrill Brünnhilde he does not slug it out note for note with her at the end of their climactic Act III love duet. This is not as ecstatic as it could be.
Christian Elsner is generally a very fine Mime for a recording concentrating on the music rather than the drama. He sings the part with an unfailing beauty of tone and excellent use of the text. Near Mime’s end, just listen to his sneering ‘lassen’ on the phrase ‘dein Leben musst dir mir lassen!’ (‘you must pay me with your life!’). Great care is taken over all his words and there’s little of the exaggerated caricature Wagner’s frustrated dwarf needs on stage to distinguish him from Siegfried - think Graham Clark. The point is that Elsner - who sings Parsifal for Janowski's recording - is clearly not just a 'character tenor'. He sounds such a strong singer at times that I wonder whether he will be a Siegfried himself one day. When they are together there were certainly times when it was difficult to make out whether it is him or Stephen Gould singing - especially in Act I.
In Die Walküre Petra Lang sang Brünnhilde - and will do so again in the forthcoming Götterdämmerung. Here we have the Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana, another former mezzo-soprano. She is a very experienced Wagner singer (Kundry, Isolde and Sieglinde, amongst others). This recording is however her role début as Brünnhilde in Siegfried. Vocally she sounds a little tentative and matronly at the start of the final scene of Act III, the infamous ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht’ (‘Hail to thee, sun! Hail to thee, light!’). Everything settles down quickly but it is still a steely insistent voice with little of the burgeoning ardour Brünnhilde should reveal. To her credit she tackles the high tessitura fearlessly, however she always remains a warrior and never becomes a woman.
The Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan in Die Walküre) impresses again as a noble Wanderer who is just a little bowed by his travails. Dark-toned and also with excellent diction he has a total understanding of his character’s psyche. He is one of the vocal discoveries of this cycle. In the smaller roles Jochen Schmeckenbecher is excellent as the bitter and vengeful Alberich. The distinguished Finnish bass Matti Salminen is luxury casting as Fafner. This veteran is every bit the sleepy, hungry dragon required with his cavernous voice still powerful enough for the part. The roll-call is completed by Anna Larsson who is a world-renowned Erda. Perhaps her weary sound was part of her interpretation but I have heard it sung a lot better.
That I still believe this Siegfried must be added to any self-respecting Wagner library is mainly because of Janowski’s masterly conducting of his first-rate orchestra. There are many marvellous passages. These include, notably the Preludes to each of the Acts, his accompaniments to the arrival of the Wanderer in Act I and Siegfried’s reflections under the lime tree in Act II. There’s also the incredibly pictorial - beautifully incandescent - passages in Act III as the clouds disperse and Siegfried braves the flames to reach the sleeping Brünnhilde and awaken her.
The opera fits neatly onto 3 SACDs (one act per CD). I am not an ‘anorak’ and do not have long lists of Wagner timings - though if anyone reading this has anything please send it to me. However, by comparison, the three acts for my favourite Siegfried - leisurely conducted by Reginald Goodall - were timed at c. 95/86/96 minutes; the opera was therefore about 40 minutes longer. Such a propulsive Siegfried as Janowski’s is the norm these days but some of the singing does suffer the consequences as a result. This fuels the debate on casting the huge Wagner operas in the twenty-first century, which is something I can only allude to here.
Jim Pritchard’s 2009 interview with Stephen Gould