My colleague Gavin Dixon welcomed the first instalment in this
Frankfurt Ring cycle with great enthusiasm (see review),
proclaiming it Recording of the Month. I have yet to
hear it but have listened to the following three days of the
Ring with somewhat mixed feelings. Sebastian Weigle’s
conducting has been the real glory of the cycle. Time and again
he has drawn superb playing from his orchestra to match even
Solti’s VPO and Janowski’s Dresden forces. The prelude to Götterdämmerung
has the right solemn weight. In the interlude before Zu
neuen Taten there is a visionary glow in the strings and
rarely has Siegfried’s Rhine Journey been so jubilant. That
Siegfried’s death scene lacks the nobility of Solti, Barenboim
or Haitink is not the conductor’s fault. Weigle instead finds
exactly the right tone in the restrained funeral march – a restraint
that grows to an earth-shaking climax that holds the listener
spellbound. He also brings the cycle to a likewise spellbinding
conclusion with a glorious depiction of the flooding Rhine.It’s
as memorable as any of the more than one dozen other versions
I wish the singing had been on the same exalted level but alas
– there are shortcomings, some more serious than others. The
three Norns are expressive. That’s the overriding impression
of the whole cycle – it’s great theatre. Meredith Arwady, who
was Erda in Siegfried, has a rather prominent vibrato
and Claudia Mahnke isn’t free from that either. She also sings
Waltraute. Her narration is good: she has dramatic glow and
insight and characterizes well. Angel Blue, the young American
soprano, has a splendid dramatic soprano voice, a little weak
in the lowest register but she will no doubt advance to more
important roles before long. The three Rhine maidens are also
a shaky bunch – or rather, their vibratos don’t match particularly
well when they sing together, which they do most of the time.
On the credit side we must mention the Gibichungen, who are
the glories of this set. Gunther, Johannes Martin Kränzle, is
strong and dark-voiced and excellently expressive. Maybe he
is too strong and determined for this basically weak character,
but it’s a pleasure to hear him. His sister, Gutrune, is sung
with steady, beautiful, lyric-dramatic soprano voice by Anja
Fidelia Ulrich. I only wish her part had been bigger. Gregory
Frank, whom I heard as an impressive Grand Inquisitor in Don
Carlos in Helsinki just a few weeks ago, is a formidable
Hagen, singing and spitting out his evil with pitch-black malevolence.
The scene with Hagen and Gunther (CD 1 tr. 11-12) is stunning.
Alberich’s short appearance in act II is well characterized
too but Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s low notes are weak and he is
also rather wobbly.
Having saved the two central characters for last may indicate
that I’m less than impressed, which unfortunately is true. Susan
Bullock’s Brünnhilde is uneven and far too often her tone is
squally. In all honesty she must be credited for her excellent
diction and her deeply involved reading. In general her vibrato
is held in check better than in the previous operas. The immolation
scene, so gloriously sung by Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad
and Lisa Gasteen in various recordings, is admirably conceived.
I only wish her voice had been in a shape to better express
her intentions. In my review of Die Walküre I wrote:
‘... her powerful voice conveys both warmth and dignity. Anyone
who can, so to speak, listen through the shrillness
and wobbles will find a deeply human Brünnhilde.’
Unfortunately Lance Ryan’s singing is even more ugly than it
was in Siegfried. He has power but the voice is afflicted
by an incipient bleating beat. When he is disguised as Gunther
he manages to apply a really nasty tone but the wobbling reveals
his true identity to the listener. Even so he has his good moments.
At the end of the fourth scene of Act II (CD 3 tr. 14) there
is actually some golden tenor tone, and in the death scene he
scales down to a pianissimo on Brünnhild’ bietet mir – Gruß!
(CD 4 tr. 13). There are therefore some grains of gold, but
far too few.
In spite of Sebastian Weigle’s conducting, generally excellent
recording and some memorable solo singing I cannot endorse this
Götterdämmerung or the complete cycle for that matter.
This is not a library version or even a starting point for the
beginner. Solti or Böhm (both on Decca) – with many of the leading
singers in common – or Janowski’s (RCA) middle-of-the-road set
(and the first digital Ring) are safer bets. The more recent
Bayreuth set under Barenboim (Warner) and the Adelaide set under
Asher Fisch (Melba) also have much going for them. Haitink (EMI)
would be a top contender but is ruled out by the terribly wobbly
Eva Marton’s Brünnhilde.
I cannot endorse this Götterdämmerung. Not a library
version nor even a starting point for the beginner.