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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold [140:27]
Tomasz Konieczny - Wotan
Antonio Yang - Donner
Kor-Jan Dusseljee - Froh
Christian Elsner - Loge
Iris Vermillion - Fricka
Ricarda Merbeth - Freia
Maria Radner - Erda
Günther Groissböck - Fasolt
Timo Riihonen - Fafner
Jochen Schmeckenbecher - Alberich
Andreas Conrad - Mime
Julia Borchert - Woglinde
Katharina Kammerloher - Wellgunde
Kismara Pessatti - Flosshilde
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, Berlin Philharmonie, 22 November 2012
PENTATONE PTC5186406 [70:33 + 69:54]

So to The Ring! Marek Janowski’s epic Wagner cycle enters the final strait as it begins the great tetralogy that crowned Wagner’s life’s work. Few conductors get to record The Ring twice, but Janowski is privileged to have done so. His first recording was from Dresden in the early 1980s, the third out of only five studio Rings to be recorded. It was blessed by the phenomenal playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden and first rate digital sound captured in the city’s Lukaskirche. However, despite some excellent individual turns, the set was often hobbled by the choice of solo singers, most notably Theo Adam’s desiccated Wotan and the rather overwhelmed Brünnhilde of Jeannine Altmeyer. It is interesting that, almost for the first time in Janowski’s Berlin Wagner cycle, we can now make some informed comparisons. I’m pleased to say that this Rheingold shines up very impressively.
I haven’t always praised Janowski’s approach to Wagner’s dramas - I found his take on Tristan maddening - but this Rheingold finds him at his best. He uses his preference for fast speeds to his advantage to make the drama buzz along from one exciting episode to another, pacing the work by tapping right into the sense of quickfire elation. At times it feels as energetic as a soap opera - a compliment - and the opera’s series of conversations has seldom sounded so energised. The Prelude, for example, has a sense of expectation that can hardly wait to get started, but in spite of the fast speed I never found it rushed. The transitions between scenes seem natural and well judged, and the showpieces are never less than excellent. The descent into Nibelheim is thrilling, threatening to overwhelm the listener at the entrance of the anvils, and you can sense the fragility of the rainbow bridge in a sound that is commanding yet ephemeral. Janowski controls the sound of the orchestra impressively, too: I particularly loved the sound made by the strings during Erda’s scene, menacing with a subtle sense of decay, casting a dusky veil over her warnings.
The orchestra and the clarity of its recording have been two of the principal assets of this series, and so it proves here. They take every opportunity to reveal Wagner’s score in all its astounding, delectable colour, as if holding it up to the light for fresh examination. There are lots of highlights - the trumpet at the first appearance of the gold, the clearly delineated semiquavers on the violins as the water ripples around the rejoicing Rhinemaidens, the delicate flecks of harp as we arrive in Valhalla, the rhythmic, almost comical, swagger of the giants’ theme, the ominous brass depth of the dragon, the stunning trombones of the curse - but we can summarise it by saying that the orchestra do a magnificent job of bringing the colours of Wagner’s score to the surface. Likewise, the Pentatone engineers have captured the whole performance brilliantly, both in stereo and surround.
So what of the singing? Well, I admit this doesn’t get off to a good start, probably due to the limitations of the live concert setting. The opening is not auspicious, with a rather hollery group of Rhinemaidens and an Alberich that, initially at least, struggles with accurate pitching. However, things settle down once everyone has warmed up. The Rhinemaidens’ invocation to the gold is very effective, and Schmeckenbecher manages a thrilling renunciation of love. What is more, by this time a momentum seems to have taken over the scene, so that Alberich’s curse on love launches us headlong into the swirling eddies of the transformation music that transport us, via some daring timing from Janowski, up to the cloudy heights of Valhalla, clearly and atmospherically enunciated from the brass. Elsewhere Schmeckenbecher is fantastic in the Nibelheim scene. His fantasies of world domination are played as the furious rantings of a deranged mind and it’s very effective to listen to. However, he then sounds remarkably pitiable when he pleads for Wotan not to take the Ring from him and he sings a masterclass curse that begins as a resentful whimper but grows into a powerful denunciation.
Tomasz Konieczny is a slightly gritty Wotan. He doesn’t have the grandeur or poetic beauty of, say, Hans Hotter or, more recently, René Pape, but he is undoubtedly dramatic. This feels like a lived-in performance, not a “mere” concert. He is brilliant at depicting the god’s conflicted sense of inner dilemma. Even when he is at his most contented, surveying his new home in the final scene, you can sense the unease that plagues the god, and the sense of entrapment that encircles him in the second and fourth scenes is well worth hearing. Christian Elsner makes a slightly nasal Loge, but I found him very effective. The vocal colour reinforces his role as the outsider among the gods and helps to enrich his character as the slightly disreputable fixer among the immortals. He is delightfully derisive during the passages after Freia’s departure when the gods begin to age and his interaction with Alberich in the Nibelheim scene is a case-study of wheeling and dealing. You can even sense a touch of pity for the despairing Alberich in the fourth scene. Elsewhere among the men, Andreas Conrad makes a surprisingly humane, sympathetic Mime, and the same is true for Günther Groissböck’s Fasolt. Timo Riihonen has enough darkness in his voice to mark out Fafner as the nastier of the two brothers.
The women are also very strong, led by a marvellously imperious Fricka from Iris Vermillion. Ricarda Merbeth does a good job with what limited material she has as Freia, but Maria Radner’s Erda is extremely impressive. She actually manages to sound quite youthful, even affectionate, avoiding any of the elderly warble that sometimes afflicts singers of this role. Her warning of the “dark day” that dawns for the gods is made all the more impressive by the spellbinding playing of the orchestral strings. The trio of Rhinemaidens grow into the first scene and sound good from offstage towards the end.
So the final chunk of Janowski’s Wagner cycle has got off to a good start. I would certainly choose to listen to this Rheingold over his Dresden one, mainly because of the conductor’s more impressive sense of drama and excitement. Now let’s see how the rest of this Ring is going to unfold.
Simon Thompson   

Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold