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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870) [216.29]
Tomasz Konieczny (bass-baritone) - Wotan
Petra Lang (soprano) - Brünnhilde
Iris Vermillion (soprano) - Fricka
Robert Dean Smith (tenor) - Siegmund
Melanie Diener (soprano) - Sieglinde
Timo Riihonen (bass) - Hunding
Anja Fidelia Ulrich (soprano) - Gerhilde
Fionnuala McCarthy (soprano) - Ortlinde
Heike Wessels (mezzo) - Waltraute
Kismara Pessatti (alto) - Schwertleite
Carola Höhn (soprano) - Helmwige
Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo) - Siegrune
Nicole Piccolomini (mezzo) - Grimgerde
Renate Spingler (mezzo) - Rossweisse
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, Philharmonie Berlin, 24 November 2012
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC5186 407 [4 CDs: 63:51 + 53:40 + 35:15 + 64:31]

After a performance of Die Walküre in Geneva featuring the Brünnhilde on this recording (review here) this becomes the second Ring in a matter of only a few days that I begin to review on the ‘First Day’. I have not heard Janowski’s Das Rheingold - the previous release from his cycle of concert performances. The first two operas were recorded in November 2012 and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in March this year. This brought to a conclusion the Wagner-Janowski concert series that the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin presented at the Berlin Philharmonie. All ten parts were recorded by PentaTone and Deutschlandradio Kultur for release on Super Audio CDs before the end of this Wagner bicentenary year.
The celebrated Wagner conductor, Marek Janowski, made the first digital recording of the complete Ring cycle between 1980 and 1983 for RCA. That was with the Staatskapelle Dresden. With the present concert series his intention is to focus attention entirely on Wagner’s music without any directorial distractions - a point 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 by Steffen Georgi. These are 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.
At the Philharmonie there was some concession to spatial separation and the balance of the singers. The Valkyries sang in a line from the far left and Timo Riihonen’s Hunding was relegated to the back, to the right of a crowded platform. Neither in the Philharmonie nor when listening to this recording did I miss any set, costumes or director’s Konzept. The theatrical impact of the opera that Marek Janowski can bring out in the performance is ever 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.’
This Die Walküre is a triumph for Janowski and the wonderful Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. One suspects that this recording was made not solely from the 24 November concert. The orchestra was only nearly - and not entirely - perfect on the evening and this seems to have been tidied up. Also there is absolutely no audience noise whatsoever. For the opening Prelude Janowski whips up a considerable storm and I almost experienced myself the fleeing Siegmund’s anxious heartbeats that Wagner embeds. Musically, everything continues to ‘pulsate’ and the tension never slackens. There are so many memorable highlights and superlative moments. Marek Janowski, seems in absolute control of the virtuosic orchestra, maintaining his richly-detailed, perfectly paced account over the three acts and springing into passionate bloom for the young lovers, whipping things along for the Valkyries and leading the six harpists though the glorious Magic Fire Music conclusion at the end of a compelling Act III. The recorded sound does full justice to Janowski’s preparation of his orchestra and the care, detail and love for Wagner in his conducting.
I am not certain this recording serves the voices as well as the orchestra: Act I sounded competent but there was little of the vocal engagement I experienced in the concert hall. For some reason on CD both Robert Dean Smith’s Siegmund and Melanie Diener’s Sieglinde do not sound as fresh as I thought I had heard them. Dean Smith is solid and reliable but does not seem as involved as I thought he was. Nevertheless his cries of ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ are both heartfelt and a triumph of excellent breath control. Winterstürme shows how possible it is to sing the big Wagner roles lyrically and with an Italianate timbre and for it to sound perfectly fine. I prefer him to Jonas Kaufmann any day. Melanie Diener is a favourite Sieglinde for Janowski but sounds a little mature through my loudspeakers - which she is not. She certainly confirms my previous thoughts that she keeps something in reserve from Act I to be at her most radiant in her Act III ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’. Perhaps because I was there and know that Timo Riihonen was behind the orchestra, it might just be my imagination but he seems slightly hampered by this. Nevertheless he is very good for someone so young and his dark and malevolent Hunding shows Riihonen has a wonderful Wagnerian future ahead of him.
When we encounter Tomasz Konieczny's Wotan in Act II he is less world-weary than we sometime hear - especially if you are familiar with seeing John Tomlinson in this role. Despite all the familiar anger and bravado as he rails against all his misfortunes, there are none of the longueurs that can be experienced in his recounting of all that has gone before in the story. He delivers the text throughout with great clarity. Even so, his Wotan clearly still comes off second-best in his encounter with a vengeful, bitter and forthright Fricka, Iris Vermillion, who berates her errant husband fearsomely right up to her last emphatic consonant. During a thrilling ‘Ride’ the Valkyries seem well-coached and tackled all that Wagner demands of them enthusiastically. Their laughter still sounds more stilted on the recording than in a fully staged opera and they do not come across as the ideal blend of voices that I thought they were in the concert hall.
This CD is an important document as it reproduced Petra Lang’s memorable first complete Brünnhilde, a role she is currently singing on stage for the first time in Geneva. The soprano - as we should perhaps start calling her rather than mezzo - has previously sung Valkyries, Fricka and Sieglinde in this opera. Here sge adds the Die Walküre Brünnhilde to her repertoire - with the others in the Ring to follow in coming years. Lang’s voice is distinctive and virtually unique in the current generation for the extraordinary vocal range that she can offer to the great soprano and mezzo-soprano roles in Wagner operas. Here she goes from the vibrancy of her top notes and the Act II ‘Hojotohos’ that might possibly have been equalled but rarely bettered on CD, to the contralto-like intonations of the 'annunciation of death' scene that hold no fears for her. She undertakes this great journey employing all the tricks of her consummate vocal technique almost with ease. In Berlin it was only the first time Lang had sung this role in its entirety and she was already a very good Brünnhilde. It could only get even better … and it has. In her recent Geneva performance in this opera she was an even more credible pouty teenager who matured into a woman totally in control of her fate at the end.
My final thoughts are that I am not totally convinced that the recorded sound always captures Ms Lang’s voice as it would be experienced in the theatre. As always, the text is put across almost perfectly but the top of the voice does not quite have the body or frisson that you hear from this singer live. Nevertheless her contribution alone makes this CD worth adding to your library even if I could not recommend it - as I most certainly do - for the entire excellent ensemble performance.
Jim Pritchard 

Masterwork Index: Die Walküre