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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1869)
René Pape - Wotan; Nikolai Putilin - Alberich; Stephan Rügamer - Loge; Ekaterina Gubanova - Fricka; Viktoria Yastrebova - Freia; Zlata Bulycheva - Erda; Andrei Popov - Mime; Evgeny Nikitin - Fasolt; Mikhail Petrenko - Fafner; Sergei Semishkur - Froh; Alexei Markov - Donner; Zhanna Dombrovskaya - Woglinde; Irina Vasilieva - Wellgunde; Ekaterina Sergeeva - Flosshilde
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valéry Gergiev
rec. Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, June 2010, February and April 2012. reviewed in 5.0 surround. stereo/multichannel
MARIINSKY MAR0526 SACD [72:13 + 75:29]

This recording was made over three sessions in 2010 and 2012, presumably covering the availability of soloists. Whilst most of this cast is based at the Mariinsky, at least two, René Pape and Stephan Rügamer, are not. This large gap in recording sessions might also explain the change of gear in the performance noticed during the review audition, when after the descent to Nibelheim, things seemed more energetic. The transfer is fairly low level, but given the wide dynamic range it would not be wise to turn up the opening scene too high. I raised the volume, if my system controller is to be believed, by around 5 dB. The sound throughout, after this change, is detailed and rich for the orchestra but less convincing for the soloists who are backwardly balanced, placing them almost within the orchestra. I am sure they were not, but that is how they sound. Freia and Erda are still more distant. In Erda's case this may be justified but not for Freia. The rear channels contribute little, not even much spaciousness. The documentation is very good, including an interesting essay entitled Wagner, Russia and Das Rheingold. The libretto has a good German/English parallel translation with all Wagner's stage directions.
In Scene 1 the Rhinemaidens are not very clear, an immediate consequence of the rather backward recording of voices but it may also reflect the rather vague German of the soloists. Alberich is well enough sung but not as incisive as a German singer would be so that little of his anger and frustration comes over. When his attention is drawn to the gold he needs more forcefulness. This is after all the first of many key moments. The orchestra by contrast is detailed and has great impact. They are the most heroic performers in the scene. Scene 2 brings in Wotan sung by René Pape, an internationally known soloist who, naturally, sounds very at home with the German. Fricka is well sung by Ekaterina Gubanova who sounds almost as good as she did in Barenboim's wondrous Rheingold in this summer's BBC Proms (2013). Freia has to enter from the distance but unfortunately stays there and this does damage the impact of all her appearances. Compared to the brilliant Anna Samuil heard at the above Prom she just fails to make an impression. The giants never make it to the front either, perhaps partly because of Gergiev's slow tempo for their grand entry. Both Fasolt and Fafner are however very well sung. Loge enters from afar too, thus his words are less than ideally clear, but he does make a more forward impact as the story develops. By now it is obvious that Gergiev is dealing with the broad strokes of Wagner's dramatic painting. Dramatic moments pass without the attention one gets from Solti and Barenboim for example. When Wagner asks for a 'general stir' amongst the gods, nothing happens to the musical flow. The discussion between Loge, Wotan, Donner and Froh about the significance of the ring is another scene that lacks dramatic pointing. The sonorous orchestra helps obscure rather than highlight details here too. So much happens in Rheingold compared to the other three parts of Der Ring that such an undifferentiated approach leaves too much unsaid. After the surprisingly high speed departure of the giants - they must be much buoyed by having Freia with them - the gods age without the necessary atmospheric accompaniment.
We have a slow dissolve to Scene 3 and the descent into Nibelheim. There are splendid clangs from the anvils and a supercharged orchestra. After a brief exchange between Alberich and Mime, disc one ends. This break is neither better nor worse than any other turnover point and interestingly it heralds the abovementioned change of gear. Andrei Popov seems much more willing to characterise his role and he turns in a superb Mime, such that Alberich begins to sound altogether more involved. Since he is now in charge of the newly forged ring, indeed he is the eponymous Nibelung in Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is just as well that he does sound involved. It pays immediate dividends in the confrontation between Mime, Alberich, Wotan and Loge who now all sound as though they care about events. The whole performance lifts and gains impetus. When Loge intervenes to keep Alberich and Wotan from each others' throats the orchestra really begins to drive the drama. This continues when Alberich turns into a giant serpent though the engineers seem to hold back the climax. The ascent from the depths is perhaps less forceful than it might be but the orchestra sounds marvellous. Scene 4 sees the Nibelung slaves carrying the gold back to the surface. Here the orchestra sounds magnificent and the big climax is terrific. Alberich, having been relieved of the ring delivers a superb curse. When the arguments between the gods and giants reach an impasse Erda's voice is heard as if from a great distance. This works well and makes her pronouncements suitably portentous. Wotan hands over the ring and the curse takes effect. The giants argue - convincingly so in the hands of Evgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko - before Fafner kills Fasolt. This draws from the orchestral brass a great curse motif. Donner's hammer is typically inaudible - we all miss Solti here - and the thunderstorm is more beautiful than cathartic. Wotan's salute to Valhalla could do with a bit more gravitas than it gets here. The Rhinemaidens call piteously from the distance, this time appropriately for the drama, and the orchestra gets the last word. Nothing can erase memories of Solti in this final section, though, as proved by Barenboim at the Proms, a less histrionic approach can be mightily impressive.
This set is well worth hearing but it has its problems and it could never be seen as the Rheingold for a collection. Gergiev holds one's attention and the orchestra are lovely to listen to. The recording favours the orchestra over the singers so perhaps that is the reason. Up against Solti, Barenboim, Böhm and Karajan, all in good to excellent sound, this one doesn't quite cut the mustard. For SACD maybe one should try Janowski on Pentatone, but since I haven't heard it, I'll say no more.
Dave Billinge

See also review by Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Das Rheingold