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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung - opera in prologue and three acts (1876) [243.42]
Petra Lang (mezzo) - Brünnhilde
Lance Ryan (tenor) - Siegfried
Matti Salminen (bass) - Hagen
Markus Brück (baritone) - Gunther
Edith Haller (soprano) - Gutrune
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (baritone) - Alberich
Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo) - Waltraute
Julia Borchert (soprano) - Woglinde
Katharina Kammerloher (mezzo) - Wellgunde
Kismara Pessatti (alto) - Flosshilde
Susanne Resmark (mezzo) - First Norn
Christa Mayer (mezzo) - Second Norn
Jacquelyn Wagner (soprano) - Third Norn
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Eberhard Friedrich
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, Philharmonie Berlin, 15 March 2013.
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC5186 409 [4 SACDs: 263:42]

There have been two previous releases from this Ring cycle of opera concert performances conducted by Marek Janowski with his Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. To my increasing regret I have not heard Das Rheingold. I recently reviewed Siegfried on CD but more significantly was present in Berlin for Die Walküre in November 2012 and Götterdämmerung on 15 March 2013. The latter has now been released here on SACD and brings to a conclusion the Wagner concert series that began for Janowski and his orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonie in November 2010. All ten parts - representing the mature Wagner operas - were recorded by PentaTone and Deutschlandradio Kultur for release on SACD before the end of 2013 - the Wagner bicentenary year.
 
Another reminder of what I have written previously: Janowski, the celebrated Wagner conductor, made the first digital recording of the complete Ring cycle between 1980 and 1983 for RCA-BMG, with the Staatskapelle Dresden. With these recent performances his intention was 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 on the opera by Steffen Georgi translated into French, as well as, English. Prof. Dr. Lammert elaborates on how Janowski wanted 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.
 
Janowski’s Hagen for his 1980s’ Ring was Matti Salminen and the veteran bass returned some thirty years later to sing it for him again. The Philharmonie ‘belongs’ to the Berlin Philharmonic and because each concert needed a fixed rehearsal period this meant that the RSB was limited in its options for suitable dates. Some cast changes resulted for this current Ring including two Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds. In March 2013 when it was finally over, Petra Lang in an elegant black evening gown stood still with her arms to her sides having taken charge of events during the ‘Immolation Scene’ - both as her character, Brünnhilde, and as a singer relatively new to her role. She had earlier sung a superb Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, with Violeta Urmana - in her own role début - proving a reasonably adequate replacement in Siegfried, especially because she really does not have much to sing. 

As I recalled earlier, the concert in Berlin ended a few minutes before midnight with a standing ovation for the singers and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra - but most especially for their conductor and artistic director Marek Janowski. The orchestra obviously likes him, and with good reason. Everything heard live and on CD suggests he clearly loves these scores. He absolutely fulfils Wagner’s need for his music-dramas to allow for a straightforwardly retelling of the narrative, with utmost clarity and without undue reverence or unnecessary re-interpretation. Also I cannot praise the orchestral interludes highly enough, yet these too seem totally integrated into Janowski’s overall musical vision. Throughout, the conductor’s approach to this Ring has seemed swifter than some of his contemporaries, nevertheless it sounds entirely appropriate because of a total control of the music’s tempo, flow and arc. In the famous hall, from where I was sitting, the sheer volume he unleashed from time to time challenged some of the singers. Although the orchestral balance has been adjusted on the recording the effect it had on some of the soloists’ performances remains audibly present. By no means is Matti Salminen the only one to suffer this. Hagen’s call to the vassals in Act II tested both him and the Eberhard Friedrich-trained Berlin Radio Chorus to the full. This can still be heard on this CD.
 
Nevertheless, when Valhalla had finally been set ablaze and the last bars faded away, the audience in the Philharmonie remained spellbound. There was complete silence before Janowski lowered his hands and a voice from on high - summing it all up for those who would acclaim the Polish maestro, his singers and musicians - cried out ‘Danke!’ I suspect he had been at all ten evenings and gave thanks for this wonderful project. I miss that sense of ‘occasion’ on these CDs.
 
It is not all just about the music, and Götterdämmerung brings many challenges for its roster of singers. The trios of Norns and Rhine daughters sound better here than when I heard them in Berlin where their positioning on the edge of the platform may not have been to their advantage. Jochen Schmeckenbecher confirms the good impression I had of him from Siegfried and I look forward to hearing his Alberich again. Markus Brück and Edith Haller were well paired as Gunther and Gutrune. Marina Prudenskaya brought real pathos and dark Slavic hues to Waltraute.
 
That leaves the important triumvirate for any Götterdämmerung - that of Hagen, Siegfried and Brünnhilde. I am sure Salminen would have sounded fresher in his earlier recording for Janowski … how could he not? However, sometimes gravitas is more important than smoothness of vocal projection. Salminen’s impressive Hagen is grizzled and careworn in the same way John Tomlinson’s now is. It remains just as engrossing an assumption of this pivotal role. Lance Ryan continues to be everywhere these days as Siegfried, including last summer’s new Bayreuth Ring. On the one hand, I commend him for his lyrical approach as this is very much my style of Wagner Heldentenor singing. One of his early teachers was Gianni Raimondi who I saw in Vienna near the end of his career and remains one of the finest tenors I have ever heard. However, for Siegfried’s significant moments Lance Ryan’s voice is not nearly Helden (heroic) enough for me. He sounds like a pumped-up Loge and frequently resorts to shouting too much.
 
At this recorded performance Petra Lang was relatively new to the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde and had yet to sing it on stage in a production. When I saw her on stage in Paris in June 2013 she was quite outstanding and better than she is here, even though - as captured on CD - her voice doesn’t sound as good as I recall when I was sitting in the hall. That Ms Lang is so good now is only to be expected as she will be more used to its demands. There is a significant difference between learning any role and performing it. Nevertheless, this celebrated singer still reveals here many of the wonderful qualities for which she is famed. The words are well enunciated and she has a rich dark sound across her lowest registers to which she has added some laser-bright top notes. Though this may not be the sound some listeners want, I certainly much prefer Petra Lang taking risks occasionally on this recording to Nina Stemme’s ultra-safe Brünnhilde at the BBC Proms in July when she seemed temperamentally unsuited to the role. Petra Lang is currently pre-eminent in any Wagner requiring spite or vengeance; Ortrud for example. There is plenty of this for her in Gotterdammerung: she is at her imperious best in Act II when seeking revenge, as well as, during her incandescent final moments in Act III.
 
There is a definite crisis about casting the huge Wagner operas in the twenty-first century, which is something I cannot debate further here. The three Ring operas I have reviewed on CD in this series have been rather vocally uneven but there have still been some moments of memorable singing. They all come with Maestro Janowski’s fresh and totally gimmick-free Wagner.
 
Jim Pritchard 


Masterwork Index: Götterdämmerung



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