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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Die Walküre, music-drama in three acts (1870)
Stuart Skelton (tenor) – Siegmund; Heidi Melton (soprano) – Sieglinde; Falk Struckmann (bass-baritone) – Hunding; Matthias Goerne (baritone) – Wotan; Petra Lang (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) – Fricka; Sarah Castle (mezzo) – Waltraute; Karen Foster (woprano) – Gerhilde; Katherine Broderick (soprano) – Helmwige; Anna Burford (mezzo) – Schwertleite; Elaine McKrill (soprano) – Ortlinde; Aurhelia Varak (mezzo) – Siegrune; Okka von der Damerau (mezzo) – Grimgerde; Laura Nykänen (mezzo) – Rossweisse
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. live, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 21-23 January 2016
German libretto available online
NAXOS 8.660394-97 [4 CDs: 67:15 + 51:50 + 43:58 + 73:29]

At the very beginning of the 21st century Naxos issued a Ring cycle from Staatsoper Stuttgart under Lothar Zagrosek. It had several good features but was rather unevenly cast. Zagrosek’s conducting was however winning and especially Die Walküre was attractive also from a vocal point of view (review). That cycle was recorded live during staged performances, which implied that there were various stage noises that could be rather disturbing. This new Naxos Ring is also being recorded live but from concert performances, where background noise can be reduced to a minimum. There is not even applause.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic may not be the first orchestra one expects to hear in a Wagner recording, but from the very beginning, the stormy prelude to act I, one hears that this is going to be Wagner playing of the highest order. We hear a homogenous sound, with powerful wind and velvety strings, really beautifully featured in the love music in the first act. In fact they can stand comparison with even the Vienna Philharmonic. Jaap van Zweden has steadily built up a reputation as one of the most interesting conductors. He has been Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since the 2008/2009 season and has the same position at the Hong Kong Philharmonic since August 2012. Next year he will take over the New York Philharmonic as well. His conducting here is utterly convincing. He keeps the tension alive throughout the performance. The recording of the orchestra is also well-balanced and realistic and the voices carry out excellently, without being swamped by the orchestra. All in all the technique serves the enterprise admirably.

Admirable are also the soloists. Young American soprano Heidi Melton is a warm and caring Sieglinde in the beginning of the first act and when she lets loose in the love scene towards the end of the act she sings gloriously. Du bist der Lenz glows. She is already conquering the big stages in roles like Tristan and Brünnhilde and has already recorded Siegfried in Hong Kong for the next instalment in this Ring cycle. I can’t wait to hear it.

Stuart Skelton was Siegmund in the Melba Walküre, recorded in Adelaide in 2004 (review), and he was a sensation then. Eleven years later he is still a front-runner in the role. Me may have lost a little of the youthfulness and freshness he displayed then but is just as nuanced here and with even deeper insight. His shouts of Wälse, Wälse (CD 1 tr. 8) are still impressive, while his lyrical and inward Winterstürme (CD 1 tr. 10) has rarely been more beautiful. The couple Siegmund and Sieglinde together at the end of the act is the emblem of ecstasy.

Falk Struckmann’s Hunding is occasionally a bit shaky but he is frightening and menacing and his monologue (CD 1 tr. 7) is filled with venom.

In the second act we meet Wotan and he is a revelation. Matthias Goerne has long been one of the great Lieder-singers, well-known for his deeply probing Schubert readings. The depth is here as well but to this has to be added a bass-baritone voice of gigantic dimensions. There are actually similarities with Hans Hotter in his heyday. He too has a myriad nuances at his disposal. He gives a truly three-dimensional portrait of Wotan and his farewell to Brünnhilde in the last act is deeply felt and emotional. Der Augen leuchtendes Paar (CD 4 tr. 11) is great singing in every respect. I am in two minds concerning Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde. She begins in top gear with a riveting Hojotoho (CD 2 tr. 2) but later on her voice sounds slightly occluded, possibly intentionally since she is quite stunned at Wotan’s behaviour: So sah ich Siegvater nie! (CD 3 tr. 1). She is also a bit pale in the Todesverkündigung (CD 3 tr. 3-5) but she recovers towards the end of the scene and in the final act she is powerful, brilliant and steady. Michelle DeYoung impresses greatly as a bitchy Fricka and Wotan sounds properly subdued. The Walküres are an uncommonly fresh and homogenous octet. Rarely have they sounded better.

The catalogues are crammed with recordings of the complete Ring and the individual operas and probably there will never appear one that is the evident winner: Furtwängler, Solti, Böhm, Karajan, Janowski, Levine, Haitink, Barenboim and Fisch all have great merits and this latest effort belongs in the same category. Are you buying your first Walküre? You need not look any further than this one. Are you a jaded collector? You will still find it a valuable addition to your collection. Since I missed Das Rheingold I have to catch up as soon as possible and then I’m eagerly waiting for Siegfried.
Göran Forsling

Previous review: Marc Rochester



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