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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883) Das Rheingold
The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 27 November 2016, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and in rehearsal
The libretto and English translation can be downloaded free HALLÉ CDHLD7549 [3 CDs: 166:20]
More than a decade ago I reviewed what I believe was Sir Mark Elder’s first foray into the realm of Wagner. I was quite familiar with Elder as an opera conductor, heard him several times during his tenure at ENO, but then mostly in Verdi. However he turned out to be a splendid Wagnerian as well, which has later been confirmed by various complete sets on the Hallé label. The first was Götterdämmerung, enthusiastically reviewed here at MWI by Brian Wilson, whose enthusiasm I wholeheartedly share. Several later sets have for various reasons failed to reach my shelves, but when I found Das Rheingold on the latest wish-list I begged for it and here are my impressions:
The Hallé are certainly a fully-fledged Wagner orchestra and I can’t resist quoting myself eleven years ago: “There is an admirable homogeneity of sound, both as a total experience and within the different departments. The strings are warm and silvery, the brass is sonorous and punchy and the woodwind blend beautifully.” This is in evidence everywhere here too, and the excellent recording contributes greatly to let the orchestra blossom whenever there is an opportunity. Mostly of course in the purely instrumental music, and there is a lot of that. What is especially noteworthy is Sir Mark’s skilful handling of dynamics. The very opening is a classical example, taking us from an inaudible start, expanding organically in a relentless crescendo up to the rise of the curtain. To achieve this the conductor has to judge the dynamics so that the tension is constantly heated, with no slacking of intensity. The audience should, literally be sitting on the edge of their seats and feel the sweat pearling on their collective forehead. I don’t know what my audience colleagues in Bridgewater Hall felt on 27 November 2016, but I certainly had a distinct sense of white heat when listening on the Swedish National Day (6 June). Admittedly we had a heat wave in Scandinavia at the time but this heat came distinctly from within. And there are other places where Elder’s dynamic mastery pays dividends. The interlude before scene 2 is truly spectacular, where the music is a kind of equivalent to a continuous camera-tracking from the bottom of the Rhine to the top of the mountain where Wotan and Fricka are still asleep. I noted the same scrupulous gradations in Asher Fisch’s epoch-making first Australian Ring issued some ten years ago, and returning to my review of Das Rheingold I found that I had made almost identical descriptions of his handling of the orchestra. Generally I feel that there are several similarities between Fisch and Elder, which is a recommendation in itself. Where Fisch’s Rheingold was partly at a disadvantage concerned some of the singing. There were some wobblers in the cast and some others who overtaxed their voices. In that respect Elder’s cast wins hands down. He has an excellent trio of Rheinmaidens, their voices blending beautifully in the concerted passages and individually also very attractive. Samuel Youn’s dark and menacing Alberich can be compared favourably also with his counterparts on the legendary Solti, Böhm and Karajan sets and is vocally superior to Theo Adam’s expressive but wobbly dwarf on the in many respects highly recommendable Haitink set. Iain Paterson’s Wotan leaves me in two minds. He has the required power and can be quite impressive – but he also has an annoying beat in the voice now and then. But he also has an attractive lyrical restraint in many passages, making him very human. Susan Bickley’s Fricka has been hailed before and she certainly stands with the best in a very competitive field. Emma Bell does what she can with Freja’s rather nondescript role, while Reinhard Hagen and Clive Bayley’s giants are really towering experiences. David Stout’s Donner is the usual hothead – always brandishing his dreaded hammer – and he sings impressively his Schwüles Gedubst schwebt in der Luft (CD 3 tr. 10) and David Butt Philip shines in Froh’s Zur Burg führt die Brücke. Possibly the best two impersonations are Will Hartmann’s Loge and Nicky Spence’s Mime. Both are superb character tenors with wide pallets of vocal colours and full arrays of expressive nuances. They are both in the Graham Clarke division, which is praise indeed. The only weak link is Susanne Resmark’s uncharacteristically shaky and colourless Erda, but her solo takes a mere 5:32 and she also makes amends with some brilliant forte singing.
The finale is magnificent and the ovations that follow are understandable. This is a Rheingold that is well worth adding to anyone’s collection.
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