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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Das Rheingold - music drama in one act (1869)
Woglinde: Sarah Tynan (soprano)
Wellgunde: Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde: Leah-Marian Jones (mezzo-soprano)
Alberich: Samuel Youn (bass-baritone)
Wotan: Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)
Fricka: Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Freia: Emma Bell (soprano)
Fasolt: Reinhard Hagen (bass)
Fafner: Clive Bayley (bass)
Donner: David Stout (baritone)
Froh: David Butt Philip (tenor)
Loge: Will Hartmann (tenor)
Mime: Nicky Spence (tenor)
Erda: Susanne Resmark (mezzo-soprano)
The Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live 27 November 2016 and in rehearsal, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Plot synopsis in the notes; libretto and English translation can be downloaded free from the Hallé website HALLÉCDHLD7549 [3 CDs: 166:20]
Following on from Sir Mark Elder’s live concert recordings of Götterdämmerung (2009) and Die Walküre (2011), we now have this live performance of Das Rheingold from 2016. Elder will this June conduct Acts 1 and 2, then Act 3 of Siegfried on two separate evenings, so it would seem that despite his previous protestations of having no intention of recording a complete Ring cycle with the Hallé, we are almost there, albeit with extended and gaps and extensive cast changes along the way.
The opening is slow and portentous, not tense and exciting like Solti but dreamy and otherworldly; textures are very clear but it will all seem a bit low key to those weaned on Solti’s famous recording. There is some lovely playing, including sparkling articulation from the strings over a rich brass underlay when the Rhinemaidens hail the gold, for example. Elder is clearly aiming throughout for a shimmering sound which floats on a warm cushion of cellos, low brass and double basses; apparently the latter were divided into two groups of four each side of the stage to enhance their sonority. The prelude to Fricka waking Wotan is gorgeously played, the harps and horns as noble as one could wish, but the prologue to the Giants’ entrance and the descent into Nibelheim are suitably harsh and arresting, demonstrating that Elder is capable of embracing a variety of moods.
However, one vocal issue pervades much of the singing here: I am talking about the dreaded Wagnerian wobble. Immediately there is rather an excess of it - and also some edge in her tone - when Rhinemaiden Sarah Tynan begins to sing. Her mezzo companions are steadier and richer-voiced but hardly a singer here, from Emma Bell’s harsh-toned Freia down to the bass giants, is immune to the perceptible encroachment of some flap. The demands made by Wagner’s music can be ruinous to the finest voices and the current dearth points to that. One has only to make comparison between the plethora of live and studio recordings from the 50’s and 60’s and more recent efforts to hear the general deterioration and this latest “Rheingold” conforms to that pattern – even though it seems that few commentators notice or care.
There is still some fine singing here. Samuel Youn has a neat, flexible voice, tipped more towards baritone than bass, and thus perhaps a tad light for Wagner, but his singing is incisive and he is an excellent vocal actor. Seizing the ring, he gives a chilling, valedictory cackle which the recording captures perfectly as he recedes from the microphones and makes off into the distance. He finds more bite and weight when terrorising the Niblungen Hort and his Curse is a highlight; in general, he turns in a compelling performance.
Susan Bickley makes an unusually sympathetic, compelling Fricka, with a strong lower register and some beautifully controlled top notes. I knew what a fine Wagner singer Iain Paterson was from hearing his warm, noble Hans Sachs at the ENO but, to return my opening theme, I am slightly worried by the audible increase in the amplitude of his vibrato since I last heard him. His is still a fine voice and I hope it stays that way, especially as he is engaged to rise to the challenge of singing Wotan in Bayreuth in 2020; his soft singing is beguiling and suits his portrayal of Wotan as a smooth operator who over-estimates his ability to control events, but he does not have the heft of the heavyweight Wotans of the past, even if his quiet, effortless authority is admirable. His portrayal of Wotan matches Elder’s conducting: it is subtle, nuanced and slightly understated. Will Hartmann’s Loge is wily and expressive, but on extended high notes something close to a bleat starts to obtrude. Nicky Spence sings a suitably craven but strong-voiced Mime, his diction razor-sharp and his tone devoid of any unsteadiness. His performance as David in the same “Mastersingers” as Paterson’s Sachs had already alerted me to his vocal and acting skills and he turns in another superlative performance here. The Donner and Froh both make a very positive impression in their brief contributions; two promising young voices. Veteran Swedish mezzo-soprano Susanne Resmark delivers a grave, sonorous Erda.
The final scene following Fafner’s slaying of his brother Fasolt is crucial to the impact of this work. David Stout makes an especially good job of summoning the swirling mists leading up to Donner’s mighty hammer-blow; Elder’s horns and strings swell massively and Paterson intones Wotan’s salute to the new Valhalla with calm majesty before Loge’s ironic commentary and the Rhinemaidens’ concluding lament. It all hangs together admirably, even if the prevailing mood is cooler and more measured than most; the orchestral peroration is grand.
When all’s said and done, for all that I recognise the many virtues of this live recording, I cannot quite see why anyone would necessarily turn to it first in preference to established recordings insofar as, despite some excellent individual contributions, there is not the consistency of singing across the board to be found in the best accounts. However, if you want a souvenir of an excellent evening, in first-rate sound, showcasing Elder’s more transparent conception of the score, this will afford much pleasure.