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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876) [263.42]
Gun-Brit Barkmin (soprano) – Brünnhilde, Daniel Brenna (tenor) – Siegfried, Shenyang (baritone) – Gunther, Eric Halfvarson (bass) – Hagen, Amanda Majeski (soprano) – Gutrune, Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute, Peter Kálmán (baritone) – Alberich, Eri Nakamura (soprano) – Woglinde, Aurhelia Varek (mezzo-soprano) – Wellgunde, Hermine Haselböck (mezzo-soprano) – Flosshilde, Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano) – 1st Norn, Stephanie Houtzeel (mezzo-soprano) – 2nd Norn, Jenufa Gleich (soprano) – 3rd Norn
Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir
Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. live, 18 & 21 January 2018, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall
NAXOS 8.660428-31 [4 CDs: 263:42]

There are a great many things to recommend this recording. In the first place, as has been observed by many critics, the playing of the orchestra throughout this Ring cycle has been absolutely superlative, serving to demonstrate another world-class body of players who have mastered the Wagnerian style to perfection – not an accolade that even today all orchestras can equal. And then there is the conducting of Jaap van Zweden, which is fully alive to all the nuances of the score and whose pacing often yields dividends in unexpected places, such as his sense of forward movement in the Act One interlude that can so often hang fire between its detached phrases. The recording engineers too have carefully observed many details that can often become obscured, although in the more complex textures of the score they can find themselves forced to concede defeat. If the existing competition in the catalogue were less stiff, I would have no hesitation in commending this recording without reservation as a representation of Wagner’s Ring for the home listener. When reviewing Siegfried last year, indeed, I had no qualms whatsoever in stating that the performance of Act One was equal if not superior to any of its rivals, even if the other two Acts fell short of that exacting standard.

But of course, as there always will be in any CD of a score as intricate as Götterdämmerung, there are drawbacks. Surprisingly the recorded acoustic, highly responsive and naturally resonant in Act One, seems to spring some additional echo in Act Two which brings in its wake problems of balance. This becomes apparent from the very start, where Alberich sounds in a much drier acoustic than the sleeping Hagen (quite the opposite from the effect in Culshaw’s artificial enhancement for Solti) and the halo around Hagen’s voice then brings him into a quite peculiar relationship to the backwardly placed chorus, where the balance in volume sounds very artificial indeed. I am not sure what instruments are employed to play Wagner’s specified ‘steerhorns’ (they sound rather like normal trombones) but again the balance which they are given sounds false. This I suspect is largely down to problems with microphone placement on the stage, since at the opening of Act Three the balance between the various onstage and offstage brass is perfectly managed.

The Naxos cycle has made a positive virtue of necessity by engaging largely unknown singers to take on some of the most strenuous roles in the operatic repertoire, and their efforts have often been rewarded with success; but the lack of consistency from one evening of the tetralogy to the next (only Mathias Goerne as Wotan remaining constant throughout, and of course missing from the final segment of the story) is regrettable. And I have particularly to regret the absence of Simon O’Neill as Siegfried, given the quality of his contribution to the previous evening. American tenor Daniel Brenna has a highly personable character, a good sense of drama, a lovely response to a lyrical phrase and a superbly poised top C; but all his artistry cannot conceal the fact that his voice is unlike O’Neill’s, decidedly a size too small for this heroic role, especially in passages like the ‘dawn duet’ during the Prologue when he appears to be set rather far back from the microphone. The young German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Brünnhilde gives a good performance as the warrior maiden; but then there are again places, such as her rejection of Waltraute at the end of Act One or her execration of Gutrune at the end of Act Two, when she seems to run out of voice. I get the impression that she will become a major exponent of the role in the next few years, but that time is not quite yet come; and I also remember some similarly promising Wagnerian sopranos who ran their careers into difficulties by attempting too much too soon. But she can still even at this early stage in her career produce some real thrills in the ferocity of her triumphantly pinging attack on high notes in the closing immolation.

American bass Eric Halfvarson is of course a Hagen with plenty of experience under his belt and provides plenty of full-scaled Wagnerian volume as required. Where he does cause concern, as so often in the past, is in the sense of blurring that surrounds the actual pitch of the notes he is singing – his calling of the vassals hardly begins to even approximate the falling semitone that afterwards will become one of Hagen’s leading motifs, and he is equally blustery elsewhere. By comparison the Chinese baritone Shenyang gives a thoroughly polished performance – with excellent definition in both pitch and diction – which renders him almost the most heroic character on stage, a rather strange inversion of Wagner’s intentions. Amanda Majeski is similarly a very positive Gutrune, indeed putting up a good fight against Brünnhilde in their final scene; and Michelle DeYoung is an excellent Waltraute even if her rich contralto can turn unwontedly matronly. Peter Kálmán is an agitated Alberich, with a nice line in whispered insinuation which works well in his brief scene. The Norns in the Prologue are a well-modulated bunch, and the Rhinemaidens in Act Three are suitably mellifluous. The chorus, with its internationally recruited personnel, make as much impact as their backward placement on the stage will allow; it is a pity that once again Wagner’s instructions for a single voice or small body of singers in some passages is ignored. I find it amazing that some many conductors (including experienced Wagnerians such as Solti, Goodall, Barenboim, Levine and so on) simply fail to appreciate the dramatic impact that the employment of the correct procedure can impart – even the 78rpm set of excerpts recorded in the 1930s got this right.

The recording has been assembled, as were the earlier instalments in the Naxos Ring, from a pair of concert performances, which has been sufficient to eliminate most of the mistakes and errors that can creep in during live stagings; and the audience are as quiet as mice, with none of the spluttering and coughing that can ruin so many live sessions in January. The booklet does not supply a text or translation (available online) but does include full artist biographies in English, and a brief introduction and substantial synopsis in both German and English. The layout on the discs is well managed, with the break between CDs in Act One taken at Siegfried’s entrance, earlier than usual but less disruptive dramatically and musically than most alternatives.

In the final pages of this performance, the combination of conducting, playing and engineering is every bit as good as in any of the rival versions on disc, with the themes marvellously balanced. The effect is only marred by van Zweden’s insertion of the ‘traditional’ luftpause before the final bars; it is not in Wagner’s score, and such conductors as Goodall, Haenchen, Levine and Barenboim have conclusively demonstrated that the music works better without it, reinforcing the continuing downward tread of the bass line. This cycle on Naxos, now complete, comprehensively trounces earlier releases on the label, and at its super-budget price might well form a recommendable modern representation of the score for newcomers to the field.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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