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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. live, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 2015-18
NAXOS 8.501403 [14 CDs: 893 mins]

Here on MWI we’ve already reviewed some elements of this Hong Kong Ring separately (Siegfried ~ Walküre) so the purpose of this review isn’t to give a detailed analysis of each opera. Instead it’s to analyse whether this Ring hangs together as a successful musical whole. Spoiler alert: it does.

It was always going to be mightily ambitious for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to take on The Ring, but the major achievement of this set, now that it’s completed, is how brilliantly the orchestra have succeeded in making this music its own. More than that, the quality of the playing seems to improve as the recording proceeds. Each opera was recorded live in concert (with patching sessions) in January from 2015 to 2018, and the project seems to have developed in stature and status as it proceeded. In fact, one of the engineers involved said that they were able to draw upon a higher level of singing talent as the project’s reputation grew.

The orchestra’s achievement is, therefore, central to this set’s success. They’re a highly diverse group of musicians, conducted by a Dutchman, so this is as international a Ring as you’ll find on any European opera stage. They may not have quite the level of gold that you’d hear in Vienna or Berlin, but they’re not far off, and each section does wonders when it comes into the limelight. The Wagner tubas don't crack at all during first iteration of Valhalla theme, for example; something that’s still surprisingly rare in recordings. The cellos have wonderful bite in the Walküre storm, and the fast music during the “scherzo” sections of Siegfried are hair-raisingly crisp and brilliantly refreshing. The final pages of Götterdämmerung gave wave upon wave of aural splendour, and the overall achievement is really superb.

Jaap van Zweden has pre-existing Wagnerian credentials (he has already conducted Parsifal, for example), but nothing prepared me for how “in charge” he feels as a conductor of The Ring. For one thing, the set pieces are very convincing. The descent into Nibelheim and Ride of the Valkyries both build up a real head of steam, and both the Dawn scenes in Götterdämmerung are paced with a great sense of give-and-take, as is the Funeral March. More importantly, however, the overall structure works well too. The Rheingold Prelude is paced slowly but convincingly, and the balance of dialogue and showpiece in that opera always felt well-judged to me. Act 1 of Walküre ebbs and flows beautifully, moving unerringly towards its climax, and there is a focused quality to the Todesverkundigung that I found so convincing as to be hypnotic. Likewise, the love duet at the end of Siegfried and the condensed busyness of Act 2 of Götterdämmerung are expertly judged, and the balance of action and reflection is super in the final act of that opera.

The cast of singers is also very good, though the biggest problem comes with the Brünnhildes. Petra Lang in Walküre sounds like she is working very hard and, consequently, is hard to listen to. She has to reach for every note from beneath, and there is precious little sense of being in command of the music. Likewise, Heidi Melton makes heavy weather of the part in Siegfried, so that there isn’t enough sense of refulgence or celebration. She’s a better Sieglinde, but even there the voice tends to lose focus a little after the first act. Gun-Brit Barkmin, on the other hand, is much better in Götterdämmerung. It’s a light voice, but it’s completely focused, and the lightness tends to point up the character’s humanity and vulnerability. Even in the Immolation Scene, I found her compelling and convincing, and she is particularly good in responding to the disguised Siegfried at the end of Act 1. She impressed me a lot in the Zurich Wozzeck, and this confirms her star potential.

Simon O’Neill is also very convincing as Siegfried, and I enjoyed on disc the same things that I admired in his 2018 Edinburgh Festival performance: namely the heroism and vigour of his approach. There’s more boyishness on disc, though, and more energy too. The voice has no trace of the grittiness than has marred it in the past, and he seems to be having a whale of a time throwing himself into the character’s boyish wonderment at the discovery of the world. Siegfried (and Siegfried) is often the weak link in the cycle, but not here. Daniel Brenna isn’t quite as capable in Götterdämmerung, and the light voice can’t quite stand up to the rigours of the role; but he manages well enough.

The most consistent of the major parts is Matthias Goerne’s Wotan. He is also by quite some margin the finest; indeed, so great is his portrayal that it makes me wonder whether the whole project was designed around him. Right from the outset, Goerne sees the part as a philosopher poet rather than a power-hungry dictator, and that makes his fall even more tragic than usual. More than anything, I was reminded while listening of Goerne the singer of Schubert lieder. He is introverted and thoughtful throughout, as though unwillingly thrust into the limelight, so his voice has an inward poetic beauty to it that I found utterly bewitching. He is a commanding presence too, though; brilliantly so at the very opening of Walküre Act 2, but he delivers the great monologue with wounded dignity, fully aware of how entrapped he has become. At the end of that opera he gives one of the most moving farewells I’ve heard recently, and his great scene with Erda in Siegfried makes a fitting culmination to the part.

The lesser roles are also really well taken, most especially Stuart Skelton, who is at his very finest as Siegmund. The voice has a burnished, nutty quality that is better than anything else I’ve heard him record. The part suits him perfectly, with raw sexual energy coming through in the very final moments of Act 1, but he also judges the journey there to perfection, and his second act interaction with Brünnhilde is a nailbiter. Aside from Goerne, Skelton is the singer who makes the single biggest contribution to the set’s success.

I'll always have a fondness for Peter Sidhom’s Alberich since seeing him in the Scottish Ring in 2003. The voice is a bit drier now, but his dramatic instinct remains completely unerring and very convincing. Michelle DeYoung is a commanding Fricka, and an even more convincing Waltraute. Kim Begley’s Loge is mischievous and even a little boyish. David Cangelosi’s Mime is brisk and busy, almost comical as well as being malevolent and, therefore, entirely convincing. The Gibichungs are well sung, and Eric Halfvarson’s black-voiced Hagen cuts through the orchestra with seeming ease, showing that he has still got it. Rhinemaidens, Norns and Valkyries all acquit themselves with credit, and Falk Struckmann surprises us all as the most wonderfully hammy dragon you’re every likely to hear.

This being Naxos, the budget price is a real draw. As I write you can find it retailing for less than £40 though, strikingly, you can also get some of the great studio Rings of the past for that or less at the moment. The discs are packaged in a neat box with an individual plot synopsis booklet for each opera: presumably they’re the same booklets that were released with the individual operas over the years. There are no texts or translations, but you do get a neat USB drive in the box that gives you links to the full texts and translations. You also get a video interview with the recording engineers and the Naxos boss, together with the cover art if you want to use it on your mobile device.

So as a contemporary Ring I found this really very compelling. It might not quite stand up to the towering Rings of Solti, Karajan, Böhm or Keilberth, but as a Ring for our age it’s pretty damn good. Furthermore, the sound quality is really superb: full credit to the Naxos engineers for that. There is also a surround sound Blu-Ray (which you don’t get in this package): I haven’t heard it, but the quality of the stereo is so good here that I can only imagine how dazzling the surround must be.

Ring nuts will already have made up their minds, but for everybody else this is something you can invest in with confidence, most especially for Goerne’s Wotan. It’s a budget price Ring but not a budget performance, and if it is an indication of Wagner performance in our time, then it’s a welcome reason to be cheerful.

Simon Thompson

Das Rheingold
Matthias Goerne (bar) – Wotan
Michelle de Young (mezzo) – Fricka
Kin Begley (tenor) – Loge
Deborah Humble (mezzo) – Erda
Peter Sidhom (bar) – Alberich
David Cangelosi (tenor) – Mime
Kwangchul Youn (bass) – Fasolt
Stephen Milling (bass) – Fafner
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
rec. live, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 22 & 24 January 2015
[2 CDs: 153:35]

Die Walküre
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 (soprano) – Gerhilde
Katherine Broderick (soprano) – Helmwige
Anna Birford (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.
[4 CDs: 236:32]


Siegfried
Simon O’Neill (tenor) – Siegfried
Matthias Goerne (baritone) – Wanderer
David Cangelosi (tenor) – Mime
Heidi Melton (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Werner van Mechelen (baritone) –Alberich
Falk Struckmann (bass) – Fafner
Deborah Humble (mezzo-soprano) – Erda
Valentina Farcas (soprano) – Woodbird
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra / Jaap van Zweden
rec. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 19 & 22 January 2017
[4 CDs: 241:58]

Götterdämmerung
Gun-Brit Barkmin (sop) – Brünnhilde
Daniel Brenna (ten) – Siegfried
Shenyang (bass-bar) – Gunther
Eric Halfvarson (bass) – Hagen
Amanda Majeski (sop) – Gutrune
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) – Waltraute
Peter Kálmán (bass-bar) – Alberich
Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir, Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra / Jaap van Zweden
rec. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 18 & 21 Jan 2018
[4 CDs: 263:42]

 



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