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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried (1876)
Simon O’Neill (tenor) – Siegfried: Iain Paterson (baritone) – Wanderer: Gerhard Siegel (tenor) – Mime: Rachel Nicholls (soprano) – Brünnhilde: Martin Winkler (baritone) – Alberich: Anna Larsson (contralto) – Erda: Clive Bayley (bass) – Fafner: Malin Christensson (soprano) – Woodbird
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2018, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester,
HALLÉ CDHLD7551 [4 CDs: 261:29]

Earlier this year I commented upon the fact that Siegfried has generally in the past proved to have been the most problematic of all the Wagner Ring music dramas to receive satisfactory representation in recording, or indeed in live performance. It is therefore extraordinary to realise that in the course of the last twelve months I have reviewed three complete recordings of the work, all drawn from live performances, and all of which seem to have set out with the intention of proving me wrong. The two earlier recordings, one a modern taping from Hong Kong on the Naxos label and the other a single archive from the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1962, both had very strong points to recommend them; and it seems even more a cause for congratulation that this new release from Manchester on the Hallé’s own label conducted by Sir Mark Elder should in many ways surpass both of those predecessors. This is even more the case when one realises that the actual performance appears to be a single recording spread over two evenings with only marginal amendments from earlier rehearsal takes: the Met performance consisted of a single unedited take, and that from Hong Kong appears to have derived from a number of concert performances.

Elder is of course an established Wagnerian conductor with a long reputation, stretching back to the days when he succeeded Sir Reginald Goodall as the chief exponent of the composer at English National Opera. He also inherited some of Goodall’s penchant for slow speeds, which Goodall himself originally maintained were necessary to allow Wagner’s notes (all of which he contended had their importance) to be fully heard, but which he himself in his later life sometimes regarded as having less overriding importance. While Elder is by no means as slow as Goodall in such passages as the forging scene, his slower speeds than either van Zweden on Naxos or Leinsdorf at the Met mean that, unlike them, he is unable to cram the First Act of Siegfried onto a single CD and therefore a choice has to be made as to where side breaks should come. I will return to this vexed matter later.

The recorded sound, as one expects from the experienced Hallé team in Manchester, is of the first order; and the balance between voices and orchestra are generally very fine. But there are occasions where the voices appear to have been slightly favoured by the microphones in a manner which I suspect may not have been so apparent in the hall during the live performances. Not that these voices need such favourable treatment. Simon O’Neill, who we had already encountered as Siegfried a year before in Hong Kong, is as before a tower of strength in the title role, managing to encompass the most heroic elements of the score without any signs of apparent strain and still retaining freshness through to the end of the long evening in his love duet with Brünnhilde (although here the fact that the Third Act derived from a performance a day later may well have assisted). Indeed, the internal balances in Act One are perhaps less assured than elsewhere – certainly less so than the Naxos engineers provided for their performance in Hong Kong – but even so the general effect is both clear and cogent.

In Hong Kong much of the success of the First Act, which I described as simply one the best performances of the music I had ever heard, could be laid not only at the door of O’Neill but also of David Cangelosi as his foster-father who displayed a dramatic engagement with the role that explored new depths of characterisation in a thoroughly unexpected manner. If Gerhard Siegel does not quite match that degree of penetration, he is still an excellent performer with a steady control over the notes with no waywardness of pitch or rhythm, as well as a sense of precision in his hammering on the anvil (although this may well have been deputed to an offstage percussionist – it sounds rather as though this was the case); and he strikes plenty of sparks, too, in his riddle scene with Iain Paterson’s Wanderer. The latter too is excellent in his later confrontations with Alberich in Act Two, and with Erda and eventually Siegfried himself in Act Three, singing with strength and fulfilling all of Wagner’s sometimes cruel demands on the higher reaches of the voice. Anna Larsson is of course a tower of strength in the role of Erda, as in all the performance of the role I have seen and heard her give. Martin Winkler is also excellent as Alberich, and his challenges both to Wotan and to his brother Mime come across with pinging force. And, setting the seal on a generally superlative cast, Rachel Nicholls as Brünnhilde brings plenty of light and shade to the role complete with a technical armoury which includes a perfect trill (a relative rarity among Brünnhildes) and a sense of youthful wonder which completely consigns to memory any notion of two Wagnerian heavyweights blundering around on stage for three quarters of an hour deciding whether they love each other or not. The only concern I have is that she should not be over-using her voice in a manner that might rob us of her future development of the role – but I am sure that intelligent management of her resources will mean that her presence on the international stage will follow in a very short space of time. Even the unexpected strength of Malin Christensson as the Woodbird is fully justified by the dramatic impact she achieves in her brief scene in Act Two.

I mentioned the offstage percussion in Act One, and it is clear from the forging scene in the final segments of that Act that the hammering has been quite rightly consigned to an independent player positioned at some distance from Siegfried himself. This is also the one point at which I noticed any serious flaws in the execution of the music – God knows it is difficult enough to realise even with the luxury of studio retakes – when at the very opening of the hammering sequence Simon O’Neill and Mark Elder contrive to get slightly out of kilter with each other. A sense of heady excitement carries them through this momentary lack of ensemble without any serious problems, and certainly none of the sense of impending catastrophe that one hears from Wolfgang Windgassen and Clemens Krauss in their notoriously wayward performance of the scene at Bayreuth in 1953 (a performance that inexplicably continues to be extolled by some critics). The sense of freshness and discovery is palpable throughout, as I have already observed, and this is a set of which the Hallé can justifiably be very proud. The orchestral playing is superlative, not least Ben Goldscheider’s thrilling delivery of Siegfried’s horn call.

The presentation is basic, with a brief synopsis by Barry Millington and no text or libretto – these are available on line. The divisions between the discs are eminently musical (coming at the end of Act One Scene Two, during a silent pause in the middle of the forest murmurs, and at Siegfried’s entry following the Woodbird in Act Three), which avoid most of the horrors perpetrated in the Decca/Solti CD Ring – but one might have hoped that the break in Act One could have been made slightly sooner to mirror that in the EMI/Chandos Goodall Siegfried, which seems to me to achieve the best solution to an admittedly knotty problem. In terms of sheer casting this set probably trumps the Naxos among recent issues of the score, despite the latter’s superior Act One; but of course it also comes into competition with some very heavy hitters from earlier generations, and I do not imagine that any purchasers will regard it as the solo representation of the work in their collections. But it is certainly one that they should consider adding to such a collection.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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