Musicweb International
Simon Thompson
Die Walküre, Recording of the Month
This is the first major release of the Wagner bicentenary year to come my way, and it’s thrilling. Even more exciting is the news that it is only the first instalment of a complete Mariinsky Ring: Rheingold will follow in September 2013, with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in 2014. If this instalment is anything to go by then this it’s going to be a Ring to cherish.

So much about this set works so well, but it makes sense to begin with the singing. Much of the attention this release gets will focus on Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund, and rightly so because he is a marvel. He is now at the point of his career where his voice is perfect for the role of the Wälsung hero. He combines lyrical beauty with dark, rugged heroism and a supreme sense of excitement in articulating every phrase. The baritonal darkness of his voice makes you sit up and take notice from the very first phrase, and it’s this that makes his assumption of the role so distinctive. It adds an even greater layer of pathos to the character’s suffering while giving Siegmund extra heroic grandeur that makes us root for him all the more. The excitement is there in his cries of Wälse! Wälse! and in his ringing excitement of Wälsungen-Blut that brings down the curtain on Act 1, but the lyrical beauty of his Winterstürme is every bit as compelling, as is his lovely song to the sleeping Sieglinde at the end of Act 2. As important as the vocal beauty, though, is the thoughtful artistry that underpins everything he does. Like a lieder singer, he seems to have thought deeply about the text and each phrase feels laden with meaning, articulated with clarity and precision. Listen, for example, to the way in which he grows into his narration of his past in the first act. The opening phrases seem tentative, even nervous, as if he is reluctant to share his life story with Hunding, but the monologue grows like a great arch leading to a final couplet (Nun weisst du, fragende Frau...) that will break your heart. Likewise, the entire Todesverkundigung scene grows in stature from its dream-like beginnings through to a hair-raising finale, electrified by Kaufmann’s identification with the text, before subsiding into the peace of Zauberfest. Kaufmann’s Siegmund is more lyrical than Jon Vickers (Karajan on DG), more beautiful than Gary Lakes (Levine on DG), more distinctive than Poul Elming (Barenboim on Warner) and more heroic than James King (Solti on Decca or Böhm on Philips). The closest comparison I’ve come across on disc is with Ramón Vinay (Krauss on Archipel and Keilberth on Testament) whose dark voice is of a similar hue to Kaufmann’s and who has a similarly complete identification with the character. This should be enough to show you that Kaufmann’s Siegmund is in a very special league indeed, and for his contribution alone this set is worth the purchase price.

This is far from being a one-man show, though, because the rest of the cast are just as notable. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde develops most movingly as the opera progresses. When she first appears in Act 1 her primary characteristic is of clarity and thrilling nobility, as well as beauty of tone that you can take as read. Her attempt to get Siegmund to remain in the house of bad luck (So bleibe hier!) made the hairs on my neck prickle, and she crests the wave of ecstasy in Du bist der Lenz. However, by the time of Acts 2 and 3 she has assumed an air of wounded vulnerability, almost broken in Act 3 when she asks to be left alone. She revives rapidly when she hears the news of her child, though you’ll hear O herrstes Wunder sung better from other sopranos. René Pape’s Wotan is almost as remarkable as Kaufmann’s Siegmund. He has already recorded roles like Landgrave Herman and King Heinrich for Barenboim, and his graduation into Wagner’s most difficult role is a triumph. He has a bewitching beauty of tone that will win over any listener, but his secret weapon is the way he sings with a bel canto-like ear for the long line. This obviously helps to make the farewell very moving, but it also helps to energise and unify other moments that can sprawl, most notably the great monologue of Act 2 which ebbs and flows with a natural air that you seldom hear from other singers. His interpretation emphasises the warmth of Wotan the father, and during the moment in Act 3 where he pronounces his sentence on Brünnhilde you can really sense the character’s pain, as if he is forcing himself to say the reluctant words. As that errant daughter, Nina Stemme reminds us that she is the premier Wagnerian soprano at work today. Her voice has a grandeur and nobility that lends dignity and stature to the role of the Valkyrie - it is another reason why the Todesverkundigung is so thrilling, as is her interaction with her sisters at the start of Act 3 - and her singing with Pape makes the end of Act 3 very special. She still manages an element of impetuosity in her Hojotohos that open Act 2, even if she never sounds exactly girlish. Mikhail Petrenko is a genuinely malevolent Hunding. He never falls back on posturing or vocal colour alone, but uses an edge to his voice to make him sound properly sinister while remaining exciting at the same time. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka is noble, dignified and very well sung, if slightly anonymous in her vocal acting. Furthermore, I have seldom heard a band of Valkyries sound so convincingly war-like. They sing thrillingly, but have an excited ring about their voice that never lets you forget that these are warrior maidens.

Gergiev’s Wagner has not always been well received - his Ring was slated during its appearances in this country - but for me this recording shows him as a Wagnerian of importance and skill. He conducts with an eye on the long view. This works exceptionally well in Act 1, whose orgasmic climax on the retrieval of the sword is so powerful because it has been so well prepared. The same is true for Act 3, which unfolds entirely appropriately, each scene giving way naturally to the next, though for me it was marred by a too speedy rendition of the Magic Fire Music which made the end of the act feel rushed. Only Act 2 felt a bit episodic, though it’s sometimes hard to make it seem anything else. He is particularly skilled at judging transitions, and in most cases they are so powerful because you barely notice them, a skill surely honed from his vast experience in the theatre. His tempi don’t tend to draw attention to themselves, though a few times I noticed him holding onto a moment for a fraction longer than you might expect (such as in Siegmund’s Wälse monologue), thereby heightening the expectation for what is to come next. He repeatedly lights up a particular passage with a sharp flash of colour, and in this he is helped by the superb playing of the Mariinsky orchestra. The press notes for this release make great play of the theatre’s connection with Wagner, including the informed speculation that it was this orchestra that first played any music from The Ring, and their playing is indeed very special, comfortably passing any comparison test with orchestras to their west. The surging, pulsing strings are particularly effective in Act 1, and the brass add a special touch of class to the climaxes of Acts 2 and 3. The whole enterprise is supported by excellent recorded sound. The engineers have done a fantastic job of capturing the performances (sessions and live concerts) with supreme clarity and, perhaps surprisingly, they reveal an enormous amount in the Ride of the Valkyries, laying bare the sound with a degree of clarity that is often lost elsewhere: you’ll never hear better piccolos in the Ride than here!

Few operas take their audience on a journey as extensive or profound as does Walküre, and it is difficult for any recording to do it complete justice. In terms of modern performances, though, this is the finest CD version to have appeared in many long years. For me, this version surpasses digital recordings from Haitink, Levine and Janowski, and, while it won’t make anyone throw away Solti, Keilberth or (especially) Böhm, it is able to look them in the face and stand the comparison. The booklet contains a thoughtful essay with libretto in Russian, German and English. Incidentally, while some of the music was recorded live in concert, there are no intrusive audience noises, though you might pick up a fair amount of groaning in the quieter passages, presumably coming from the maestro himself.

If the rest of the Wagner bicentennial produces recordings as good as this then we are in for a great year.

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