International Record Review, March 2013
Roger Pines
Wagner - Die Walküre
Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, has apparently concluded that, in documenting his company's Walküre, international Wagnerian stars would be required for the  leading roles. Only the supporting parts — Hunding, Fricka and the Valkyries — are filled here by Russians.

This show belongs to Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), whose bronzed timbre is deeply satisfying whether in heroic or intimate utterance. His legato is immaculate, with many phrases taken in a single span where other tenors would be grabbing extra breaths. When genuine forcefulness is crucial, as at the end of Act 1, Kaufmann sings as thrillingly as any Siegmund since Jon Vickers, yet his poetic qualities are also on a par with those of his great Canadian predecessor's level (as in a flawless 'Winterstürme'). Kaufmann's singing in the 'Todesverkündigung' is
as nobly phrased as one could desire. His expertise as a Lieder singer tells in his detailed expressiveness throughout this portrayal, limning a thoroughly persuasive portrait of the resolute, courageous, deeply sensitive Wälsung. Here is surely the most moving and beautifully sung Siegmund on disc since Vickers's 1961 performance under Leinsdorf.

Kaufmann's Sieglinde, Anja Kampe, is frustrating. The voice boasts an exceptionally rich-toned bottom octave, but a serious loss of colour on top gives constant cause for worry. Kampe's vocal acting gives us an unfailingly sincere Sieglinde, if not an especially individual one. Partnering the soprano and tenor in Act 1 is the Hunding of Mikhail Petrenko, satisfactory but rather young-sounding in this forbidding role and somewhat grainy of voice.

Rene Pape (Wotan) is, of course, a bass, and he doesn't sail into the easy upper extension boasted by bass-baritones George London and Hans Hotter in their prime. Most of the big-scale top notes (beginning in his very first speech with the leap to high F sharp on 'reite zur Wal') are effortfully produced. Pape's ease at the bottom generally compensates, and there are numerous inward-looking moments that impress: much of the monologue (exceedingly intelligently presented overall) and certainly 'küßt er die Gottheit von dir', with Wagner's ppp marking memorably observed. The god's tenderness is perceptible, and one clearly senses his pain in the final dialogue with his daughter. I do miss the sheer majesty of Wotan — Pape's is a comparatively lightweight instrument for this music —but at 'In festen Schlaf' and, indeed, in all the quieter portions of the role, one does hear the singer at his best.

Brünnhilde is the vocally fearless Nina Stemme, who has even the trills of 'Hojotoho!' in hand. She and Kampe — each an utterly direct, unfailingly sympathetic vocal personality — also share an extraordinary darkness of tone (contraltos would kill for the luscious richness of Stemme's lower register in 'War es so schmählich'). Unlike her colleague, Stemme can navigate
above the stave with no sacrifice in tonal body. Some excess vibrato (the only passing weakness in Stemme's technique) can intrude, and the very thickness of the sound impedes clear
enunciation here and there. Still, one should be exceedingly grateful for the Swedish soprano's terrific confidence and consistent beauty of voice. She saves the best for last —the
character's final speech is truly heroic and deeply stirring.

Ekaterina Gubanova brings luscious, Ludwig-like vocal velvet to Fricka, presenting a notably dignified and womanly goddess, eschewing both ranting and shrewishness. She sings rather better German than her compatriots heard as the Valkyries, who manage to fill the bill vocally in their ensembles. Individually strongest of the sopranos is Irina Vasilieva's Ortlinde, and Ekaterina Sergeeva's Siegrune does best among the mezzos (although she errs in her text, singing 'Hort' instead of 'Hort').

Technically the Mariinsky orchestral players have no problems at all, and Gergiev's great achievement is to draw consistently lovely tone from them through the entire performance. One can't deny the pleasure derived from such well-shaped playing, but Act 1 and much of Act 2 sounds like a read-through. In the prelude one longs for the bite and slash in the strings that
makes Keilberth at Bayreuth so memorable. Repeatedly in Act 1 specificity of expression is minimal, with Gergiev seeming oddly distanced from the piece (it's the singers exclusively, not the conductor, who supply the passion here).

In Act 2 the Fricka scene inspires little excitement from the pit. More effective (if not quite offering the magnificence one hopes for in this passage) is the interlude before the Wälsungs' entrance, and Gergiev does collaborate satisfactorily with Kampe in Sieglinde's hallucination scene. The 'Todesverkündingung' also goes quite well musically and dramatically, seemingly catching Gergiev's imagination more than what we've heard so far.

The orchestra's virtuosity is rewarding in the 'Walkürenritt' and as Act 3 proceeds we finally feel Gergiev consistently connecting with the drama. Unlike many conductors these days who
rush insensitively through Brünnhilde's glorious 'Fort den eile', Gergiev allows Stemme to phrase this passage with sufficient breadth. The conductor offers both his Brünnhilde and Wotan
good support in their final confrontation. Gergiev loses the excitement to a degree in the opening portion of the 'Abschied'. The interlude before 'Der Augen leuchtendes Paar' is strong, not so the 'Feuerzauber'.

The recorded sound is excellent.

Mariinsky's booklet contains the libretto, translation, biographies, a few paragraphs on Wagner's life and a brief but splendid introduction to the opera itself. Ring enthusiasts will want to hear Pape, Stemme and especially Kaufmann, but —despite the large number of new Walküre recordings to have entered the catalogue in the past decade — my top choices remain the Bayreuth performances led by Bohm (1967) and Keilberth (1955).

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