When this cycle is completed, Janowski will have the distinction of being the only conductor to have recorded two "official" Ring cycles intended for release, and both in Digital sound at that. The earlier cycle was originally planned in 1975 as a vehicle for Rudolf Kempe, who tragically died before it could be realised, and eventually it fell to Janowski to complete the project beginning in 1980. He has written that he was not happy with the circumstances in which he was "persuaded" to undertake the project, and felt that his approach to the works was not fully formed at that period.
I have never cared for the earlier cycle as my reviews indicate, but certainly Das Rheingold was the best of the cycle, and is actually a rather fine account, not least of all vocally.
This recording is from a single live performance in November 2012, and features the same orchestra as the rest of the earlier recordings in this series.
The recording is excellent, very detailed especially in SACD, and highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the orchestra, more of which anon.
After a swift, light and airy prelude we are confronted by 3 Maiden Aunts who are both squally and off pitch. The pitch improves but not the squally legato, and their concerted wailing when the gold is revealed is the kind of singing that gives Wagner a bad name. I had to turn to the recent Simone Young/Hamburg recording to hear pitch perfect beautifully alluring Rhine maidens.
They are joined by Schmeckenbecher's Alberich, familiar from the Weigle Ring, who matches his quarry in squally tone, little regard for pitch, but with added shouting and barking. The tone is right, but he cannot sustain a smooth line either here or later. He acts well though, and when he is not forced to sustain a note, he's quite effective, but only Theo Adam, miscast at age 70 on the Haitink recording gives a less ingratiating performance. He is not in the same league as Neidlinger, Kelemen, Wolfgang Koch- or Nimsgern on Janowski's earlier set.
The revealing of the gold is orchestrally flat and unpleasant to listen to.
A swift transition to the heights finds Wotan being awoken by his elderly Mother, as Iris Vermilion sounds too mature and is unsteady of tone. They are joined by a typically screechy Freia in Merbeth, but a respectable Donner and Froh, though Antonio Yang sings "Schwules Gedunst.." a semi-tone off pitch.
Janowski took a high speed approach to the Giants in the earlier set, and here he is even swifter, but their entrance is impressive, as are the giants themselves though more contrast between the voices would be welcome-who can forget the lumbering entry of Furtwangler's Giants, or the contrast between the noble Kreppel and the brutish Kurt Bohme for Solti?
However, they are well sung here at least, as is the Mime of Andreas Conrad-I hope he survives through to Siegfried.
The Erda is quite extraordinary-she has a rich dark tone in the manner of Madeira, but she rolls the rrrr's and hisses at the end of each line in a disconcerting manner-sort of school of Fischer-Dieskau on speed!
Tomasz Konieczny took the Wagner loving world by storm by replacing a sadly vocally deficient Uusitala in Vienna, and has sung both Wotan and Alberich there and elsewhere to great acclaim!
He gives us a firm voiced virile Wotan, with utterly steady tone fearless in the higher register, and well enough acted in a declamatory fashion. His voice is nearest to Thomas Stewart or a young Robert Hale in character rather than London or Hotter, but he starts out with a strange nasal tone and pronunciation which I find off putting. This does mellow as the role progresses, and he is in better vocal fettle than Terfel on the recent Met recording.
The one truly fine vocal performance is by Christian Elsner as Loge. This crucial role can be sung "straight" as exemplified by Svanholm or as a caricature best exemplified by Stolze at the other extreme.
Elsner finds a happy medium, sings with exquisite lyrical tone, pitch perfect and bang on each note, while injecting enough character to really convince.
His " Immer is Undank Loges Lohn" is the highlight of the work.
This leaves the playing and interpretation of Janowski- and both are profoundly disappointing.
Janowski takes a chamber like approach to the work, with swifter tempi and lighter textures which is perfectly legitimate but whereas with Karajan, who adopted a similar approach, the orchestra sounded like a mighty force being held at bay, here it just sounds thin on the ground. Execution is occasionally scrappy-the beginning of the descent to Nilbelheim is a mess-and it all sounds very provincial and prosaic.
The anvils are good though, but Donner's hammer blow sounds like someone tapping a glass to bring a banquet to order.
I have saved my main complaint till last-Janowski's conducting. It ranges from perfectly competent to mundane to downright irritating.
So many moments pass for little or nothing-the "Love of women" motiv in Loge's Narration should be a sublime moment but is utterly prosaic in this performance, the scene in Nibelheim between Loge, Wotan and Alberich lacks any tension-try Solti for how electrifying this scene can be-and worst of all, the opera's climax is a shambles.
Karajan "went off the boil" after the death of Fasolt, but at least he was "on the boil" to start with!
Janowski completely muffed the climax of Tristan, but here he is even worse. The 6 harps ( if there ARE 6-the picture in the booklet suggests otherwise) are wasted in the Rainbow Bridge, the Valhalla motiv is rushed and lacks nobility, and worst of all, the first of the appearance of the sword motiv as Wotan sings " So grüss' ich die Burg" passes for nothing-this moment should make the hair stand on end, but it passes routinely here.
When this theme is repeated in march tempo as the climax approaches, I cannot for the life of me fathom what Janowski has done-I've played it several times and my disbelief has been exponential.
He seems to have substituted a tuba for the trumpets, and the whole passage is an indistinct mess.
Finally, when we get to the famously misprinted "Entry of the Goods into Valhalla", Janowski broadens the tempo and it is very loud and very grand.
This is a Rheingold that too often lacks grandeur, tension and frequently beauty.
The inherent greatness of the music means that there is of course enjoyment to be had, but it is all too frequently interrupted by inadequacy of singing, playing or conducting.
The sad thing is that this is the "state we're in", and by today's standards this is a pretty decent effort!
As a performance, it cannot hold a candle to practically any of its predecessors, except possibly the Weigle, and vocally, orchestrally and interpretatively it is inferior in every way except recording quality to his earlier recording.
It is a sad state of affairs that in this anniversary year the best recordings to be issued have been the Decca Ring-again-and the 1959 Knowitschny Dutchman.
Janowski has his legion of admirers, but I think that even Mr F.P. Walter of Albuquerque will have trouble extolling the virtues of this recording.
Those seeking a great recording of this work have absolutely no reason to choose this one over Solti, Bohm (his whole Ring costs little more than this!), Karajan, Barenboim or Dohnanyi to name but a few, and included in that list is Janowski's own earlier effort.
If really superb modern sound is required, the Simone Young Hamburg recording is a triumph.
I may return to this occasionally for Elsner's Loge-otherwise there is nothing to draw me back. I started out by declaring that Janowski's earlier Rheingold was the best work in the cycle-I hope that's not going to be the case here, but I fear it might be. Lukewarm recommendation-Elsner warrants the 3rd star.