Sir Mark Elder developed as an opera conductor in London in the late 1970's and through the 1980's, particularly at ENO, where Reginald Goodall's presence was still very evident. Goodall `s various Wagner recordings (Tristan, Meistersinger, Parsifal and Ring) show his predilection for slow tempos, yet with deep understanding of the drama expressed through a great sense of line, and a detailed but organic approach..... often achieved, it is true, through many rehearsals.
I recall an Elder Flying Dutchman at ENO from the early 80's which, if fallible memory isn't playing tricks, exhibited generally faster tempi and a greater initial drive than we have here. Yet whilst some of that sheer pace may not be so present in his recent work (including the previously released Gotterdammerung) , there is no loss of impetus and direction. A mellowing of tempi, and yet a palpable sense of theatre, indicate adoption of at least some of his great predecessors characteristics.
What does this mean in practice? Well, Walkure opens with a storm - both meteorological and emotional. For those used to the powerful, thrusting approach of say Bohm, Solti (or Levine live) there may be disappointment here. Elder is more measured....yet the turmoil is still there. As Act 1 unfolds (coming in at around 71 mins) Elder is not averse to lingering here and there to emphasise the desolation of Siegmund's plight and his growing relationship with Sieglinde, revelling in the sheer beauty of the writing. Indeed I haven't appreciated this aspect of the score so clearly for a long time (and I own many Walkures!!)....yet....there is still the sense of line moving forward. The structure does not collapse and desiccate. The Halle of course fully support their director, and are more than up to the task, the string writing in particular recalling the halcyon days of Barbirolli's tenure - no praise can be higher.
All this would mean nothing if the singers were poor, which thankfully they are not. A Yorkshire based friend who attended one of the performances told me Egils Sillins was announced as struggling with a cold, but he sings well. No Hotter perhaps he nevertheless makes Wotan a sympathetic character; someone who has set the wheels in motion and is struggling to keep unfolding events on course.
His daughter Brunnhilde is generally decently sung by Susan Bullock; like many sopranos she "yelps" at the high notes in her opening encounter with Wotan, but settles later to contribute well to Act 3. The brother-sister-lovers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, are well taken by Stig Andersen (who has also frequently essayed Siegfried) and Yvonne Howard. She does particularly well I think, despite not having the strongest of voices, making her mark well. Clive Bayley sings a creditable Hunding and Susan Bickley does what she can with the unsympathetic role of Fricka.
Recording is generally fine, although I am not an unalloyed admirer of Bridgewater Hall, at least on record. There seems to be an unsympathetic resonant clouding in the mid and upper bass of a number of discs I have taken from there, on a variety of labels. I really must go there some-day and appreciate the acoustic properly.
And one other small gripe - no libretto in the booklet - just a cast list and synopsis. The text and translation (along with a few production photos) are placed on CD 5. Alas my pc isn't normally anywhere near the hi-fi, and I end up using the booklets from other recordings. That said, this increasingly common practice probably helps keep the price down, which means the set is available at the moment from a number of outlets at a very competitive £22 to £23.
All in all, a considerable achievement, and a worthy successor to Gotterdammerung. If I withhold the final accolade of stars it's only because it faces fierce competition in the catalogue and it's difficult to erase memories of the greats from the past. That said dear reader, Wagner did exhort us to go out and create anew......