Having recently reviewed Decca's recording of the Dohnanyi/Cleveland Das Rheingold I was looking forward to rediscovering his Die Walküre. I was gravely disappointed in his Rheingold and I'm afraid that this Walküre is little better. Yes, the Cleveland Orchestra is a great orchestra but under Dohnanyi's direction the adjective that kept popping into my while listening to this recording was 'pedantic'.
Decca's recorded sound is very clean, up front and wide-ranging, and there are fewer of the ill-judged sound effects that help to ruin the Rheingold recording. However, the singing and conducting of this Walküre leave much to be desired.
The good news is Poul Elming's very strongly sung Siegmund. This tenor was not recorded enough and it's a pity that the two commercial recordings he made of this role are both on inferior sets, this one and Barenboim's highly over-rated one from Bayreuth in the late '80s. Fortunately, for me anyway, I have 5 radio broadcasts of Elming in this role, one of which, Levine's at Bayreuth in 1994 at the premiere of the wonderful Kirchner/Rosalie production, is a splendid performance, Levine's best Walküre in my long experience of listening to his Wagner recordings and performances in New York and Germany. It is to be hoped that some day Bayreuth will begin issuing in-house recordings like Levine's cycle for public consumption. However, we do not have a good recording with this fine tenor, Elming, in this part. So goes the world of opera recording. Hence my initial frustration with this set.
The bad news, if Alessandra Marc can sing a single phrase without scooping three or four times I'll eat my hat! If I wore a hat, that is. She has a gloriously beautiful voice! Why does she do this?!!! Whoever taught her to sing should be tarred and feathered for damaging this fine soprano's career. I have read complaints before of her bad scooping habits and I have no doubt that conductors and recording companies shied away from hiring her for that reason alone. What a grand and beautiful Isolde and Brünnhilde she would have made if she would have practiced nailing the notes center on, which she can do but opts not to more often than not. Oh, well. Her performance of Sieglinde is so maddening I wanted to throttle her half way through Du bist der Lenz. Up to that point I was merely annoyed. At least She doesn't scream when Siegmund pulls the sword out of the tree in the middle of the living room.
Alfred Muff's Hunding is okay, at least he doesn't sound like one of the giants and more like a human man scorned. Added to these let downs in Act I Dohnanyi's conducting is just plain uninspired and a little rocky in the momentum department. He surges and pulls back without reason, jumps ahead suddenly to try to gin up the excitement, which it doesn't.
Act II begins with a very fast, too fast, rendition of Wotan's greeting to Brünnhilde, followed by another stint in the echo chamber, something that the Decca team relied too much upon in Das Rheingold 3 years later. Gabriele Schnaut, singing from the ladies' room in Severance Hall, does a very fine Ho-Jo-To-Ho. She hits all the high notes, in tune, and holds them their full length, whereas many a soprano will hit the notes and drop out. However, Schnaut's voice is unrepentantly unattractive. I recall one English reviewer (the Penguin Guide I believe) commenting on her Leonore in Dohnanyi's Fidelio. He snarkily remarked that her `Abscheulicher' sounded like a Disney barnyard at feeding hour. Nasty! She's not THAT bad here anyway.
Anja Silja's Fricka is a real bitch, a termagent, a shrew. I suppose that is one way to sing this role seeing as her husband spent quite a fair amount of time fathering 9 daughters with Erda, not to forget the time he went slumming and sired Siegmund and Sieglinde with a lowly human being, but Silja's voice is not easy to listen to in this part. Her rolling vibrato and whitish sound are often plain ugly. I am a big Silja fanatic but this is the least enjoyable recording she's made in a long and illustrious, and controversial, career. Her high notes are piercing and thin and her low register disappears more often than not, and this in light of the obvious fact she was mic'd very closely. Obviously, because every breath she takes is clearly audible and becomes an annoyance. None of the other singers are mic'd this closely. Dohnanyi's direction of this key scene is perfunctory. He speeds through it except when Wotan is pontificating and defending himself to his enraged wife, then he drops into low gear and things get a little turgid.
Robert Hale is in fine voice for his big scene with Brünnhilde but is undermined by Dohnanyi's obtuse lack of symbiosis with his singers. Hale's greatest efforts to bring the drama alive in this studio-bound recording pale when compared to his blistering account of this scene with Sawallisch in Munich in 1989. Gabriele Schnaut's rocky vocal production is more in evidence in her brief responses to Wotan's angst. She is great when the music is loud but less so when it isn't. At least she doesn't wobble and she sings in tune and her words are crystal clear and she is a fine vocal actress.
With the return of Siegmund and Sieglinde prior to the Todesverkundigung scene Dohnanyi finally catches fire. Alessandra Marc still scoops far too much but her beautiful voice and vocal acting are superb which mitigates the annoyance she caused in Act I. Schnaut's Todesverkundigung is well characterized but, let's face it, the voice is ugly. She is similar to Astrid Varnay but without that legendary soprano's ability to blossom into warm femininity when it's called for. She becomes monotonous as the scene goes on and Dohnanyi's direction flags.
I have noticed that ambivalent conductors catch fire when a great singer is in front of them leading them on to higher attainment. Schnaut is not a great singer. Poul Elming is quite fine but he sounds a tad puny next to the huge voices of Schnaut and Marc. As this scene nears the end and Brünnhilde vows to protect Siegmund in his impending confrontation with Hunding Schnaut becomes very exciting. As I said, she's great when she's loud, not so much when things get tender or thoughtful. Much of Walküre is thoughtful, even though it has the reputation of bombast due mostly to the ultra-famous Ride of the Valkyries, Coppola, helicopters, Apocalypse now, that sort of thing.
The sound effects go awry again with the lightening bolts just before Hunding arrives, from within the mens' room echo chamber, to confront Siegmund, in the next stall, and the electronically produced fx sound, once again, like an accident in the kitchen. The Act ends with a lot of noise but, still, no emotional response from yours truly, the listener. At least Marc eschews the traditional scream when Siegmund is killed.
Act III begins with the famous Ride of the Valkyries. Dohnanyi is quick and rather shallow and there is a lot of knob twiddling going on in the control booth. At first it's all woodwind trills, the violin flourishes and important chordal changes going for nothing, then there are the brassy, bumptious insertions, then a lot more trilling. The 8 Valkyries are an undistinguished bunch, none of whom, with the exception of Ruth Falcon's Helmwige, strikes me as having ever sung a Wagner role before in their lives. The whole scene sort of skips along without much impact at all.
Marc's big moment `O herstes Wunder!' is scoop city which destroys all exultancy for the listener. The rest of the Act features the big show down between Brünnhilde and Wotan. Hale is excellent, if studio bound. Schnaut's forceful singing lacks nobility and nuance. My tear ducts remained parched.
Dohnanyi made a beautiful recording of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in Vienna. This Walküre from Cleveland falls far short of it. Perhaps it's the water.
Skip this recording.