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4.0 out of 5 stars A fine recording and performance, with a few minor caveats-but excellent by the standards of today!, 12 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Wagner: Siegfried (Audio CD)
To my ears, Janowski's conducting style with Wagner is best described as "brisk and brusque", and all too frequently "perfunctory". He seems to want to get through it as quickly as possible and with as little expression. Ernest Newman opined, and many have reiterated that in the Ring tempo is not important, it is "pulse" that counts, and I fully concur with this view. The Ring can emerge as a triumph in the hands of Knappertsbusch or equally well under Bohm, but in hands of Janowski I generally find that there is a lack of pulse and that the patient has died!
I am happy to advise that on this occasion, the patient is alive and well, though not without minor complications on the road to recovery!
The set is presented in the attractive uniform Pentatone packaging, on 3CDs only, and with a cast drawn from the pool (more like a puddle) of front rank performers of Wagner in the current era, which last is sadly not saying much. More of this anon.

Janowski sets a tempo which is on the faster side, but not unduly so, and the dark smoky opening of the work is wonderfully captured and enunciated, with the Dragon Motif leaping out at one with real menace. Indeed, Janowski structures the whole of the first two acts uncommonly well, with some extended passages rivalling the very best! He shapes the Forest Murmurs beautifully, with the "Love of Woman" motif which he glossed over so irritatingly in Loge's Narration in Rheingold here played with a chamber like delicacy, with string portamento and a translucent beauty.
He is rewarded throughout by the orchestra which gives its best account of the whole epic series to date-it still sounds a little thin on the ground on occasions, and the concert balance does throw up some sonic anomalies, but the warm rich sound palette is ideal for Wagner.

By the way, the engineers at Pentatone could show the lads at EMI/Warner and DG a thing or two about capturing beautiful and detailed sound in the Berlin Philharmonie!

The prelude to Act Three takes me aback every time I play it on this set-it is medium paced, with a rather rum-te-tum rhythm and lacks totally the blazing brilliance we have come to expect in this passage, and which I expected from Janowski in particular, mindful of his previous recording.
Instead he opts for a rather careful approach, but gets the orchestra to play with a transparency that reveals a whole seam of string counterpoint which is normally swamped by the over-riding brass.
It doesn't capture the storm driven violence of the Wanderer's final surge through the world of men and impending severing of the last vestiges of his power, but it is quite an interesting take on the passage.
The rest of Act 3 is well executed by Janowski-this time he reins in the tempo for Siegfried's ascent of Brunnhilde's Rock through the Magic Fire, a passage he ruined for me on his earlier recording by rushing through it. Thankfully, he does not dwell over long on the awakening of the erstwhile Valkyrie, and his sensible no-nonsense tempo in the remainder of the act is effective and welcome.
So far, so good- very well conducted and played, and state-of-the art recording, especially in SACD.

Now we return to the puddle of vocal talent. The minor roles in Siegfried can badly affect a performance if not performed well-the uninvolved Fafner and wobbly, unfocussed Woodbird all but ruin Barenboim's otherwise superb performance, but there is no such concern with this set.
The vocally immortal Matti Salminen at near 70 is a perfect Fafner, and though Sophie Klussman lacks the vocal glamour of Joan Sutherland for Solti or best of all Katherine Battle for Levine, the role is actually not intended for such voices-indeed, it was conceived with a boy soprano in mind!
Ms Klussman has a bright, clear and steady soprano which is very effective in the role, though I do miss the wonderful coloratura of the exponent on the recent Thielemann Vienna set.

I found the Alberich of Jochen Schmeckenbecher to be very well acted but poorly sung on the Weigle Rheingold, but very fine with firm tone on the Weigle Siegfried, and exactly the same applies to his assumption of the roles on the Janowski cycle-I really did not care for it at all in Rheingold-but here, where he does not have sustain so much legato singing, he is very fine indeed.

Anna Larsson has become the default Erda of her generation-and with good reason. She is superb.

No-one can deny that Tomasz Konieczny's Wotan/Wanderer is firmly sung-his lighter bass voice is absolutely secure in all registers-but to my ears his nasal tone has the effect of making him sound like he is snarling in anger with every phrase, even when he intends to portray compassion and nobility. This is unfortunate, as it robs this role of much of its beauty, but certainly the vocal duel with Mime works well, and his confrontation with Alberich works too, but he sounds too hectoring in his scene with Erda and it's not surprising that Siegfried doesn't take to this bad tempered wayfarer!
Still, others are not so allergic to this, and it is undeniably well sung.

The casting of Christian Elsner is somewhat of a surprise-this fine tenor has sung Siegmund for Rattle, Parsifal for Janowski and as late replacement for an indisposed Kaufmann in Vienna to great acclaim all in the last 12 months!
His Loge for Janowski was very much a "straight" characterisation and the highlight of that uneven set, but I had doubts about his tackling the role of Mime-or even wanting to.
This set could reasonably be re-titled "Wagner's Mime" such is the strength of the characterisation.
He initially adopts a distorted voice and I feared that we would plunge to the depths of Wolfgang Schmidt, but there are no such fears for he sings most the role "straight", with refulgent full and firm tone (almost too much!) allowing the text and his vocal acting to do the characterisation.

There is little sympathy to be had for this Mime- he is a nasty piece of work indeed, and I have to say that any vestige of the humour, however heavy handed, that we know Wagner intended especially in Act One is totally absent, and I miss that but am more than willing to buy into this darker view when it is so stunningly well crafted. This is a tour de force.

Violeta Urmana is typical of a mezzo who has "bigged up"-she can thrill us with top notes, but has difficulty sustaining legato in lower registers. Her voice, bigger and darker than Petra Lang's, sounds powerful and mature, more a Valkyrie than awakened maiden, and too often there is the threat of an inherent tremor disintegrating into outright wobble. She just gets away with it though. She's typical of what we have come to expect today-she is uncommonly similar to Linda Watson on a good day, which means not bad, but not great.

Finally, we come to Stephen Gould's 3rd commercial recording (all live) of the title role. It is his best by not miles, but light years! His entry in the Vienna recording was very much his aiming at the notes and missing with the first half of that act being little more then unintelligible gabble.
Here he enters with firmly focussed, accurate tone and gives a highly creditable account of the whole act, even the Forging Song. His slightly nasal tone is always "dry" in the very top register, but perhaps aided by the concert venue and not needing to act physically, he maintains a firm tone throughout and is far from the poor assumptions of his earlier 2 sets. He is tiring towards the end, with a few more snatched notes and shouts, but overall it is a very pleasing experience.
Act 2 is as fine-he croons again an appealing Forest Murmurs, is thrilling in his confrontation with Fafner and only in the final long soliloquy do we detect signs of tiredness and some snatched notes which he only just makes, let alone sustains.
His Act 3 solo narration shows signs of tiredness, and his closing scene with Brunnhilde is not a thing of beauty-from either participant-but then these days it seldom is!
Elsner is inherently a better singer than Gould, and as so often the thought occurs that the roles could be reversed, but in truth this not a realistic prospect.
Stephen Gould is not the Siegfried of our dreams-but on this occasion, neither is he the Siegfried of our nightmares! Unlike other current exponents of this role, he has a sound technique and has actually improved rather than rapidly deteriorated as so many of his contemporaries have.
He deserves great credit for this.

Tuned anvils give them a nice musical ring, and the balance between voices and orchestra has been nicely managed by the excellent engineers. Audience noise is non-existent, with applause excised until the finale.
I like this recording a lot -I won't be returning to the final duet often, but the rest of the performance is very enjoyable. I count this as Janowski's best Wagner conducting to date, better than his Tannhauser and Walkure both of which I enjoyed.
Overall, it's not of the very highest possible standard-by the criteria of today it's probably about 8 stars, but viewed objectively it is a 4 Star recommendation with unquestionably the best recorded sound. Worth exploring with an enthusiastic recommendation, if not quite to "unmissable" standard! Keilberth, Bohm, Solti, Karajan and Barenboim have more to say about this work with performances from the "Golden Age." Stewart Crowe
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