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Like Solti's Act One there is no overarching shape or final euphoric hit
on 7 October 2008
If Act One doesn't leave you punching the air you might as well look elsewhere for a complete Walkure. This one just doesn't do it. Not that there is is anything wrong with the singing; far from it. If you just drop in on any part of it everything is just fine but if you listen to the whole act as you're supposed to then you will be disappointed as I was more than once before I learned that it takes more than flawless singing and even a whole lot of individually flawless passages, to make a good performance of a Wagnerian chapter. Solti had the same difficulty with conceiving the shape of the whole Act.
The reason of course is very largely, and perhaps entirely, the whole business of studio recording which breaks things down into individual parts for convenience, perfecting each and every one in turn. Put it all together and not surprisingly you get something musically frigid. In my view the only one of Solti's cycle that worked was Rhinegold, rather surprisingly considering that it's the longest stretch. But work it did although it was also part of Culshaw's studio process. The probable reason, apart from the structure of the opera, is that 'Rhinegold' does not have the sort of finale that pulls the conductor in too fast. Pulling back, taking it slowly, is what usually works best in Wagner rather than being sucked into the vortex. Conductors seem to be more aware of this when conducting the whole, whereas when just being required to conduct perhaps, at most, the last 20 minutes they tend to try to create excitement in the most obvious way as they are carried away by the current.
This is what happens here. On the surface there seems to be tremendous excitement and power but there is nothing behind it and it corresponds with nothing happening to, and in, the listener.
There are always exceptions, but doing Wagner in the studio is not worth the trouble as it is nearly always doomed to fail. Wagner's Acts are symphonic movements and should be performed as such. They challenge the conductor's and listener's stamina ( i.e their ability to maintain concentration) and force them to aquire a second-wind from which they find the strength to go forward to a hugely empowering climax in the finale. The result is they get back far more energy than they have committed in pushing their stamina during the middle parts of the Act.
It is this process above all which puts Wagner as a great artist in a secure position beyond the reach of his detractors no matter how intelligent they sometimes are. If they were to experience it just once they would be forced to modify their aesthetic principles accordingly.
In Wagner the 'micro-control' which can be achieved in the studio is not enough: you need 'macro-control' with time awareness going forwards and backwards, and if all is well calculated, as you near the end of the Act a cosmic mystery should unfold.
N.B. I will admit that Act 1 of Gotterdammerung is a notable exception to the above as it has a quite different structure. In my view it inevitably fails for a number of obvious reasons for which it is difficult to see a solution given the requirements of the drama. But on a basic naive schoolboy level I was always disappointed from my first acquaintance with the Ring that Siegfried is not given time to go off and have some adventures before arriving at the Gibichung's door where inexplicably, he seems to find his reputation (for what? How) has preceded him. I don't of course mean that we need to be shown these adventures but only that there needs to be a time suggested for them to have happened. Somehow or other Wagner really needed to make this into two independently satisfying acts. Excessive length plus the absence of the positive feedback of energy found in most other Acts of the Ring means that some of Wagner's best music is bound to be largely wasted.
Act Two of the same opera is also musically unsatisfying and only justified on a dramatic level, but it is difficult to see what Wagner could possibly have done about it. It must be seen on the stage otherwise it is best avoided, as indeed I'm sure it is by even the staunchest Wagnerites.