Top positive review
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A rare case in modern times where expectations have been more or less fulfilled. Very fine indeed!
on 13 February 2013
It was not so long ago that the prospect of a new recording of any complete segment of the Ring aroused excited anticipation, but for the last 20 years or so this has been replaced by anticipated disappointment to outright dread!
Cycles from Haenchen, Simone Young, Weigel and Thielemann have all had their merits, but vocally they have been at best serviceable.
While Elder got his putative cycle off to a magnificent reverse start, the second instalment was a disappointment and it is unclear as to whether a full cycle will yet emerge. I found the recent Gergiev recording of Parsifal to be a qualified success, with again some vocal frailties being the cause of disappointment, so with the strength of the casting in this set, it was with a long lost sense of excitement that I opened the box on this cycle.
It is easy to understand why Wälkure was chosen to start the cycle, as it is the most popular work by far and the most often given as a "stand alone" performance, and we must remember that this cycle derives from concerts where it was important to get off to "a flying start!" Karajan adopted the same strategy for his 1960's cycle.
I expected Gergiev to dive in with both feet and give us a fiercely driven reading which outpaced Leinsdorf, but I could not have been more wrong. I should not have been so surprised at the slower tempo however, as memories of Gergiev's Kirov Ring in Cardiff and London are of very slow tempi which I put down to necessity through unfamiliarity by singers and orchestra (it was a mess!), but it would appear is actually Gergiev's interpretative stance. We are not talking Goodall or Kna here, but it is expansive in the Karajan vein without being able to maintain Karajan's sublime and almost ethereal long line especially in Act One.
I'm not mad about the Maryinsky Concert Hall Acoustics which are a bit dry and accentuate the rather wiry quality of the lower strings which results in bass light recordings when no audience is present, but here, with an audience present there is sufficient air around the musicians to give pleasing results.
The recording, produced by the ubiquitous James Mallinson, is well balanced and detailed and the orchestra plays very well, with the usual sheen to the upper strings, rather "buzz saw" lower strings and trumpets and horns with just a hint of the "blarpy" sound that used to characterise all brass sections in Russian Orchestras, We certainly know we're not in Vienna or Berlin, or indeed London.
Vocally the expectations are more or less met. FINALLY we get a complete role recorded by Kaufmann, and he is the best Siegmund since Vickers, many would suggest the best in the stereo era and though I don't necessarily agree, I wouldn't argue either-it's very close!
His extended cries of "Wälse" raise the hairs on the neck, the "Winterstürme" is both heroic and tender in equal measure, and even in what can be a real drag in the wrong hands, the "Todesverkundigung" scene , he is superb and very affecting. He makes a triumph of the role.
He is partnered by Anja Kampe instead of the seemingly default Westbroek, a singer who has been singing Isolde and Brünnhilde for some time, and who has a powerful attractive upper register but has the usual difficulties in the mid range. She gives a feisty performance, not in the same vein as Janowitz, Brouwensteijn or Crespin, and relies on her vocal acting rather than the nature of the voice to convey vulnerability. I like her performance-she sings thrillingly at times-but she is not my favourite Sieglinde by a long way. Petrenko's Hunding, familiar from the Rattle filmed performance, is a more sinister, younger sounding character, far from the hulking bully we usually get and is very effective.
The Fricka of Gubanova is steady voiced and hectoring, a real "shrew" but not much else. However, it's a relief to hear the part so well sung. The Valkyries are reasonably secure with occasional "Slavic tendencies"
Nina Stemme is the Brünnhilde of this generation, and in modern terms she is superb, with thrilling "Ho-Jo-To Ho's" as she enters, and rich fulsome tone throughout. She too has more than a touch of the wobbles in the lower range, but she counters this with a wonderful dramatic sense and understanding of the role. She is perhaps nearest to Varnay in vocal quality and is particularly fine in her extended duets with Wotan.
Which brings us to René Pape: He is simply the finest Wotan in this work since George London and Thomas Stewart. He has rich firm tone, a secure upper register and in his performance conveys wonderfully the exultation followed by frustration in Act 2, and the anger and finally love and compassion in Act 3. Although he is nominally a bass, there is none of the fragility in the upper register of Tomlinson, and of course Hotter in later years. He outclasses a now shaky Terfel in vocal quality, and is a tad less histrionic in his acting which I prefer.
So, back to Gergiev's conducting. He steers it all beautifully, supporting the singers well, and conjuring up really lush sound in the lyrical passages especially, and the show stopping moments such as the sword coming out of the tree, the Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan's Farewell are all well done though Gergiev picks up the tempo for the Feuerzauber and robs it of some its grandeur...and yet, and yet there is a little something lacking-dare I say it, but a little more drive would be welcome,and in his seeking to achieve a chamber-like quality at times the orchestra ends up sounding thin on the ground, but I don't want to exaggerate this-it is INFINITELY preferable to the perfunctory style of the likes of Janowski and even Haenchen. So all in all it is a great success. Is it my favourite recording? Not by a long way, that's a straight slugfest between Leinsdorf and Karajan, but it is one with which I would be reluctant part and to which I will return with pleasure. I suppose in terms of a really modern recording it deserves 5 stars, as I would award Leinsdorf 10 and Karajan 9.99 stars respectively. If we are to view 5 Stars as the absolute maximum award for all comers, then I guess the correct rating would be 3.5 to 4 stars.
Those for whom SACD is a prerequisite need not hesitate as I cannot envisualise the Janowski rivalling this set in overall quality, not least singing, and the Haenchen is just not in contention.
Highly recommended as a very enjoyable if slightly different take on the work, sounding a touch different from other recordings, and not only with no vocal weaknesses, but many vocal triumphs as well. I look forward to future instalments with restored entusiasm if not excitement. Stewart Crowe.