I have been lukewarm in my appreciation of Maestro Janowski's Wagner recordings as his brisk style with the music often emerges as perfunctory to my ears, and too often misses the essence of the drama and the glories of the music. In his current epic series for Pentatone there have been casting issues which have further dampened my enthusiasm for his heroic efforts in performing all the standard works in just over a year, and his Dresden Tannhauser is the only recording I have unreservedly enjoyed. In his earlier Ring recording, I have always enjoyed the Rheingold but little else, especially NOT the Walkure and when we finally reached the Ring in the new cycle I was very disappointed in the Rheingold as explained in my review, and consequently had little expectations of the Walkure. I am delighted to report that it is very fine indeed, and I can appreciate why many will think it superb, though my own assessment falls a little short of that.
It is beautifully recorded, with glowing strings, rich brass and thanks to Janowski's lighter textures a great deal of detail in the score is exposed that we do not normally hear. The playing of the orchestra is wonderful-the best we have heard in the series so far-and surpasses that of the Maryinsky in the recent Gergiev while not quite matching that of the incomparable VPO for Thielemann especially in sheer weight of tone, but I have nothing but praise for this excellent band on this occasion.
Janowski is consistent in his approach with regard to tempo, but in this performance it results in a very exciting and dramatic performance indeed-those who admire Leinsdorf's approach to this work will warm to this reading. Some moments would benefit from a little more breathing space-Wotan's climatic scene especially-but overall it is a very effective reading. Act Two does not drag in Janowski's hands. There are more gripping Preludes to Act Three-Janowski does not ease back on tempo at the climax, and the brass are somewhat subdued compared to other recordings, but this is what is in the score so I'm not complaining (I did immediately play the Thielemann however-and cheered!).
It is a very well sung performance indeed, though others will enjoy Konieczny's Wotan more than I do. I found his timbre to be too nasal for my liking in Rheingold, and his flat pronunciation disturbs me at times also. Here he is for much of the time more fulsome of tone and there is less of the nasal quality-but just as his excellent Alberich for Thielemann was an angry characterisation, so is his Wotan. His Wotan lacks the sense of the character having crossed a line in trying to do good and trying in vain to rectify the harm done, but is all anger and frustration. This is fine as a legitimate view of the role of course, particularly when it is so well sung, but it becomes a little monochrome at times.
His voice is very much at the lighter end of the scale for a Bass, and the greater heft of Dohmen is more to my taste but others will be very happy with his performance, and I enjoy it on its own terms.
Act One-Kaufmann's absence notwithstanding-is a triumph. I have nothing but praise for Robert Dean Smith's Siegmund, reminiscent in so many ways of James King at his best. His baritonal tenor is lighter than the smoky tone of Kaufmann but no less thrilling and effective. In the concert performance from which the recording was made, he alone sang without a score and he is absolutely assured in the role. His cries of "Wälse "are thrilling and secure, his Wintersturme is passionate and he ends the act in thrilling style. His Sieglinde in Melanie Diener is no less accomplished, and she manages the transformation from vulnerable victim to passionate woman admirably and sings with beautiful assured tone throughout.
As is the modern trend, a younger lighter voiced Hunding is chosen in the casting of 30 year old Timo Riihonen who gives a firm voiced threatening characterisation-a Hagen in the making.
The sword being drawn from the tree is a real "hair standing on end" moment, orchestrally and vocally.
The Valkyries are excellent though the concert platform does not allow any spatial effects, and they are rather "in your face"- but they sing well which is what counts.
Iris Vermilion reprises her imperious Fricka giving Wotan what for, and that only leaves the Brunnhilde of debutante Petra Lang on which to comment.
She has had a long career in mezzo roles, where I first encountered her in the Davis LSO Troyens, and later had the pleasure of hearing her superb Brangaene in the ROH under Haitink.
Now she follows the likes of Meier, Urmana and Dalayman in stepping up to full blown heroic soprano roles, of which there is none more so than Brunnhilde.
Her voice is on the lighter side, very feminine rather than warrior princess, and she has steady tone throughout. There is just an air of fragility at times-is she going to run out of voice?-but she doesn't of course, and with this artist dramatic emphasis and understanding of the role can be taken for granted so there are no problems there. I like her performance very much, and she is much is nearer to Dalayman than to Stemme in her overall conception and delivery.
If I'm honest, she's not the Brunnhilde of my dreams-a little pale compared to the very best-but it is a relief to hear the role sung free of intrusive vibrato, let alone downright wobbles.
She does drift just a little off pitch in her opening salvos-just a little-but this is forgiven when the whole performance is assessed.
So, a very fine set indeed, without question the best Digital Recording of the work to date that can be bought as a stand alone item. I much prefer it to the Gergiev which I overrated on its release in a burst of enthusiasm for Kaufmann in particular, though I prefer-just-the Thielemann Vienna recording, but that is primarily for the conductor and orchestra, as with the exception of Wotan and the Valkyries, the Janowski is much better sung.
Of course, lurking in the background are Leinsdorf, Karajan, Furtwangler, Bohm etc., but they cannot compete on recording transparency and quality with this fine new set for all their merits.
It is stunning in SACD.
I awarded the Gergiev 5 stars-too many in reality-therefore I have to award this one 6! If I hadn't made it difficult for myself, it would have been four and a half!! I know just how Wotan feels!
No-one is more surprised than I am! Fully recommended. Stewart Crowe