TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 December 2013
The anniversary year of 2013 has brought forth a cornucopia of new issues and reissues of the great works of Richard Wagner, commencing already in late 2012 with the beautiful and technically superb Limited Edition of the inimitable Decca Solti Ring. At the risk of sounding like an "everything was better in the old days" curmudgeon, it is an indication of the state we are in that reissues have been the highlight of this festive year, most notably the aforementioned Decca Ring, the Konwitschny Flying Dutchman and superb remasterings of both Bohm and obscure Swarowsky Ring cycles.
One notable omission was a long overdue 24 Bit remastering of the Karajan Ring, with Universal instead getting itself into a farcical situation over the proposed release/non-release/partial release of live Rings from the Met and Vienna.
Of the new issues, no project has been more ambitious than the epic series of recordings of live concert performances of all the Wagner works from Hollander onwards under the baton of 70 plus Maestro Janowski over a 15 month period.
The results have been variable even allowing for my reservations over Janowski's usual style with Wagner, but it resulted in a decent Tristan, a very fine Tannhauser-certainly the best current version of the Dresden Version-and a Ring Cycle which started disappointingly with a flawed Rheingold, improved dramatically with a very exciting Walkure, further still with a just short of superb Siegfried and has now reached it climax with the final release.
I wish I could advise that this is the crowning glory of the whole project-but it is neither crowning nor glorious!
The earlier recording of this work conducted by Janowski, also reissued (but only repackaged not remastered) in 2013 was ruined by recording which made one of the world's most glorious orchestras sound thin, tinny and undernourished and by conducting which suggested to me that the conductor had no understanding of or empathy with the work whatsoever!
Those issues are entirely redressed in this release as Janowski shows the sure hand that he did in Siegfried, with tempi at times on the dangerously swift side but always well shaped, and for the most part apposite to the drama. This results in a very exciting reading, full of momentum and high drama, and as in all of this series, the Pentatone engineers have worked wonders in the supposedly difficult acoustic of the Philharmonie providing us with full, rich and detailed orchestral sound doing full justice to the wonderful response that Janowski elicits from his players.
I have never cared for the monochrome, relentless ff glare and lack of dramatic shading in Altmeyer's Brunnhilde on the earlier recording, steady of tone though she may have been, but the rest of the cast ranged from very fine to superb.
I'd welcome some of what Altmeyer brought to that earlier set in this performance, and I'd otherwise swop the entire cast willingly with the exception of Salminen's Hagen as it is on both sets.
Stephen Gould surprised-and indeed delighted-me with his strongly sung, well acted Siegfried in the previous set. Sadly Lance Ryan does not surprise me on this set-his voice is wobbly, ill focussed and frequently very thin and weedy of tone. This is no improvement on his recording from Frankfurt under Weigle, and only Christian Franz for Simone Young is worse.
Norns and Rhinemaidens are decent to good, the Gunther of Marcus Brück is well portrayed as weak but also has a tendency to wobble at the end of a phrase, there are the usual snatched shrieks from Edith Haller's Gutrune in Act 2 but she's not bad, Maria Prudenskaya is a superb Waltraute-one of the best on record-and Schmeckenbecher delivers a fine Alberich in the Act 2 dream sequence, as the rhythm is staccato and suits his vocal range where he does not have to sustain much legato.
Petra Lang returns as Brunnhilde, having ceded the role in Siegfried to Urmana.
Come back Violeta, all is forgiven. Petra Lang begins "Zu Neuen Taten.." with a low warble that more than with any other artist clearly indicates a natural mezzo-soprano late on in her career struggling to sustain the role meant for a dramatic or heroic soprano. Considering that these are her first forays into the role, I am sad to advise that she sounds like a veteran artist who is soldiering on with a role that she ought to have relinquished some time ago. She is nigh on unrecognisable as the singer on the earlier Walkure.
She is a very gifted vocal actress, and she brings insight to the drama of the role entirely missed by Altmeyer, but there are too many patches where the voice sounds frail and taxed.
There are of course occasional thrilling moments-she does save some of her reserves for a passable Immolation with some accurate high notes, but the reaction is " well, that was not too bad considering" and that is not enough-though in these times it usually has to be.
The chorus is lusty though not huge, and the great orchestral interludes are very good indeed if not the best we've ever heard.
I have left to the end the one performance to lift the spirits.
Matti Salminen recorded his first Hagen for Janowski on the earlier cycle, and his chilling rendering of Hagen's Watch on that cycle is one I return to frequently.
30 years later at near age 70 he returns to deliver a Hagen every bit as titanic as his earlier reading. He uses his resources differently-his voice has a grittier edge now, nearer to Griendl than Frick in character, but he is absolutely rock steady in the tempestuous moments such as the summoning of the vassals in Act 2, chilling in his solo ruminations and an implacable nemesis in the ensemble scenes.
Dramatically this is his best Hagen yet, and vocally it is as fine as any-his own, Griendl, Frick, Weber and all comers included.
I wanted to end on a positive note, and so I will close by advising that if you can live with this work with a woeful Siegfried, a poor but not dreadful Brunnhilde, a fine enough supporting cast topped by a magnificent Hagen in a very well conducted, played and recorded performance, this set might be for you.
Objectively it's a scraped 3 stars, but the SACD sound will sweep away reservations for many, and I am mindful that there is a whole generation that has lower expectations than those of us who experienced the " Golden Age" and return to it as a preference.
We await Gergiev's complete cycle with baited breath.
Sadly, not the climax to this great project that it warranted, but as so often these days I find myself thinking that "it could have been worse"-and nowadays that passes as a recommendation.