Wagner: Das Rheingold
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Wagner: Das Rheingold, WWV 86A (Live)
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Audio CD, November 13, 2015
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Everything the conductor Sir Simon Rattle touches "turns to gold". Everything except for the music dramas of Richard Wagner, that is! It has often been asserted, albeit without good reason, that Rattle and Wagner do not go together. This has now been conclusively disproved by the third collaboration between Rattle and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, together with a team of the very best Wagner singers. This concert performance of "Das Rheingold", the first opera in Wagner's mighty tetralogy "The Ring of the Nibelung", was performed in the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz on April 24 and 25, 2015, and has now been brought out by BR KLASSIK on two CDs just a few months after the live event.
"This is the fifth performance since 2004 you may be able to access of the first Ring opera under Simon Rattle... "
"...It is also by some way the most penetrating and successfully realised..."
"...The sound from Munich's Herkulessaal is crystal clear, the balance of the voices almost ideal. Rattle and the orchestra's percussionists make sure that we never feel cheated of special sound effects, concert or not. Hugely recommended..."
--Mike Ashman, Gramophone.co.uk
"The conductor's mastery of orchestral texture is in bountiful evidence, beautifully captured by RB's engineers. The BRSO strings play with wonderfully lush tone; the brass is never blatant, always sumputous and enveloping."
--Fred Cohn, Opera News, March 2016
"Where this set stands out is in the handsomeness of the voices: there is no Wagnerian barking here." --Robert Levine, Stereophile, March 2016
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I mention this to underline my enormous affection for this work, as much as for any other segment of The Ring.
It can be treated as a darkly comic work suffused with bitter irony, or as straightforwardly dramatic-tempi can be slow in the manner of Knappertsbusch whose sense of massive architecture lays down the granite blocks of music and drama on which the Ring is constructed, or swift and crisp with stinging brilliance in the manner of Krauss, Bohm and 1980 Janowski-and in between lie the likes of Solti, Levine and inevitably-Karajan.
I have been less than enthusiastic about Rattle’s efforts in the German Romantic repertoire, the occasional Mahler symphony excepted, and in particular his filmed Die Walkure strikes me as unbelievably dull. Memories of his earlier performance of Rheingold with the OAE were not particularly happy one, so I approached this set with muted enthusiasm.
True, the prospect of hearing him with the fabulous BRSO recorded in the Herkulessaal certainly appealed and I am happy to say that one aspect of this performance is beyond criticism. The playing is glorious-and caught in excellent recorded sound, produced by Pauline Hester and her expert team.
I also have to give Rattle praise for his insightful and beautifully judged interpretation, balancing the ebb and flow of the drama expertly.
The prelude is one of the finest ever, with Rattle’s broad tempo taxing his brass not at all and a chamber like transparency of the string writing beautifully conveyed. The transition scene music between the first and second scenes is exquisite, with Rattle introducing the Valhalla motiv in a subdued lyrical manner-still behind the mists-keeping his powder dry for later.
The Giants arrive in a rush-none of the lumbering menace of Furtwangler or Gergiev on his recent excellent version-and the whole confrontation scene with Wotan is swift, in an ever rising crescendo of passions, Donner’s entry is blisteringly fast, but the scene reverts to a normal tempo for Loge.
Rattle is very daring in the electrifying Nibelheim confrontation-he draws out phrases and is not afraid to allow daringly long pauses juxtaposed with brilliant swift tempi in the musical line.
There are countless other fascinating shifts of tempo and balance, but I do not mean to suggest that the reading is any way fussy or erratic in the manner of Barenboim on his Bayreuth recording-it is Rattle in total harmony with the drama and making the most of it.
The other two orchestral transitions are thrilling, with fine chiming anvils perfectly tuned (of course!), and the orchestal postlude blazes with energy and brilliance, with the 6 harps very obvious as they are in the Rainbow Bridge music.
Donner ‘s hammer strikes to fire off a thermo-nuclear thunderbolt-no metallic clang-followed by the usual extended roll of thunder to magnificent effect.
Orchestrally and technically this is one of the finest ever recordings, with a balance far superior to anything achieved by then EMI engineers for the Haitink BRSO Ring from the same venue. Voices are close and clear, but orchestral detail is not subsumed in a distant fog as it was in the Haitink-it is wonderfully clear with some extreme dynamics-almost an orchestral whisper at times, but welling up into the maelstrom that is Wagner’s musical outpouring at its grandest.
In this recording , taken as is the norm these days from live concert performances as recent as April 2015, for once there is little with which to cavil on the vocal front.
The Rhinemaidens are good-especially when singing together-but there have been better, and they do not thrill as they do with Karajan and in particular the Simone Young Hamburg recording. The problem is the mezzo Eva Vogel, who produces some ugly notes, but they are on pitch and are more than decent.
I have nothing but boundless praise for the rest of the cast! I found Konieczny hard to take as Wotan on the second Janowski Cycle, much preferring his Alberich for Thielemann in Vienna.
There is a nasal , metallic ring to his voice which I do not care for-but his Alberich in THIS set ranks with the finest. This is no lovable rogue in the Neidlinger manner-this is a thoroughly nasty, degenerate Alberich who laughs demonically when he absconds with the gold, is frightening in the intensity with which he expresses his plans for revenge, vicious and bitter in the curse- though his cry of anguish when the Ring is wrenched from him is piteous.
I feared the worst when Michael Volle entered with his first phrase as Wotan-there is a worrying wobble! However, this is a live performance and within moments the voice warms up and fills out and he delivers a splendid legato throughout.
Volle is at the lighter end of Bass Baritones, an experienced Lieder singer and one of the artists of choice for Hans Sachs in Europe currently, but I did not expect such a fine Wotan from him. This is no mere declamation-every phrase is beautifully expressed, asides are almost whispered and besides the wondeful phrasing, it is the best acted performance of the role I can recall. He rises to the big challenges, greeting the castle with rich steady tone.
It is a triumph-as indeed are the remaining male roles with an excellent Fasolt from UK’s Peter Rose and Eric Halfvarson in fine voice as a lowering , dangerous Fafner (for once the wobble is not an issue), Christian van Horn powerful as Donner, with a fine heroic Froh and finally on disc Herwig Pecoraro’s renowned Mime, a stalwart of Vienna for a generation.
Burkhard Ulrich is a Loge in the Loge/Mime tradition rather than the Loge/Siegfried one!
He sings firmly and accurately with excellent characterisation, veering from mischievous imp to a dangerous adversary filled with contempt as a great Loge should. He is not as camp as Stolze for Karajan, but calls to mind great performances by Zednik and Graham Clark.
Women don’t have much to do in this work past the Rhinemaidens, but Fricka and Freia are both excellent (Freia sings-no shrieks!), and there is star casting in Janina Baechle as Erda-she brings to the part just what it needs.
More than any other recording, the drama and the interplay between the characters is really brought out-and against all expectations I find that I much prefer it to any other recent recording-Thielemann, Janowski, Young, Weigle and Gergiev, and it indeed it ranks among the very finest of all!
Presentation is excellent, with an excellent booklet containing brief but informative notes and a full libretto in German and English.
This is a recording wherein the characters really come to life-it may sound ridiculous to suggest that the Gods are imbued with real humanity, but in dramatic terms this is very much the case and I found myself once again very much engaged in the plot rather than just wallowing in the beauty and power of the music.
Comparisons are restricted to versions which can be had as stand alone packages-Solti, Karajan, Barenboim, Janowski, Haenchen, Zagrosek, Levine and Gergiev can all be found separately and all have their merits-and within days of writing this the first instalment of the van Zweeden Ring with the HK Philharmonic will be upon us, with a stellar cast and at modest cost. (It subsequently turned out to be a dud!!)
Until then, I would have to say-this becomes my top recommendation of a recording from the DDD era-and THAT IS a surprise! 5 Stars, Stewart Crowe.
I have loved Das Rheingold since the Solti recording socked me between my brain hemispheres ever so long ago. Of the four Ring operas I have often considered this my favorite. It is the story of It All in this corrupt and benighted world, a world that could be heaven but made hell by a handful of creeps who wreck it for everyone else. The problem has always been that the creeps are a movable feast. We are never quite sure who they are.
In Das Rheingold this dilemma is embodied in the personas of Wotan and Alberich. Which one is worse? I ask you. Is Valhalla the home of hell or is it Nibelheim? Is it the governments or the churches? That sort of thing. It is ephemeral, that is the strength of Evil, but the bottom line is the lust for domination over one's fellow human, whether the goal is lustful satisfaction or vain glorification, it is always with us. Das Rheingold explains it all to us, if we but had the ears and minds to grasp it all. What it boils down to is Authoritarian Hierarchies, in whatever form they take (and they are numerous!) attempting, mostly out of abject terror, to subject, by bullying, the majority of free people in order to protect the bully's delusional ego.
It's all so unnecessary. But there we are.
Let's start at the beginning. Unter das Rhein. Rattle's river is of the smoothly flowing type, nothing turbulent or with excessive undertows, but not exactly calm either. In other words there is powerful energy afoot, as there is throughout this performance, even when the situation seems becalmed, it isn't.
The three Rheintöchtern are, as a trio, a very mellifluous group, well-tuned and individually personable. As solo singers there are some slight problems, but nothing very important or at all damaging to the whole. For instance, the Wellgunde has a rather ungainly and loose voice which improves as she warms up. It's a nice voice and in the end game proves to be totally up to par with the rest of this superlative cast of singers. The Woglinde is very good, holding out her all important high notes at climaxes as one wants, not short-changing them as so often happens. The Flosßhilde, lowest voice, is quite good too, though a more sensuous voice is ideal.
Musically speaking all three of these women are top drawer and create a very erotic scenario for Alberich to respond to. And does he ever! Tomasz Konieczny's Alberich is, at this moment anyway, the greatest portrayal, on record, I've ever heard. Yes, I am long familiar with Gustav Neidlinger (Keilberth, Furtwängler, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Solti and Böhm), to name but those recordings he made commercially. Also Zoltán Kélémann (Karajan), Theo Adam (Haitink) and Ekkehard Wlaschiha (Sawallisch, Levine), four of the great Alberichs in recorded history. Konieczy's is the "towering vocal performance" I refer to in the lead-in to this commentary. I have rarely been so completely engaged in a performance as I was with this complex and agonized Alberich.
Rattle's fine grasp of this score continues with an enchanting transition from the depths of the Rhine to the heights of lower Valhalla. The flute section of the Bavarian Radio Symphony are to be specially commended here. I was a little apprehensive about Michael Volle's opening lines as Wotan, taking into allowance that Wotan was sound asleep before uttering a word, still, one expects a more 'god-like' sound, like Hans Hotter or John Tomlinson. At first I thought, oh, no, another Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Karajan), but this rapidly evaporated as Volle's voice opened up and became, not wimpy but, intellectual. But a strong intellectual. I was put in mind of Carlo de Moor in Verdi's I Masnadieri, the scholarly brigand, forced into outlaw status by the corruption of those around him. The difference here being that Wotan is his own source of corruption. He IS a sort-of Authoritarian Hierarchy all of his own, after all. This is what comes of arrested infancy, with innate cunning, inheriting wealth and power. Well, maybe not inheriting but theft and lies work just as well. You can gain the highest seat in the land even now.
Volle's Wotan does not dominate the proceedings of Das Rheingold as this character usually does. He becomes an important part of the acting company, but it is Alberich who is in charge of the action. Alberich actually has personal integrity. He becomes corrupted out of desperation not desire. Though Desire later takes hold of him when he gets hold of the gold. The old story.
Volle's Wotan turns out to be a well-knit persona, vocally. He gets stronger as the show progresses but, in the end, becomes just one of the gods entering Valhalla as the Rhine Daughters beseech him to regain Himself and return the gold to them. This is the diminishing moment for Wotan. He ignores them, arrogantly, and strides towards his doom, three operas later.
The third major protagonist in Das Rheingold is the demigod Loge. Burkhard Ulrich is one of those visceral singers who act equally as well as sing. His Loge is not like Gerhard Stolze's or Graham Clark's comic book characterizations, but neither is he like Siegfried Jerusalem's more heroic performance for Levine. My ideal has always been Set Svanholm's neutered persona for Solti, somewhere between comic and godly. Ulrich reminds me most of Chris Merritt's performances for Hartmut Henchmen's two cycles from Amsterdam, the first being the wonderful filmed version of Audi's incredible production and the second the purely aural recording from 6 years later. Both are highly collectible and wonderful, especially the film. Ulrich's tenor is a little wobbly, but just a tad. This is not a problem as it seems to be part and parcel of his vocal makeup and not a symptom of deterioration. Once I got used to it I didn't notice it again. This is a potent demigod and is a perfect go-between when Wotan and Alberich are going at it toe-to-toe in the extraordinary Nibelheim scene.
As this performance unfolded, Wotan's paen to Valhalla and the arrival of the giants, my attention drifted just a little, with jolts now and then, like the bumptious and high energy arrival of Donner and Froh. I sometimes thought this might be just another concert recording of a Wagner opera, very correct, with some fine peaks of energy, beautiful-sounding, gorgeously played by a great orchestra and perceptively and interestingly conducted.
The giants, Peter Rose (Fasolt) and Eric Halfvarson (Fafner), are excellent. Rose's Fasolt is clearly the more sensitive and intelligent yet he does not wear his heart on his sleeve as the most effective Fasolt singers have done in the past, presenting a love-lorn and lonely man-giant who is willing to trade money for love. Halfvarson's very dark and louring voice is perfect for the brutal and heartless Fafner who loves only gold. His voice has grown deeper over the years and now easily encompasses the lowest notes in this basso profundo role whereas in earlier days they presented a challenge. I hope he gets another crack at recording the Siegfried Fafner with this outfit!
Annette Dasch's Freia is about the best ever. Her voice is beautiful, sexy and feminine with plenty of power, and she never shouts or screams in this thankless, but pivotal part. Not to skip over Elisabeth Kulman's fine Fricka. I want to hear this singer in a larger role because she has a wonderful voice and she characterizes in a way that sets me in mind of Christa Ludwig.
Something transformative and difficult to pin down happens midway through Loge's scene leading up to the confrontation with the giants before Freia is abducted and the giants drag her off. There is a sudden surge in energy and impetus on Rattle's part, he comes alive like he hasn't exhibited up to this point. The descent into Nibelheim is like taking a plunge on a mega-roller coaster, a surge of tempo and thrust as the anvils rise up and overwhelm the listener. This is one of the most exciting descents into Nibelheim in my experience. Then we encounter Herwig Pecoraro's scheming and cunning Mime, whittling away his life underground at the will of his domineering bully of a brother, Alberich, just waiting for the day when he can 'get even.' I'd like to hear Pecoraro's Mime in Siegfried!
The Nibelheim scene is right up Simon Rattle's alley. I remember the first time I heard a compact disc recording, I was working at a record store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and we had the first cds in town, even before the great Rose records. My manager plunked this little plastic disc into the machine, put earphones on my head and grinned. It was Rattle's recording of Stravinsky's Firebird with the CBSO. It was life-changing. What I remember about Rattle's early recordings was his natural affinity and understanding of instrumental color, combined with exotic harmonies.
The Nibelheim scene is loaded with such things. Notably the leitmotif for the tarnhelm. Rattle hits a mysterious nerve, musically speaking, that sent shivers up my spine. And I've heard this music hundreds of times, if not thousands. Following this musical sensation is pure Brechtian theater. Konieczny and Ulrich transcend the music and become creatures, like in a movie. Volle holds his own but, again, does not dominate the scene. It is interesting that his Wotan is more of a lynchpin of the whole and not a sledge-hammer of the many moments, as is the usual case.
The snatching of the ring from Alberich's finger made me twitch. Konieczny, being a trained actor as well as great singer, makes the whole thing Real. His laughter after he is freed from his bonds is highly disturbing and makes me want BR Klassiks to let Rattle record the rest of the Ring cycle with these singers so I can see what happens next!
The denouement is quite fine. Freia returns with the giants and Erda appears to make her admonishments to all and sundry. Janina Baechle is a very fine Erda. I thought she was a mezzo-soprano but it turns out she also has a rich contralto depth to her voice, a voice that is beautiful, steady and sensuous. One of the best Erda's, though not of the stentorian school like Jean Madeira (Solti) or Meredith Arwady (Weigle).
At this point there are a couple of minor highlights in the score. The first being Donner's call to the mists. I predict a star has been born here in this recording. Christian Van Horn's Donner is outstandingly powerful, for a live venue performance. My standard has always been Eberhard Wächter's studio-twiddled legacy for Solti (Decca/Culshaw), Hermann Uhde's (Krauss) and Gerd Nienstedt's (Böhm). In between Nienstedt and Van Horn's have been a series of wobbly, under-powered, 2nd rank singers woofing out this amazing music. At last! A great Donner. I kept thinking what a fine Wotan Van Horn would make.
Froh's invocation of the Rainbow Bridge comes next and though Benjamin Bruns is a Mozartian tenor he pulls this off nicely. Froh isn't necessarily of the Thor school of gods, he IS the god of Spring, not volcanoes.
The tragedy rushes towards its first conclusion with the gods ascending into Valhalla to the wails of the Rhine Daughters below.
The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla in Rattle's hands, is powerful but makes no attempt to try to out-do Solti/Culshaw pyrotechnics. Again, Pauline Heister's splendid job of engineering this difficult situation cannot be praised highly enough. True, the Herkulessaal in Der Rezidenz in Munich is a magnificent recording venue. My first recording of the BRSO was Kubelik's great Gurre Lieder back in the 1960s. I figured the Bavarian Radio Symphony was one of the great orchestras of Europe then!, until I began to read the criticisms of the journalistic professionals who always seemed to place them in the 2nd rank, after Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Dresden, Leipzig, Chicago and ALL the London orchestras. Ahem.
Haitink's highly under-rated Ring cycle was recorded in this hall and that EMI set is still hard to beat in terms of luscious, dark ruby red sound. Pardon the effusiveness but colors are my last resort as compliments.
If you are a Wagner fan you should consider purchasing this extraordinary recording of Das Rheingold. If you have resisted Das Rheingold and Wagner in general this might be a perfect entry point. I really didn't think Rattle had it in him but perhaps in his later years he is returning to his youthful carefree genius on the podium. After leaving the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for Berlin Sir Simon became a stranger to my affections. His recordings of the 19th century symphonic masterpieces have left me indifferent and I have not collected them, though after hearing this Rheingold I might do some investigating and sample one or two just to see if I have unfairly dismissed him in Beethoven and Bruckner. It is good he is venturing out of Berlin, and this Munich recording attests to what a change in scenery can do for a great talent that has fallen into a groove and gotten a little dusty.
This set contains a complete libretto in German with English translation. An anonymous essay of entry level interest but none the less useful for that, photographs (but no bios) of the singers. It comes in a cardboard slipcase containing a plastic jewel case and a separate booklet.
Please, BR Klassiks, don't let this wonderful recording be just another one-off. Let us have an entire Ring cycle from this conductor and orchestra. You've got a huge winner on your hands here. The most wonderful thing about this Das Rheingold is that it isn't a filmed production of some idiotic Wunderkind's sophomoric intellectualizing.
One final thing, for those of you who don't like live recordings. I heard absolutely no evidence of any audience, though there was one because the recording material says so. There is no coughing, shuffling, or applause at the end.
Addenda: I have now listened to this fine concert performance about a dozen times and it is without question the best contemporary recording of Das Rheingold. But I feel compelled to say that there is one performance, not available commercially that should be, that I find even more astonishing than Rattle's, and that is by, of all people, James Levine, recorded off air from a relay from Bayreuth in 1994, the premiere of the lovely Rosalie costumed cycle, starring John Tomlinson (Wotan), Siegfried Jerusalem (Loge) and Ekkehard Wlaschiha's Alberich. The live acoustic of Bayreuth recorded in clear broadcast sound and in the hands of James Levine (always much much better there than in New York) is unbeatable.
I urge whatever recording company that has any sway with Levine and his lawyers to release one of his cycles from the late 1990s, either this one from 1994 or 1996, another stellar cycle.
Perfect... if you want beauty from your singers at the expense of drama. None of the singers are acting and, consequently, inter-acting. They simply sing music of their stands, very beautifully, again, but there's very little to no sense of them interpreting the text dramatically, as would be the case in a staged production with most of these (or many other) singers. I love the Rheingold's wit, irony, sadness, romance; the sardonic and the coy traits of the protagonists... and very little is communicated of that. Everyone suffers from this, but Wotan and Loge and Fricka most. Pity, but I suppose you can't quite have both.