02 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DIE WALKÜRE (P. Lang, M. Diener, T. Konieczny, R. D. Smith, I. Vermillion, T. Riihonen; PentaTone PTC 5186 407)

Richard Wagner: DIE WALKÜRE (PentaTone PTC 5186 407)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre—P. Lang (Brünnhilde), M. Diener (Sieglinde), T. Konieczny (Wotan), R. D. Smith (Siegmund), I. Vermillion (Fricka), T. Riihonen (Hunding), A. F. Ulrich (Gerhilde), F. McCarthy (Ortlinde), H. Wessels (Waltraute), K. Pessatti (Schwertleite), C. Höhn (Helmwige), W. te Brummelstroete (Siegrune), N. Piccolomini (Grimgerde), R. Spingler (Roßweiße); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Marek Janowski [Recorded ‘live’ during a concert performance in the Berlin Philharmonie, 24 November 2012; PentaTone PTC 5186 407; 4CD, 3:36:29

Celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Richard Wagner has produced a whirlwind of performances of the composer’s operas, with orchestras, opera companies, and record labels competing with one another to mark the occasion with performances by the finest Wagner singers of the current generation.  A new Ring from the Wiener Staatsoper under the baton of celebrated Wagnerian Christian Thielemann has already been released by Deutsche Grammophon, and due for release in the near future on the Hänssler label is a reissue of the undervalued Ring conducted by Hans Swarowsky.  A Rheingold from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces will join the previously-released Walküre later this year.  The present recording of Die Walküre on PentaTone continues that label’s project of recording concert performances of all of Wagner’s mature operas: the second installment in the Ring—which, unlike the Mariinsky Ring, is being recorded and released in the correct order of performance of the operas—and eighth entry in PentaTone’s series, Walküre will be followed by recordings of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung later in 2013.  Thus far, the series has pursued an interesting course balanced between consistency of casting and peopling each individual opera with those singers whose gifts are best-suited to the score at hand.  Thus, the PentaTone Ring will ultimately feature two Brünnhildes: Petra Lang sings the rôle in the present performance of Die Walküre and returns for Götterdämmerung, while the Siegfried Brünnhilde is entrusted to Violeta Urmana.  The foremost hallmark of the PentaTone Wagner series to date has been the incredible quality of the recorded sound, and this Walküre leaves absolutely nothing to be desired as an acoustical experience.

This is Marek Janowski’s second recorded Ring Cycle, of course, and if the earlier, studio-recorded Cycle found him on slightly fresher form the present PentaTone Cycle suffers from no appreciable decline in his command of Wagner’s music.  Even in his earlier Walküre, Maestro Janowski preferred expansive tempi, allowing ample space in which scenes can play out with heightened emotional impact.  The dividends paid by the conductor’s slower tempi in Walküre are manifold, with perhaps the most valuable among them being the clarity with which Wagner’s Leitmotifs are introduced and developed.  Maestro Janowski unapologetically draws out the eloquence of Wagner’s orchestration and melodic inspiration, revealing anew that, however much some critics and listeners might wish to deny it, the composer filled Walküre with exquisitely beautiful music.  Knowing that he can rely upon PentaTone’s engineers to capture every detail in natural, ideally-balanced sound, Maestro Janowski inspires the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin players to amazing feats of virtuosity and a level of sheer beauty of tone that rivals—and, in many passages, exceeds—the playing of the world’s greatest orchestras.  The playing of the solo cello that introduces the Leitmotif associated with Sieglinde’s and Siegmund’s love, one of Wagner’s most exalted melodies, is inexpressibly gorgeous, and the radiance of this sound spills over into the full orchestra and is maintained until the last bars of the performance.  The mastery with which Maestro Janowski builds tension in Act One, culminating in an explosive but supremely musical account of ‘Siegmund heiss’ ich und Siegmund bin ich!’  The conflicting emotions of Wotan, Fricka, and Brünnhilde are superbly conveyed in Act Two, in which Maestro Janowski conducts the score without applying any sense of a personal preference for any of the characters.  The ‘Todesverkündigung’ is an apt expression of the cold workings of inexorable fate until Brünnhilde starts to awaken to an understanding of the impetus for Siegmund’s refusal to abandon Sieglinde in favor of bliss in Valhalla: as the meaning of human love permeates Brünnhilde’s steely resolve, Maestro Janowski and the orchestra transform the sonic landscape of the opera with a sudden warmth.  Act Three begins exuberantly with a galloping account of the ‘Walkürenritt’ and builds to a breathtaking dénouement as Wotan bids Brünnhilde farewell.  A quicker, more excitable approach to Die Walküre than that which Maestro Janowski adopts has become fashionable of late, but few performances more completely and satisfyingly examine all of the musical, psychological, and dramatic complexities of the opera with greater success than this performance.  No orchestra ever recorded in the score is markedly superior to the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, and not even the greatest Wagnerian of yesteryear achieved greater depths of feeling in a performance of Die Walküre than Maestro Janowski mines from the rich quarry of the score in this performance.

Few if any supporting rôles in opera make more stringent demands upon the singers who portray them than the band of Valkyries in Die Walküre.  This recording features one of the most musical octets of warrior sisters ever assembled, with no weak links among them: sopranos Anja Fidelia Ulrich as Gerhilde, Fionnuala McCarthy as Ortlinde, Carola Höhn as Helmwige; mezzo-sopranos Heike Wessels as Waltraute, Wilke te Brummelstroete as Siegrune, and Renate Spingler as Roßweiße; and contraltos Kismara Pessatti as Schwertleite and Nicole Piccolomini as Grimgerde.  Not one of these ladies falters in her task, and the rollicking high spirits of their singing make the ‘Walkürenritt’ the thrilling but tongue-in-cheek interlude that Wagner intended it to be.  The tightness of the singers’ ensemble adds great poignancy to the sisters’ pleading with Wotan for clemency for Brünnhilde, and their horror at the harshness of the sentence imposed upon their sister is vividly but musically conveyed.

Finnish bass Timo Riihonen creates an incessantly menacing Hunding, the blackness of his timbre and his athletic delivery of the music making it obvious from his first entrance that he is a man to whom violence comes naturally.  Alongside such an audibly young, virile mate, Sieglinde seems more than a mere ‘trophy bride,’ her plight unusually desperate because it is obvious that her husband has the strength and hot blood of youth needed to fulfill his desires.  Mr. Riihonen’s voice sizzles with irony in lines such as ‘Heilig ist mein Herd: – heilig sei dir mein Haus!’  When Mr. Riihonen’s Hunding sings ‘Wie gleicht er dem Weibe,’ there is a chilling suggestion that he has divined more than he lets on.  The power with which Mr. Riihonen sings is gripping, and a few moments of suspect intonation are quickly sorted out.  It is a compliment to the effectiveness of Mr. Riihonen’s characterization in this performance that one is especially relieved when Hunding is dispatched by Wotan at the end of Act Two.

In order for dramatic verisimilitude to be preserved, such a threatening Hunding must be manipulated by a disturbing and authoritarian Fricka.  The Iris Vermillion encountered in this performance sounds like a different singer from the one heard as Fricka in the previous recording of Das Rheingold.  Obliterated by her performance as the Walküre Fricka are any doubts about the condition of Ms. Vermillion’s voice or its suitability for the music.  The conundrum of Fricka is that, viewed from the perspective of any conventional sense of morality, her anger and indignation at Wotan’s betrayals and lingering fondness for the progeny of his illicit liaisons are justified: Fricka is, in her way, as much a wronged wife as Sieglinde.  The power that Wotan has won through trickery and hastily-made bargains is Fricka’s birthright, and the zeal with which Wotan has abandoned her bed and protected the welfare of his illegitimate children is demeaning to her.  Ms. Vermillion’s is not a Fricka who cajoles: she commands and is not to be disobeyed.  As in Rheingold, Ms. Vermillion’s performance in Walküre gains great histrionic strength from her accomplishment as a Lieder singer, Fricka’s lines delivered with verbal crispness that clearly reveals the character’s regal lineage and social superiority.  The part’s top notes no longer come easily to Ms. Vermillion, but come they do, sometimes stunningly.  It is interesting to note that a character whose influence is felt throughout the Ring is so little heard in it, but Ms. Vermillion makes the most of each of Fricka’s utterances in Die Walküre.  Completely steady of voice and dramatic purpose, she never makes a false step in this performance.

Siegmund has a lower tessitura than many of the German and Italian rôles that American tenor Robert Dean Smith has in his repertory, and the lower center of vocal gravity frees Mr. Smith to offer singing of unobstructed youthfulness.  In Siegmund’s first entrance, Mr. Smith depicts the character’s visceral fear and exhaustion.  When Siegmund encounters Sieglinde for the first time, an audible sense of wonder animates Mr. Smith’s singing.  There is an energizing mystery to Mr. Smith’s recounting of Siegmund’s recent history.  ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ shimmers with burgeoning passion, Mr. Smith’s voice taking on a range of colors as he contemplates his expanding hope for his future with Sieglinde.  The famous cries of ‘Notung!’ are blazing but tasteful, and Mr. Smith’s ascent to the top A to which the final pages of Act One build is splendidly secure.  Siegmund’s exchanges with the increasingly unnerved Sieglinde in Act Two are voiced with urgency, but it is in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ that Mr. Smith produces his finest singing.  His voice and phrasing pulse with simmering emotion and tenderness as Siegmund explains to Brünnhilde that his love for Sieglinde is greater than his desire for the glory of Valhalla.  There is in this performance an unexpectedly moving suggestion of a transfusion of the basic elements of humanity from Siegmund to Brünnhilde in the ‘Todesverkündigung,’ the sweetness with which Mr. Smith sings hinting that Siegmund is on some level cognizant of Brünnhilde’s future protection of Sieglinde.  Mr. Smith’s timbre is burnished but bright throughout his performance, and the amiability of his performance creates a Siegmund who is unusually appealing.

The music that Wagner composed for the rôle of Sieglinde contains several of his most radiant melodic creations, the most extraordinary of which is the great outburst in Act Three, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  That this Leitmotif is sung by Sieglinde as she exits in Walküre and is not heard again until its appearance in the closing bars of the Immolation Scene that ends Götterdämmerung is suggestive of Sieglinde’s importance to the Ring as a whole.  Musically, it is a treacherous rôle, the dangers of the tessitura being not so much in its extensiveness as in the sustaining of it.  This performance reverses the casting encountered in many recent productions, featuring a mezzo-soprano Brünnhilde and a soprano Sieglinde.  Like Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Sieglinde is a true soprano rôle, and she is smartly sung in this performance by soprano Melanie Diener.  Until recently, Ms. Diener’s Wagnerian outings were confined to Sieglinde, Elsa in Lohengrin, and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, but her Isolde for Canadian Opera earlier this year launched what will hopefully be a carefully-considered foray into heavier parts.  Sieglinde is an excellent fit for Ms. Diener’s authentic ‘Jugendlich dramatische’ soprano, Wagner’s music melding dramatic outbursts that take the singer near to the top of her range with lyrical passages that allow the bronzed patina of her voice to shine.  Responding to Mr. Dean’s example, Ms. Diener convincingly conveys Sieglinde’s awakening to renewed feelings of love in Act One, the character’s initial fear of false hope touchingly depicted.  The femininity of Ms. Diener’s portrayal is at its most compelling in Act Two, in which she expresses Sieglinde’s unease with absorbing vitality.  The momentous outbursts in Act Three are voiced with impressive freedom.  In moments of greatest stress, Ms. Diener’s upper register occasionally balks at the pressure placed on the voice, but both musically and dramatically she delivers an unforgettably poetic, lusciously-sung Sieglinde.

After singing Alberich in the Wiener Staatsoper Ring released by Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year, Tomasz Konieczny advanced to singing Wotan in the revival of the Staatsoper production, and he continues to refine his conception of the rôle in the PentaTone Ring.  Impressive in the Rheingold performance, Mr. Konieczny builds upon that foundation to create a grandiose but surprisingly personal portrait of the Walküre Wotan.  Mr. Konieczny sings with unwavering dedication, and his attentiveness to the dramatic peaks and valleys of the rôle is very rewarding.  Vocally, Mr. Konieczny possesses the gift of a legitimate Wotan voice, his range ideally positioned between baritone and bass.  Few Wotans heard in the past decade have exhibited the vocal control or command of the challenging tessitura that Mr. Konieczny displays in this performance, his singing encompassing both the climactic top notes and the dramatically significant low notes of the part.  Mr. Konieczny is a young artist whose understanding of Wotan is likely to deepen as his career progresses, but he already has the measure of the part, perhaps even more so in Walküre than in Rheingold.  The subtlety with which this Wotan’s confidence crumbles when pressed by Fricka is illuminating, and there is a perceptible suggestion of shame in Wotan’s responses to Brünnhilde’s questions after he has recognized the inevitability of bowing to Fricka’s will.  Resignation and weariness in Act Two give way to frustration, anger, and consuming sadness in Act Three, and all of these emotions find convincing outlets in Mr. Konieczny’s performance.  The rapt tranquility with which Mr. Konieczny’s Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde, his ire spent, is very moving.  Mr. Konieczny’s intonation is unerringly accurate throughout the performance, and though there is room for refinement through further experience his phrasing is already idiomatic and often eloquent.  In terms of vocalism, it is fantastic to hear a Wotan whose performance is free from strain and wobbling.

The casting of mezzo-soprano Petra Lang as Brünnhilde was surprising despite her forays into dramatic soprano repertory and her extensive experience as a Wagnerian.  Acclaimed in rôles such as Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Venus in Tannhäuser, and Ortrud in Lohengrin, Ms. Lang’s performances have been notable for her histrionic intensity and vocal prowess.  She is far from the first robust-voiced mezzo-soprano to don Brünnhilde’s helmet and breastplate, of course.  Martha Mödl, one of the most pulse-quickening Walküre Brünnhildes of the 20th Century, began and ended her career as a mezzo-soprano and maintained mezzo-soprano rôles in her active repertory even when she was at the height of her fame in dramatic soprano parts.  Some aspects of Ms. Lang’s singing of Brünnhilde in this performance bring both the effervescence and the effort of Mödl’s singing to mind, as well as the singing of another German-speaking Brünnhilde of mezzo-soprano origins, Helga Dernesch.  It is obvious from her first ‘Hojotoho’ that Ms. Lang has utterly surrendered herself to the part, and the piercing dedication of her performance largely minimizes any reservations about the actual vocalism.  On the whole, though, there are few reservations to be had with Ms. Lang’s singing.  Brünnhilde’s entrance in Act Two, one of those passages in opera that can set the tone for all that follows, brings Ms. Lang joyously—and perhaps slightly haughtily—into her father’s presence.  When she returns after Wotan’s interview with Fricka, it is apparent that, whatever the extent of her stepmother’s authority, this Brünnhilde is also a woman of strong ideals and passions.  The psychological crux of the part is that, in the ‘Todesverkündigung,’ the focus of those ideals and passions shifts from bellicosity and filial duty to femininity and a rudimentary but unshakable understanding of human love.  The softening of Ms. Lang’s tone in the last pages of her encounter with Siegmund on the eve of his death reveals the transformation of Brünnhilde’s life force.  In Act Three, Ms. Lang’s singing bristles with defiance until she reaches the passage in which Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that the path destined for her will be hard but will lead to the birth of Siegfried: here Ms. Lang’s voice throbs with almost sisterly concern.  After her capitulation to Wotan, Ms. Lang’s Brünnhilde faces the horrors of her father’s accusations and denunciation with the serenity of a woman—indeed, already a woman rather than a Valkyrie—who knows that she merely has done what had to be done and is prepared for the consequences of her actions.  With Maestro Janowski, the orchestra, and Mr. Konieczny, she shapes an almost unbearably moving account of the final parting of Brünnhilde and Wotan.  No other performance in recent memory more viscerally conveys a sense of the loss of Brünnhilde being the ultimate catalyst to Wotan’s disintegration.  Vocally, there are moments of stress for Ms. Lang, but the singer who is not stressed by this music is perhaps rarer than any other creature in the operatic menagerie.  A few technical niceties, Brünnhilde’s trills foremost among them, mostly elude Ms. Lang, but the joy of her performance is in how completely she has grasped the gravity of her task and prepared herself for it.  In a performance of such sweeping conviction, allied with a voice of the quality of Ms. Lang’s, the notes come, and occasional difficulties seem mere scars of an astounding character undergoing one of the most monumental metamorphoses in opera.

Performances of Die Walküre are anything but infrequent in this year of Wagner’s Bicentennial, and even in less festive times Walküre has proved the most popular of the Ring operas.  This recording displays all of the qualities of the opera that have led to its popularity and gives many of those qualities fresh effulgence.  There are recordings cast with more perfect singers than those heard on this PentaTone recording, but this cast rivals the most celebrated Wagner singers on records with the sagacity and open-heartedness of their singing.  Inspired by Marek Janowski, all of the singers and instrumentalists involved with this performance endow an endlessly stimulating work of art with a renewed dynamism that is a true celebration of its composer and, perhaps most astonishingly, fully justifies its preservation on disc.