04 November 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner — DAS RHEINGOLD (M. Goerne, M. DeYoung, D. Humble, K. Begley, P. Sidhom, A. Samuil, K. Youn, S. Milling, D. Cangelosi, C. Reid, O. Pushniak, E. Nakamura, A. Varak, H. Haselböck; NAXOS 8.660374-75)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DAS RHEINGOLD (NAXOS 8.660374-75)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Das RheingoldMatthias Goerne (Wotan), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Deborah Humble (Erda), Kim Begley (Loge), Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Anna Samuil (Freia), Kwangchul Youn (Fasolt), Stephen Milling (Fafner), David Cangelosi (Mime), Charles Reid (Froh), Oleksandr Pushniak (Donner), Eri Nakamura (Woglinde), Aurhelia Varak (Wellgunde), Hermine Haselböck (Floßhilde); Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden, conductor [Recorded during concert performances in Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 22 and 24 January 2015; NAXOS 8.660374-75; 2 CDs, 153:35 (also available in Blu-ray Audio format); Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

NAXOS’s new recording of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold is a celebration of new beginnings. In addition to preserving the rôle débuts of two of today's most lauded singers, this recording launches a complete Der Ring des Nibelungen that will be the first such effort by an orchestra in Hong Kong and all of mainland China, as well as its conductor’s inaugural Ring. Were those its only virtues, it would be a worthwhile addition to the Rheingold discography, but the strengths of this Rheingold extend far beyond these impressive firsts. Recorded in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s state-of-the-art Concert Hall during two widely-lauded concert performances in January 2015, the recording is a technological triumph overseen by producer and engineer Phil Rowlands, whose expertise has produced a recording that satisfies both as a faithful reading of Wagner’s sonically thrilling score and as a memento of the frisson of this important occasion. Neither performances nor recordings of Das Rheingold are rare, but performances and recordings of the quality of this one, distinguished by the participation of a splendidly-selected cast, are no more common than giants and Rhinemaidens. One of the most prevalent themes in Classical Music during the past decade has been the primacy of NAXOS releases among the finest new recordings, and this Rheingold is an exceptionally musical variation on that theme.

Founded in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century as an amateur ensemble, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra assumed the form in which it is heard in this Rheingold as recently as 1974. Under the direction of esteemed Asian and Western-born Music Directors including Ling Tung, Kenneth Schermerhorn [familiar to NAXOS aficionados as the much-lamented Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Nashville Symphony], David Atherton, Samuel Wong, and Edo de Waart, the HKPhil has grown into one of the world’s finest orchestras and a beacon for native and international talent. The orchestra’s current Music Director, Dutch violinist [the breadth of his talent is intimated by his having become the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s youngest concertmaster at nineteen], conductor, and composer Jaap van Zweden, established his credentials as a Wagnerian on disc with a compelling performance of Parsifal with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest on the Challenge Classics label, also recorded in concert. The insightful management of orchestral textures and psychological depth that characterized van Zweden’s conducting of Parsifal also course through this recording of Das Rheingold. The HKPhil musicians respond to his leadership with feats of virtuosity that rival the best playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Wiener Philharmoniker. Whether by virtue of near-perfect playing or judicious editing of material from the pair of performances, the orchestra’s contributions to this performance would be welcomed with fervent ‘Bravi’ at Bayreuth. The opera's Vorspiel here develops, as it should, from a silent abyss—hardly an easy accomplishment in the context of a live recording!—into the primordial clamor of disrupted nature, lusty giants, and obstreperous deities, and there is no mistaking in this performance the fact that the seeds of the scene-change music in Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten and the Interludes in Britten's Peter Grimes were sown by Wagner in the Einleitung before Scene Two and the Verwandlungsmusik before Scene Three of Das Rheingold. Van Zweden's tempi are occasionally idiosyncratic, the pacing sometimes seeming slightly deliberate, but momentum is maintained impressively, creating a pervasive sense of dramatic tension despite the inherent stasis of the concert format. Van Zweden is attentive to Wagner's differentiations of the sonic landscapes of the Rhinemaidens, the giants, and the gods, limning the musical boundaries of each realm with taut rhythms for the mortals and expansive phrasing for the denizens of the newly-built Walhalla. The machinery of the Nibelung dwarves’ sweatshop, famously represented in Wagner’s score by eighteen tuned anvils, here sounds more like the clinking of cutlery in a well-appointed kitchen, but the orchestra’s playing, bolstered by marvelous performances by brasses and woodwinds, is consistently on an aptly Wagnerian scale, and van Zweden paces a performance of grandeur and gravity.

Substantially completed by the autumn of 1854 but not performed until 1869, Das Rheingold both brought the precepts outlined in Wagner’s 1851 tome ‘Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde’ to fruition and broadened the scope of the Ring as a whole, which Wagner had originally conceived as a trilogy rather than the tetralogy that it became with Das Rheingold. For modern audiences, Rheingold introduces the characters and themes that shape the dramas of the three subsequent works, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. First heard are the sometimes playful, sometimes portentously prophetic Rhinemaidens, the guardians of the gold fashioned into the ring that brings gods’ and men’s destinies into conflict. With soprano Eri Nakamura as Woglinde and mezzo-sopranos Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck as Wellgunde and Floßhilde, the performance begins with the tuneful frolicking of an appealing trio of Rhinemaidens. The ladies' euphonious singing of 'Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle' sparkles like sunlight on the water's surface, and each voice is both individually and collectively ideal for the music. The good-natured teasing of Alberich has in this performance an obvious core of vulnerability, but there is nothing insecure in the ladies’ singing. Their voicing of 'Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund' crackles with girlish verve, and the avidity with which they sing 'Nur wer der Minne Macht entsagt' is telling. Nakamura’s, Varak’s, and Haselböck’s vibrant exclamation of 'Haltet den Räuber!' evinces panic without being undermined by vocal flaws. In the final scene, the trio’s shimmering 'Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold!' ends the performance with a surge of truly golden sound, the demands of the tessitura met with unassailable conviction by all three ladies.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner are sung with sonorous malevolence and subtle hints of humor by basses Kwangchul Youn and Stephen Milling. Youn brings to Fasolt’s 'Sanft schloß Schlaf dein Aug'!' a voice that sounds as though it was mined of the earth’s sturdiest ore, and the power with which he projects 'Was sagst du? Ha! Sinn'st du Verrath?' is gladdening. In Scene Four, Youn sings ‘Halt, du Gieriger! Gönne mir auch was!' with steely authority that is the hallmark of his performance as a whole. As Fafner, Milling is a blood-curdling thug from the start, already very nearly a dragon! The reptilian smugness of his delivery of 'Du da folge uns!' is matched by the explosive intimidation of his 'Hör' Wotan, der Harrenden Wort!' In Scene Four, Milling hurls out 'Gepflanzt sind die Pfähle nach Pfandes Maß' and 'Nun blinzle nach Freia's Blick!' with abandon. Fasolt and Fafner do not require vocal beauty, but hearing their music sung so capably, without allowances having to be made for lapses in stability and intonation, heightens appreciation of the care with which Wagner gave life even to these hateful characters.

Alberich is portrayed with snarling menace by baritone Peter Sidhom, who, despite being unafraid of distorting the voice in service to his depiction of the character’s agenda, ultimately sings the part with greater fidelity to Wagner’s score than many recorded Alberichs. In the opera’s first scene, he dispatches 'Hehe! ihr Nicker' with the forcefulness of a gunshot, and Sidhom’s increasingly agitated, unsettling articulations of 'Garstig, glatter glitschriger Glimmer!' and 'Der Welt Erbe gewann'ich zu eigen durch dich?' are electrifying. Here and especially in Scene Three, the part’s highest notes trouble Sidhom, who must sometimes resort to shouting, but his portrait of the embittered Nibelung is laudably consistent. The baritone’s account of 'Hehe! Hehe! Hieher! Hieher! Tückischer Zwerg!' is invigorating, and in both 'Schau, du Schelm!' and 'Die in linder Lüfte Weh'n da oben ihr lebt' Alberich’s nefarious intentions scintillate in Sidhom’s singing. The opera’s final scene prompts Sidhom to give broad expression to Alberich’s frustration. His 'Wohlan, die Niblungen rief ich mir nah' and 'Gezahlt hab' ich nun laß' mich ziehn!' exude hatred and a burgeoning quest for vengeance. Sidhom is an Alberich who epitomizes villainy without caricature, and his considered, confident singing inspires sympathy for the character’s suffering.

Tenor David Cangelosi is, as he has been in a number of Ring productions, a wily, wheedling Mime who sings the rôle more comfortably than many Mimes heard in recent years. Throughout the performance, Cangelosi’s Mime is like a live wire, showering every scene in which he appears with dramatic sparks. The tenor’s tones are not always conventionally attractive or ideally-placed, but the Mime that he portrays is an appropriately unpleasant figure who is tolerated by the other characters only with considerable restraint. Cangelosi sings 'Nehmt euch in acht! Alberich naht!' obsequiously but with ringing tone, and his use of text throughout the performance is masterly. Cangelosi manages to make Mime interesting rather than merely repulsive, and his vocalism is gratifyingly fluent.

Though the voice has tremendous presence, baritone Oleksandr Pushniak is unfortunately only a partially successful Donner, his stentorian singing of 'Heda! Heda! Hedo!' and 'Bruder, hieher! Weise der Brücke den Weg!' when summoning the thunderstorm in Scene Four impaired by unsteadiness. Vocal instability is perhaps a family trait, as tenor Charles Reid's alert, verbally sharp-witted Froh is also weakened by tremulousness, especially above the stave. Both gentlemen create sharply-defined characters whose parts in the drama they uninhibitedly fulfill, but their intelligent, accurately-tuned performances are too often compromised by vocal unevenness in moments of significance.

As Freia, the object of the giants' disgusting desire, soprano Anna Samuil’s effervescent singing leaves no doubt of why she is such an irresistible prize for Fasolt and Fafner. The golden apples that preserve the gods’ youth seem to glisten in Samuil’s singing, but the terror that emanates from her pleas to be rescued from the giants’ unmistakable designs is bracing. Unlike many Freias, Samuil scales the upper reaches of her music without shrillness. Her singing of ‘Schwester! Brüder! Rettet!' pierces the musical tapestry of the performance like a dagger. Offering tones of meteoric allure, Samuil’s Freia is a woman any self-respecting brothers would move heaven and earth to save from the clutches of libidinous oafs.

It no longer seems possible that this abused, broken planet could sing with a voice as strong and beautiful as that of Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, and the direness of her Erda's warnings to Wotan are all the more chilling for being so splendidly sung. Humble invests troves of rich, burnished tone and unerring dramatic instincts in her performance of 'Weiche, Wotan, weiche!' The result is one of the most compelling recorded accounts of the brief but crucial rôle, one in which every note of the part is wholly in the voice and no compromises are required. Humble rivals Lili Chookasian and Oralia Domínguez for sheer vocal quality and uses German text as imaginatively as Maria von Ilosvay and Marga Höffgen. Arrogant and foolish indeed is the Wotan who fails to heed the counsel of such an Erda!

British tenor Kim Begley is the uncommon veteran of Wagner and Richard Strauss rôles whose carefully-honed technique and well-judged performances have preserved the beauty and flexibility of the voice, and he sings Loge in this performance with nimbleness and finesse which many younger singers should envy. Ever an imaginative artist, Begley makes much of the text, his diction giving his singing of 'Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn!' additional bite. He infuses 'Ein Runenzauber zwingt das Gold zum Reif’ with unexpected nuances, establishing Loge as the sole fount of reason and understanding in Das Rheingold. In Scene Three, Begley's reading of 'Nibelheim hier: durch bleiche Nebel' is appealingly forthright, and he shapes both 'Ohe! Ohe! Schreckliche Schlange' and 'Dort, die Kröte! Greife sie rasch!' with the intuition of a born Wagnerian, accentuating key words without altering the emphases in Wagner's phrasing. He unleashes a world-weary fury in 'Da, Vetter, sitze du fest!' in Scene Four, furthered by his bright enunciation of 'Ist er gelöst?' Begley phrases 'Lauschtest du seinem Liebesgruß?' with bel canto grace, the voice flowing through the music with far greater pulchritude than many listeners might think possible in Wagner repertory. This is one of Begley's finest recordings and a Loge that rivals the best interpretations on disc.

Solely among recorded performances of Das Rheingold, American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung must endure comparisons with many of the greatest Wagnerians of the past century as Fricka. Having recently garnered acclaim for her vocally and dramatically voluptuous Venus in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Tannhäuser, DeYoung here establishes her Fricka as a worthy successor to celebrated interpretations of the rôle by Elisabeth Höngen, Ira Malaniuk, Rita Gorr, and the incomparable Kirsten Flagstad, whose Fricka in the DECCA studio recording conducted by Sir Georg Solti remains one of the most-debated performances on disc. DeYoung's vocalism is ungainly to a degree, and she is most effectively in her element when under greatest stress, but the voice is a legitimate Fricka instrument that possesses metal and femininity in equal measures. The mood that she conjures with her granitic 'Wotan, Gemahl, erwäche!' is one of consummate political dominance, Fricka's moral authority outweighing Wotan's ambition. DeYoung deploys mountains of tone in 'So schirme sie jetzt' and 'Wotan, Gemahl, unsel'ger Mann!' In the lower register, where Fricka's music often takes her, she can summon the focus of a contralto with velvety sumptuousness that contrasts stunningly with the laser-like upper register, the top of the voice essentially that of a dramatic soprano. In Scene Four, DeYoung envelops her rousing statement of 'Lieblichste Schwester süsseste Lust!' with sisterly concern and spousal scorn. DeYoung's performance leaves nothing to chance, her first effort at portraying Fricka disclosing a commendable absorption of the rôle. A number of Frickas have credibly conveyed the aggrieved wife's contempt for Wotan's misadventures, but few singers have given voice to her protestations as unfalteringly as DeYoung does in this performance.

As a Wotan admired for remarkable perspicacity as an interpreter of Lieder rather than Wagnerian declamation, baritone Matthias Goerne has much in common with his storied countryman Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Goerne shares his illustrious predecessor's poetic approach to text and seemingly boundless palette of vocal colors, but in his first portrayal of Wotan it is George London rather than Fischer-Dieskau whose example Goerne's singing brings to mind. Unlike Fischer-Dieskau, who encountered passages in Wotan’s music that required more voice than he could supply, Goerne possesses the range and the orotundity of tone for the part, which he plays with machismo and bristling pride. Having waited to sing Wotan until he had experience with a character like Berg’s Wozzeck under his belt, Goerne here makes one of the most auspicious rôle débuts in recent memory. The soaring sovereignty with which he phrases 'Endlich Loge! Eiltest du so,' a passage of which many Wotans make little, is indicative of his intuitive grasp of both the character and his music. Throughout the first half of the opera, Goerne alternates petulance with pure muscle in depicting Wotan’s shifting allegiances and thirst for power. Facing Fricka’s withering disdain and the bungling turpitude of the giants and Nibelungs, Goerne’s Wotan assumes the capacity of unanswerable supremacy, taking command in​ Scene Four with an imposing account of 'Soll ich sorgen und fürchten.' Greeting Walhalla, his perceived refuge from the perils and responsibilities of wielding the ring, Goerne sings 'Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge' stunningly, complemented by a poised but pointed 'So grüss' ich die Burg.’ Few singers have elucidated the motivations and flaws of the Rheingold Wotan at any points in their careers as Goerne here does in his first attempt. Heartening as the profundity of his interpretation of the rôle is, it is his singing that wins the greater share of the laurels. Any listener who continues to believe that tired barking is the trademark of a successful Wotan should hear this performance. Goerne’s singing harkens back to past generations, when Wotans like Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter, and George London revealed that brawn need not impede beauty.

Die Walküre is the Ring opera that works best beyond the context of the complete Cycle, but Das Rheingold is in many ways the most accessible of the four works that comprise Der Ring des Nibelungen. There is a concentrated circumspection in Rheingold’s uninterrupted narrative that is not duplicated elsewhere in Der Ring, and Wagner’s music at once occupies a lofty plane of inspiration and exemplifies effective theatricality. The observer who suggests, perhaps because of its less-daunting dimensions, that Das Rheingold is an ‘easier’ piece than Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung has surely never been involved with performing, producing, or recording it. This NAXOS recording of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Rheingold, the first installment in a complete Ring Cycle scheduled for realization in increments by the end of 2018, is an achievement for which every participant and all Wagnerians must give thanks. Its weakest link is far from ruinous, and its foremost strengths—the Wotan of Matthias Goerne, the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the conducting of Jaap van Zweden—foretell a Ring to challenge notions of great Wagner performances being solely things of the past.