Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Young, Hamburg Philharmonic
Simone Young took over as Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera from Ingo Metzmacher in 2005. On the present evidence, she is doing sterling work. Jim Pritchard reviewed a performance of this very music-drama with the present forces for Seen and Heard in March 2008. Much of what he said is borne out aurally here, especially in terms of Young’s confident authority. We are just given the recording date of “March 2008”, so one cannot know if this is exactly the same performance, or indeed what level of inter-performance patching was used.
All roles with the exception of two come from the bosom of the Hamburg State Opera. The exceptions are Falk Struckmann - already well known for his Wagner - and Wolfgang Koch, a name new to me.
Simone Young coaxes some lovely playing from her Hamburg players. The opening sounds of the Rhine are appropriately primordial – here is a fluctuating primal soup populated by a group creamy-toned horn players interweaving their ascending arpeggios and this whole passage is exceptionally well recorded, with plenty of space and clarity; the held-breath interlude between Scenes 1 and 2 contains some simply magical playing - from all orchestral departments - before ushering in contained majesty. The entrance of the giants is managed with great unanimity of attack and with great depth - approaching Janowski on the old Eurodisc cycle. Most impressive, perhaps, is the way Young moulds the fourth and final scene, carefully grading climaxes with the end clearly in mind and according Alberich’s curse on the Ring its full and deserved weight. The return of the giants is magnificently played, by the Hamburg horn section in particular, and her long-range preparations make up for any weaknesses in Jan Buchwald’s Donner. The thunder-clap is exquisitely managed in the balance of timpani against emerging, scurrying lower strings
The three Rhinemaidens, Ha Young Lee, Gabriele Rossmanith and Ann-Beth Solvang are each and every one a strong singer, confident of delivery in the opening scene. “Their” Alberich is Wolfgang Koch, whom Simone Young refers to as having a major international breakthrough in his career with this very recording. Koch is remarkably characterful without degrading into old-school over acting. If the Rhinemaidens just miss the ecstasy of the ensemble “Rheingold!” statements (track 5), Lee’s “Nur wer der Minne Macht versagt” carries a huge weight of meaning whose trajectory directly leads to the ensemble Rhinemaidens’ final, pre-curse cry. When the forswearing of love comes from Alberich (Koch), it, too, carries an equivalent weight both from Koch and from the accompanying orchestral forces.
The role of Wotan is taken by Falk Struckmann, who is rather widely vibratoed and does not quite carry the solemn, commanding gait of a true Wotan (he is Wotan, too, in the de Billy/Liceu Rheingold). His “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” almost redeems him, though. Katka Pieweck, as Fricka, is a name new to me but I hope to renew acquaintance shortly. Pieweck has a lovely voice, is full of confidence and fully within her part at all times, and it is she that carries the long Scene 2 Wotan/Fricka dialogue. Tigran Martirossian’s Fasolt oozes authority; Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Fafner a touch less so – one is aware of his careful way with words and intervals. Try “Neue Neidtat sinnt uns der Niblung”; also, his “Fort von hier sei sie erführt!” towards the end of Scene 2 is frankly weak and approximate.
Peter Galliard’s Loge is light but again not over-characterised. It is not as confident initially as I would have liked. By the time of his commentary on the Gods’ ageing, though, he seems much more part of the drama and, in tandem with Young’s excellent sculpting of Wagner’s magnificently “suspended” orchestration, this section becomes truly involving. Galliard is superb in his Scene 3 interactions with Mime, and Young ensures her forces react with lightning reflexes to Wagner’s many changes of mood. Sacher (Mime) matches Galliard in every way here; Koch (Alberich) is completely believable in his role of tin-pot dictator. Only in the opening salvoes of Scene 4 does Koch lose some focus; as if to compensate, it is here that Young’s concentration becomes even more laser-like, and the drama unfolds grippingly nevertheless.
Deborah Humble’s Erda might not be the most contralto-ish on disc but it carries real weight of authority, especially in the warnings of “Höre!”.
The lavish booklet contains a 30-page introductory article by Udo Bermbach, which doubles as exposition of Wagner’s philosophic-political Weltanschauung and synopsis, and full text and translation – but no biographies of singers. There are also many full colour stills from the production itself.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable Rheingold, clearly at every stage born of the stage and not the studio. The cast work well together – as well they might, given that the vast majority hails from Hamburg State Opera. I look forward to future instalments.
-- Colin Clarke, MusicWeb International
This performance, recorded live in Hamburg in October, 2008, is a wonderful surprise. Conductor Simone Young brings out the score's mood changes with great drama; you can practically see the shadow of Hunding passing behind the Twins in Act 1, and with each entrance of the tender love music--sometimes just the leitmotif itself--the listener feels a sense of joy.
Young has a particularly youthful-sounding Siegmund in tenor Stuart Skelton, a tireless, intelligent singer without the baritonal low register some prefer, and she emphasizes the brightness of the brass to play against his sound. She also takes the Brünnhilde/Wotan duet in the second act at a nicely quick conversational pace, making it less introspective than usual but also bringing it great urgency. And her final act is glorious, from a thrillingly played and sung ride (complete with trills from the Valkyries), to an ecstatic "O hehrste wonne", through a psychologically exhausting "War es so schmälich", and an exquisite, touching final scene. There isn't a dull moment in this Walküre.
Opposite Skelton's young, impetuous Siegmund we have a mezzo Sieglinde--Yvonne Naef--and rather than this being a drawback, it is a dark-hued, emotionally telling portrayal. There's the occasional strain in the upper register, including at "O hehrste wonne", which, as suggested above, is a knockout--perhaps because it does not sound easy. Mikhail Petrenko's Hunding is too mellow and carries little danger. Jeanne Piland's Fricka is second-rate.
Falk Struckmann's Wotan is brilliantly thought out, and save for a lunged-at high note or five, it's handsomely sung, with a beautiful legato and long breath. His concept of the role (or the director's, or conductor's) is as a loving father to Brünnhilde primarily--hence his rage (which abates) in the third act. He has the authority, but not the inner depth of feeling, of Thomas Stewart or Hans Hotter. Some might call it shallow and un-godlike; I found it poignant in this context.
Deborah Polaski's Brünnhilde, as she nears 60 years of age, seems more solid than ever before. A wobble rarely enters the voice, and though she seems to tire in the third act's second scene, she recovers entirely for her confrontation with Wotan. And when she sings pianissimo, as in the Announcement of Death and "War es so schmälich", she's riveting.
In short, this is a Walküre that is all of a piece, like Furtwängler's, with seamless moves from scene to scene. It isn't nearly as dark or "cosmic", but it is a beautiful reading, and the singing, despite the fact that there are no Varnays or Vickers, is quite fine.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
"the Australian conductor, who turns 51 this year, has an excellent command of Wagnerian syntax, and that this performance of Siegfried, derived from performances in October 2009, is well worth hearing.
Young reminds me that, over the years, Siegfried has become my favorite Ring drama. She maintains a taut dramatic momentum throughout and makes the most of some instrumental passages that aren’t always especially memorable. For example, the prelude to act II, at 6:09, is more deliberate than most, beginning with almost imperceptible string tremolos and featuring an expressive, mood-setting tuba solo. “Forest Murmurs” is exceptionally evocative, and the long stretch of music connecting scenes 2 and 3 of the last act is artfully shaped.
With one exception, the singing is more than satisfactory. Christian Franz may not possess a Heldentenor on the scale of a Ben Heppner or Peter Siefert, but he uses it intelligently. (Franz was the Siegfried for the Ring I saw on my first visit to Bayreuth in 2003, and his voice was certainly big enough for the relatively small space of the Festspielhaus.) The violence with which he bangs away at Notung during the forging scene comes across as a reflection of just how desperately he wants to escape his childhood home; his musings beneath the linden tree in act II are quite lovely. In Peter Galliard, Franz has a terrific Mime to work off of. One can sense their mutual dislike in act I blossom into frank loathing by the time they reach Fafner’s cave. As Alberich, Wolfgang Koch has a dark but articulate baritone that’s exactly right for the role and his character’s bitterness at his second act entrance is palpable—when he actually sees Wotan, he practically shouts his displeasure. Diogenes Randes, the Fafner, doesn’t lose power when producing his lowest notes. Deborah Humble sounds mature and wise as Erda, but not matronly.
Catherine Foster awakens sounding refreshed, her voice focused, accurate, and timbrally appealing. Foster sang Brünnhilde for the Weimar Ring cycle on an Arthaus Blu-ray or DVD and it’s heartening to see her central to a more successful endeavor. The love duet works here because Young doesn’t demand more of the music than it can deliver, in terms of erotic heat. There’s a measured, almost gentle trajectory to Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s passion that matches the contour of Wagner’s music—it’s a level of intensity down from Tristan, or even the first act of Die Walküre."
FANFARE: Andrew Quint
Previous instalments in the Hamburg Ring Cycle have been a hit and miss affair, but this Götterdämmerung is a real success. Even without visuals, it is a dramatically coherent account and the on-stage chemistry between the singers really comes across. Almost every performer here is in the top league of modern Wagner interpretation. Nobody is perfect but the minor faults from each of the singers, and from each of the orchestral sections, do little to diminish the overall achievement.
Every member of the cast has something impressive to bring to this production. Christian Franz is an expressive and believable Siegfried. His performance suffers from some rhythmic inaccuracies in the first act, but he has no trouble with the high notes, nor with projecting across the orchestra. Deborah Polaski is similarly secure in her pitching as Brünnhilde. I found her performance very endearing, her natural tone, even at the top, making her the focus of attention in all the scenes she sings. This allows the Immolation Scene to be all the more definitive, with the audience really feeling Brünnhilde's transcending compassion. The small role of Waltraute is given a similarly endearing reading by Petra Lang. She is sometimes a little sharp on the top notes, but her tone is direct and her singing always filled with emotion.
The baddies are just as convincing. This might well be the first recording of John Tomlinson singing Hagen, and if it is, it is worth buying for him alone. He has the best ‘Hoihos’ in the business, and the passing years have done little to diminish their power. Wolfgang Koch is similarly menacing as Alberich, although he doesn't quite have the depth of tone in the lower register. In their scene together in Act 2, he is comprehensively out-classed by Tomlinson.
Gunther and Gutrune, not roles that usually attract star casting, are here taken by the excellent Robert Bork and Anna Gabler. Both put in dark and complex readings. There is a sinister air about every scene in which they appear, and both sing with dark-hued tones that underline their malicious influence. Gabler in particular rises head and shoulders above any other singer I have heard in the role, and the emotional complexity of her singing ensures that Gutrune is always presented as a real character and not just a minor functionary of the plot.
There is some great ensemble singing from the Norns, the Rhinemaidens and the chorus, and the orchestra is also on good form. The brass make the most of their many chances to shine, and have an impressive tonal palette ranging from round, warm chords to biting, angular interjections. The ensemble in the orchestra isn't always completely accurate, and that might be a factor to separate this recording from the very best on the market.
The orchestra is well served by the audio recording, much better in fact than the singers. Everything that happens on the stage sounds frustratingly distant, at least in comparison to the orchestra. The engineering does a good job of representing the physical positions of the singers on the stage, but perhaps goes a little far in this direction. Add more apparent distance between the singers and the audience than is necessary. That said, the balance between the singers and the orchestra rarely suffers, thanks perhaps to the impressive casting.
For me, the biggest problem with the previous instalments in this cycle was Simone Young's interpretation. She has a tendency to let the music flow without intervening to articulate its dramatic extremes. That tendency remains here, but is not as significant. In fact, to a certain extent she is able to turn it into a virtue. Some of the longer passages, especially in Act 1, benefit from her ability to maintain a sense of narrative flow without getting too involved in the individual moments. This also allows the singers the space they need, although the lack of dramatic engagement can be as dangerous for the stage action as it can be in the pit. And the set pieces – Rheinfahrt, Funeral Music, Immolation Scene – good as they all are - never feel like the fully committed performances of the greats of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, this Götterdämmerung gets my recommendation on the strength of the singing. A modern recording of the work usually has at least one weak link in the cast, and it is usually either Siegfried or Brünnhilde. Not so here; the principals are all more than up to Wagner's many challenges, and equally surprisingly, the supporting cast is too. Minor ensemble problems in the orchestra and a general lack of dramatic intensity are the downsides, but it's the singing that makes or breaks any Wagner recording, and the singing here is as good as you could want.
-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: OC 929
Label: Oehms Classics
Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Simone Young
Orchestra/Ensemble: Hamburg Philharmonic Choir, Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Hamburg State Opera Chorus, Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Catherine Foster, Christian Franz, Deborah Humble, Deborah Polaski, Falk Struckmann, Gabriele Rossmanith, Hellen Kwon, Jan Buchwald, John Tomlinson, Jürgen Sacher, Katja Pieweck, Keanne Piland, Maria-cristina Damian, Mikhail Petrenko, Miriam Gordon-stewart, Peter Galliard, Stuart Skelton, Tigran Martirossian, Wolfgang Koch, Yvonne Naef