Wagner: Die Walküre

Timothy Ball
Classical Source (UK)

To my knowledge, there have been a mere five studio recordings of the Ring in its entirety (a sixth, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, was abandoned by Decca half-way through), and so a large part of the tetralogy’s discography is made up of ‘live’ recordings, many of them from Bayreuth, the theatre built expressly for the first complete performance of the cycle in 1876. Thus recordings – official and otherwise – abound, many of them with ‘big name’ singers and conductors who dominated the post-war Wagnerian scene.

This Melba release is the first CD / SACD instalment of what was the first completely Australian-originated production of the Ring, staged in 2004. I assume the remainder is to follow. One is struck pretty quickly by the high quality of the orchestral playing. Indeed the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra need not fear comparison with, say, the Vienna Philharmonic (Solti / Decca) or the Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan / DG), not to mention the various incarnations of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra itself. The solo playing is of outstanding quality – the cello in the first act is most moving – and there is a real sense of engagement from all involved. … overall, the orchestral contribution is a pleasure to hear in its own right.

But fine playing in Wagner is only part of the necessary ingredients. Fortunately, Asher Fisch provides sound, thoughtful and purposeful conducting. A former assistant to Daniel Barenboim (working with him on the Ring in Berlin and Bayreuth), his conducting of Die Walküre is notable for its breadth and shaping. I don’t know whether he has conducted the ‘Ring before, but Fisch is clearly a sympathetic exponent of Wagner, encouraging expressive singing and playing and allowing time for the events to develop. He does not fuss at the music, but gives it the requisite space to bloom – not that I am suggesting that tempos are unnecessarily slow. On the contrary, they feel just ‘right’, once past an opening that sounds rather mannered with the string articulation too clipped, though it could be convincingly argued that this is a literal realisation of the staccato markings in the score.

With the arrival of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the warm burgeoning of their love is touchingly conveyed, reaching an ardent – but not forceful – climax at the end of Act One. Stuart Skelton initially sounds a little stiff, but seems to relax once he is into the more lyrical music. He is suitably ardent in Act One and appropriately defiant later on. Deborah Riedel is a lovely Sieglinde: vulnerable, tender, but with a hint of fire and determination. Certainly, she and Skelton ignite sparks off one another to tremendous effect.

Richard Green articulates Hunding’s pithy lines with character … He is powerful in his off-stage cries to Siegmund at the conclusion of Act Two … a scene which has considerable frisson in this performance.

As Wotan, John Bröcheler suggests a somewhat more youthful character than we are perhaps accustomed to hearing. … he finds a more lyrical vein in his exchanges with Brünnhilde, especially towards the close ... Wotan’s scene with his wife Fricka has an underlying tension thanks in no small part to Elizabeth Campbell’s strong characterisation. This is a passage which can either ‘hang fire’, or irritate by how shrewish Fricka is. This is not the case here.

… Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde … she sounds in better voice here than she did in the Royal Opera’s 2005 staging. Hers is a strong instrument … she interacts well with the others ... 

There is a terrific team of Valkyries, whose scene is launched with great aplomb by Elizabeth Stannard; it wouldn’t surprise me if she were singing Brünnhilde herself in a few years’ time. But all the singers are strong and convey individual personalities. Their ensembles are uncommonly good, too, and off-stage cries well-placed ...

The overall presentation is handsome … As a ‘live’ performance, there are occasional stage noises, but they don’t distract unduly .... Applause is retained …

Whilst this set is not going to displace the many which are already available, I am glad to have heard it. It has many strong qualities and merits a recommendation. I will be interested to hear the remainder of the cycle.


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