Wagner: Die Walküre

Christine Tham
SA-CD.net (Australia)
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Performance: 4 stars (****)
Sonics: Stereo – 5 stars (*****)
Sonics: Multichannel – 5 stars (*****)

It is not often that a reviewer gets to review an album that represents recording history in the making. This 4 disc set represents the first instalment of the world's first multi-channel Hybrid SA-CD release of the complete Wagner Ring Cycle. Not only that, but the recordings are based on live performances from the first truly Australian production of the Ring, staged by State Opera South Australia in Adelaide in November-December 2004. I was fortunate enough to be one of the attendees of the well-received performances (third and final cycle) …

As can be imagined, it takes a very brave and dedicated opera company to attempt to stage the entire Ring Cycle. What is amazing about the Adelaide Ring Cycle 2004 is that it represents the second successful Ring Cycle performed in Australia, both by a relatively small opera company in one of Australia's smaller capital cities. The first attempt (in 1998) was largely based on a French production, but the 2004 version (which forms the basis of this recording) is a genuine Australian production (costing over A$15 million partially funded by the State government as well as the Australia Council), with sets and costumes sourced from all over the country, and a young(ish), energetic, mostly Australian cast under the baton of Israeli conductor Asher Fisch and the direction of Elke Neidhardt.

The recording itself is equally ambitious, involving 65 microphones, over 60 hours of captured performances of 129 orchestral players, 70 chorus members, 27 principal singers (of which all but 3 are Australian), on a SADiE PCM-H64 multi-channel recorder/editor and a SADiE DSD8 mastering and authoring system. It is the largest single recording project undertaken to date in Australia, by a relatively small and obscure label (Melba Recordings, an offshoot of the Melba Foundation, partially supported by grants from the Australian government).The release of a complete Ring Cycle on SA-CD is a defining moment for the fledging high resolution audio format, and parallels the first stereo recording of the Ring Cycle in the 1950s-60s (an ambitious studio undertaking by legendary producer John Culshaw on the Decca label, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti) which proved to the world that the Long Playing record was a viable audio format for large scale operas.

Comparisons with the Solti recording are inevitable, and Melba seems to be almost inviting or challenging the listener to put the two side by side. I suspect it's no coincidence that very first release in the Melba set also happens to the last opera released in the Decca / Solti set. I own the Solti Die Walküre on LP as well as CD (both the version released in the 80s as well as the more recent 1997 remaster) so I am very familiar with the Solti version.

But enough of the hype. How does the recording sound? How does it compare to the live performances? And how does it compare to the Solti version? …

Quite simply, this has to be the clearest and most well-balanced operatic recording I have heard. There's a sense of infinite depth and detail, with a nice reverb and ambience around the singers, and I definitely had the feeling that I could hear every single instrument in the orchestra, plus every nuance of expression in both voices and orchestra. Part of the detail no doubt comes from close miking of the orchestra, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail and depth there were in the voices, particularly since the recording captures them with a lot of reverb.

The overall recording level is fairly low, which is a good sign, for it means little or no dynamic compression has been applied. I would guess there's around 20dB of headroom between average and peak levels.

Curiously, in terms of imaging, the voices tend to float around eye level but the orchestra (particularly the strings) seem to sound as if they are emanating from the floor. Of course, this would approximately match the relative positioning of the singers vs the orchestra at the Adelaide Festival Theatre. I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised by a recording matching reality, but I didn't think the relative imaging would come through in a multi-mic recording.

I was also surprised by how quiet the background noise was (I remembered ambience noise in the hall was relatively high during the performances). Apart from various footfalls and scuffling as the characters move about on the stage, and the occasional subdued cough (I had a sneaking suspicion some of them could well be mine), the recording was eerily quiet ...

In the multi-channel version, all 5.1 speakers appear to be utilized, with all front three speakers actively used to reproduce the bulk of the music, and the rear speakers used to subtly extend the soundstage to envelop the listener. The subwoofer is used to subtly enhance the low end (and there are a few instances in the recording with significant low frequency usage). Discrete panning to the rear speakers are limited to the occasional drum roll, or off stage voices (in the case of the Valkyries in some parts of Act III), so those that can't stand instruments and voices coming from behind them can rest assured that they won't be offended. The stereo versions (DSD and CD) are more conventionally mixed. Overall, I prefer the multi-channel version - I like the enveloping ambience. The CD version noticeably loses a lot of the detail in the instruments and dampens a lot of the reverb in the voices, but is still very listenable. I ripped the CD tracks onto my mp3 player and they sounded quite enjoyable even on earbuds.
How does the recording compare to the live performances? Very well, I must say. The venue is wider than it is deep, and the extremely wide soundstage in the multi-channel version captures the spaciousness well. I may even go as far as to say the recording sounded better than being there! I am certain I did not hear as much detail in the hall as I can in my living room, but I must also point out I was not sitting anywhere near the best seats (which were very pricey, and sold out by the time I bought tickets). On a good system, I would assert the recording faithfully captures (perhaps with a touch of hyper-realism) exactly what someone who paid thousands of dollars for the best seats would probably have heard.
Don't try playing the Solti version after playing this recording. The Solti version was a great recording in its day, and still is (with the LP version sounding noticeably better than either of the two CD remasterings) but will sound a bit shrill and boomy compared to this recording, with noticeable loss of detail due to harmonic distortion from the analog master tapes.

OK, but what about the performance? Is this a better interpretation of the opera than the Solti version? I have a soft spot for the Solti version, and I suspect it will forever remain the definitive reference performance of the Ring in my books, but there is a lot to like in this recording, and I may even suggest it's probably a better introduction to the Ring for a neophyte.

The first thing that struck me when comparing the two is that they represent very different approaches to Wagner's music. Solti has great dramatic flair, and impeccable timing, and under his baton Die Walküre reminds me a bit of a big budget action movie - I can almost imagine exciting chase scenes between Hunding and Siegmund, plus a brilliant swordfight, and the 'Ride of the Valkyries' conjures up the kind of thrill that Industrial Light and Magic would supply. However, the singing is rather uneven in the Solti version, with some singers clearly past their prime.

In comparison, Asher Fisch's version transforms Die Walküre into an emotional, rather than a physical or intellectual, experience. We don't necessarily see the action, but we certainly feel and empathise with the characters. It transforms the opera into a very human drama rather than a mythical epic. We sense the longing of two soul mates, the jealousy of a husband, the frustration of a god bound by his own rules and prevented from doing what he wants to do, the outrage of a goddess shocked by what she believes is morally wrong, and above all the love, hope, confusion, fear and stubbornness of a daughter who feels she is saving her father whilst disobeying him.

Asher's pacing is a lot slower than Solti … very rewarding for the love duet at the end of Act I and the father and daughter farewell scene in Act III - both of which brought tears to my face.

I almost feel that the Vienna Philharmonic is the real star of the Solti version, but in the Adelaide Ring the orchestra is very much in the background, and the singers are the focus of the performance. This is probably one of the strongest and most well-balanced cast I have come across in recent years (and here I am mainly comparing to the recent ENO production of the Ring at the Coliseum, plus Opera Australia's production of Die Walküre in Sydney several years ago). Both John Bröcheler (as Wotan) and Lisa Gasteen (as Brünnhilde) are superb, with lots of stamina and energy to last entire Acts without faltering, and we are very sympathetically drawn to Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Deborah Riedel as Sieglinde ...

Melba Recordings is smart to release Die Walküre as the first instalment in the Cycle. It is the most accessible and listenable of the operas, and perhaps not by coincidence was the last opera released in the Solti version. It is due to be released by Melba in mid June 2006, followed by Das Rheingold (October 2006), Siegfried (February 2007) and Götterdämmerung (June 2007).

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