Tuesday 27 January 2015

WAGNER: Complete Mature Operas - A Review by Audiophile Audition

If you love Wagner, you have to have this magnificent set.
At last we have come to the end of Janowski’s formidable and most impressive Wagner cycle, surely one of the most important of the modern age with its uniform excellence and outstanding state-of-the-art sonics. The Ring cycle packaged therein can also lay claim to be the best since Solti, though Gergiev is giving him a run for the money too. And this isn’t to discard historical favorites like Furtwangler and Bohm, each quite important, but each falling way short of this set in terms of audio quality, and neither that far ahead in singing, though particular roles will certainly be bested according to which opera one happens to be listening. But since this arrived as a set, then it is as a set that it has to be judged, and taken in whole the effect is simply overwhelming.  The challenge for PENTATONE was daunting, taking two and one-half years to record the mature operas with the same orchestra, chorus, and conductor, never before done, and backed up again the end of the Wagner bi-centenary in 2013. All of the performances are recorded live, and each opera was given, unbelievably, only once. Five stars would have to be given for the effort alone, but to have such milestone recordings, many of which equal the greats of the past, make this an essential collection by almost any standard you care to name.
We have covered seven of these recordings previously in these pages, so I will not review them here:
Let’ start with the Ring first. Gergiev turned in a magnificent account of Die Walküre that took me completely by surprise in terms of vocal quality.
While the overall tempo is a tad on the slow side it never feels like it; and the conducting is steady and authoritative without being overbearing, something that affects the conductor in other composers. But Janowski is hardly to be outclassed in any category. Though Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) is wonderful in her role, Petra Lang give her a run for the money in every bar, and Robert Dean Smith’s splendid Siegmund compliments Melanie Diener’s Sieglinde in tonal color and quality. The third act is fervent and brilliantly executed, a fitting conclusion to the promise offered in the searing opening bars of the opera, the Berlin orchestra playing like madmen.
Siegfried is a tricky opera; in terms of ensemble it features only eight principal singers, and the vocal scope almost feels chamber music-like in many instances. It’s also possibly the most exposed of all the Ring operas with fewer “big name” orchestral passages, forcing more attention on the pure vocal dexterity of the performers. Fortunately the lion’s share of the work is taken on by the Siegfried of Stephen Gould, who manages a tour-de-force of extraordinary proportions, showing us every trick in the book as he breezes through Wagner’s nearly-impossible demands. Is there anything this guy can’t do? His Brünnhilde is rendered by Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana, no stranger to Wagner even though this is her first go at this role in this opera. She is not as vocally persuasive—or dramatically for that matter—as Petra Lang, who will reappear in Götterdammerung, but she is nonetheless very good and brings honor and credit to the role. One might wonder how Matti Salminen fares in the role of Fafner because of his advanced (for a singer, 68) age, but even though his voice is not what it once was, he knows the role and knows how to make up for any shortcomings in the clever and veteran manipulation of his voice. Janowski is spectacular here as everywhere in this cycle, and this Siegfried ranks as one of the best. Consequently, the whole deserves top billing as one of the best of the modern go rounds, perhaps the best. I haven’t heard the rest of Gergiev yet.
With Tristan und Isolde we move into an entirely different world with only five real roles of significance, and only two that have to carry the opera for four-plus hours. To me there is a rather limited circle of great Tristan recordings—Furtwangler on EMI probably takes the cake as the most intense and ultimately moving performance on disc, though Karl Bohm’s 1966 Bayreuth recording and Carlos Kleiber also on DGG with an incandescent Margaret Price remain fan and critical favorites. Outside of these, the most influential opera in the history of western music has comparatively few “desert island” readings.
I think you can add this one to the list.
Is Nina Stemme the greatest Isolde in history? No. Is Stephen Gould the best Tristan to ever record? Hardly. And though both of them are among the greats in these roles—or at the very least are busy asserting themselves as such—it is the production as awhole which ends up winning accolades. The singing is certainly sterling, but the tempi, rather quick as Janowski likes, and the overall color he finds in the orchestra, as prominent a “sixth man” in this work as in any Wagner opera, is stunning. Janowski is able to set the many different tones of atmosphere and emotive beguilement so needed to show this work in the best light, a wondrous pulp infused with so much meaning on so many different levels. I am not sure how well this would have played 50 years ago, but for our age this is the defining Tristan of the day and well worth acquiring.
That sums up this surround set. This is as worthwhile a Wagnerian offering as you are going to see in 20 years.
Steven Ritter, January 26, 2015