James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
May 1989
Manhattan Center New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedReiner Goldberg
BrünnhildeHildegard Behrens
GuntherBernd Weikl
GutruneCheryl Studer
AlberichEkkehard Wlaschiha
HagenMatti Salminen
WaltrauteHanna Schwarz
WoglindeHei-Kyung Hong
WellgundeDiane Kesling
FloßhildeMeredith Parsons
1. NornHelga Dernesch
2. NornTatiana Troyanos
3. NornAndrea Gruber

This is, by and large, a magnificent achievement. Indeed, I would dare a prophecy: it may become known as one of the great Wagner recordings of our time. High praise from this quarter, sometimes deemed to be besotted with past glories, but I hope not unjustified. In the theatre and on Channel 4 television Gotterdammerung has seemed Levine’s work, and so it proves up to the hilt here. In the first place, he seems to have the measure of its tragic import and its grandeur of concept. From start to finish he grasps and holds together its complex mesh of orchestral sound; no strand in the web of motifs escapes him, no turn in the drama is left uncared for. Even more importantly, unlike the other episodes of the tetralogy that we have had so far from him, he has here a total mastery of the art of Wagnerian transition. He unerringly paces the changes of mood from scene to scene and within them very seldom allows the tension to fall. The Second Act seems to be carried forward on a single wave of inspiration on all sides, stretching toward the tremendous climax of the oath trio at the close.

Energy courses throughout the whole, massive work, tempered, when necessary by poetry (Siegfried’s Act 3 narrative, where the string detail is exemplary). Then, at all times Levine achieves that peculiar richness of texture, that glorious Klang so essential in this of all Wagner’s works. These attributes most closely recall Knappertsbusch of conductors from the past. Levine is supported by the faultless playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which surpasses even its earlier form in this cycle—note the confident yet sensitive horns and tenor tubas—and it is recorded with striking presence and immediacy. There may be those, and I have been among them, who feel that—as in the Solti (Decca) and Karajan (DG) versions—you are hearing an unnatural orchestral contribution in a way that would not be possible in the opera house. That objection, if objection it is, is overriden by the sheer virtuosity of what one hears and by the simulation of the excitement garnered at a live performance.

Levine is supported by a superb cast of singers, with one exception, the disappointing Siegfried of Reiner Goldberg. As with Levine, this work has always been Behrens’s most successful in the cycle and she confirms that here. At Bayreuth, the Metropolitan and the Bavarian State operas she has always sung the role of Brunnhilde with single-minded intensity, amazing psychological insight and, on the whole, gleaming tone, even when that is not as firm or rounded as one might ideally wish. Here, in partnership with Levine, she brings all her stage experience to bear on creating a rounded, tragic character in the studio. Wherever you turn you hear how she has thought herself into Brunnhilde’s predicament. The whole scene with Waltraute, with its suggestion of the woman’s complacency, is unerringly realized, the denunciation of Siegfried is hair-raising, the long solo ”Welches Unholds List” at the start of Act 2’s finale is indicative of Brunnhilde’s inner torment. Earlier, the single phrase ”Siegfried kennt mich nicht” shows her desperation. Then the Immolation is at once searing and elating, just as it should be. Vocally the voice isn’t as steady as Nilsson’s (Solti and Bohm—the latter on Philips) or as large in tone as Varnay’s (Krauss on Laudis/Silver Sound), but she is quite their equal in dramatic conviction. The start of the Immolation reveals some edge to the tone, but all is forgotten when the telling passages, ”Wie Sonne laute”, ”Alles weiss ich” and ”Ruhe, du Gott” are given such understanding and Innigkeit. Here and in other passages she might have been helped by a more sympathetic recording of her voice, which has to struggle against the weight of Levine’s orchestra in full flood.

Salminen’s Hagen, as strong a presence as for Janowski (Eurodisc/BMG), is now more mature in enunciation. Not quite as black-browed as Greindl’s (Bohm), it is more securely sung and superbly saturnine (especially after the killing of the hero) and at the same time inveigling, as when Hagen is working on Gunther’s psyche in Act 1. In that role Weikl is a shade anonymous at first, but as Gunther’s troubles mount he becomes more involved in the part, and sings it faultlessly. Studer—luxury casting—is a predictably eager and comely Gutrune, who manages to make the awkward little scene (once cut by Wieland Wagner at Bayreuth!), just after Levine’s stunning Funeral March, anything but an anti-climax—again, the instrumental detail is perfectly placed. Hanna Schwarz is as moving a Waltraute as any on disc: her grave account of the God’s predicament moves one to tears, so eloquent is her diction. The Norns have been cast with flair. Dernesch—who has now appeared in different roles in three Ring cycles—is an urgent First Norn, Troyanos her equal as Second and young Andrea Gruber (Scottish Opera’s admired Forza Leonora) a shining Third. The Rhinemaidens, lead by the upcoming Hei-Kyung Hong, are suitably sensuous, even sensual in tone, Levine’s deliberate tempo for their trio at the start of Act 3 allowing them to phrase with ease (but I don’t at all like the unmusical break here, before the music moves on to the fourth disc, which could just about have housed the whole of Act 3).

That leaves me with the problem of Siegfried. Whatever Haitink’s EMI version of the opera eventually brings, it will surely be a tenor (Jerusalem) more aurally pleasing than Goldberg, whose voice is gravelly and dry. Nor is he very communicative with the text. Against that one must be grateful for his accuracy and his innate musicality, not unappreciated assets when you compare his rivals on disc, and in the narrative and death in Act 3 he does manage to realize the music’s eloquence and to a degree its poetry. The vital contribution of the Metropolitan chorus in the Vassals’ scene in Act 2 demands to be noted, though their cackling is a little excessive.

After such an all-consuming and satisfying experience, comparisons are something of an intrusion. For anyone wishing to have a studio performance in wonderful sound, performed with complete understanding and thrilling incandescence, this must now be the choice if the opera is wanted on its own. Bohm (notable for Nilsson’s superb Brunnhilde), Krauss and Furtwangler (with better Siegfrieds than here but the latter not available separately—part of a 13-CD set on EMI (CD) CZS7 67123-2, 2/91), recorded live (but in markedly inferior sound), offer different and complementary experiences. Solti’s account, one of the best in his cycle, well stands the test of time, but even the VPO of the 1960s is matched by the Metropolitan orchestra here—as is Culshaw’s classic recording. For the moment Levine carries all before him.’

Alan Blyth | Issue 8/1991

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599 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.