Jaap van Zweden
Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
18/21 January 2018
Cultural Centre Concert Hall Hong Kong
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedDaniel Brenna
BrünnhildeGun-Brit Barkmin
GutruneAmanda Majeski
AlberichPeter Kálmán
HagenEric Halfvarson
WaltrauteMichelle DeYoung
WoglindeEri Nakamura
WellgundeAurhelia Varak
FloßhildeHermine Haselböck
1. NornSarah Castle
2. NornStephanie Houtzel
3. NornJenufa Gleich

This is not the Ring to rule them all

Following the Naxos Ring as it has emerged piecemeal since 2015 has turned into a disappointing experience. The recordings of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre suggested the cycle might become a real bargain-price alternative to the half-century of classic accounts already available. But there was uneven casting in the Siegfried, released a year ago, and that lack of consistency and coherence seems even more pronounced in this final instalment, recorded, like the others, in concert in Hong Kong 10 months earlier.

Some elements have remained at a high standard throughout – namely the quality of the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, in particular the authority of Jaap van Zweden’s conducting. His control of the huge musical and dramatic paragraphs of Götterdämmerung is always confident, and the orchestral set pieces – the Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March – have an undeniably impressive dramatic presence. But vocally the performances are much less remarkable, with no continuity among the major roles from the previous operas.

So here we have the cycle’s third different Brünnhilde (Gun-Brit Barkmin, this time) and its second Siegfried (Daniel Brenna); the only singer who has featured before is Michelle DeYoung, who was Fricka in Rheingold and Walküre, and is Waltraute here. Such inconsistency may not have mattered in the live concert performances spaced a year apart but is less than ideal when heard on disc as part of a unified cycle. As it turns out, the casting is never inadequate, just unremarkable. Both Barkmin and Brenna would probably pass muster in one-off performances on stage, but neither measures up to the existing competition on disc, and it’s only Eric Halfvarson’s implacably dark Hagen that conveys that sense of enduring authority. For all its good moments and some fascinating individual contributions, this does not add up to a Ring that matches the competition.

Andrew Clements | 15 Nov 2018


There are a great many things to recommend this recording. In the first place, as has been observed by many critics, the playing of the orchestra throughout this Ring cycle has been absolutely superlative, serving to demonstrate another world-class body of players who have mastered the Wagnerian style to perfection – not an accolade that even today all orchestras can equal. And then there is the conducting of Jaap van Zweden, which is fully alive to all the nuances of the score and whose pacing often yields dividends in unexpected places, such as his sense of forward movement in the Act One interlude that can so often hang fire between its detached phrases. The recording engineers too have carefully observed many details that can often become obscured, although in the more complex textures of the score they can find themselves forced to concede defeat. If the existing competition in the catalogue were less stiff, I would have no hesitation in commending this recording without reservation as a representation of Wagner’s Ring for the home listener. When reviewing Siegfried last year, indeed, I had no qualms whatsoever in stating that the performance of Act One was equal if not superior to any of its rivals, even if the other two Acts fell short of that exacting standard.

But of course, as there always will be in any CD of a score as intricate as Götterdämmerung, there are drawbacks. Surprisingly the recorded acoustic, highly responsive and naturally resonant in Act One, seems to spring some additional echo in Act Two which brings in its wake problems of balance. This becomes apparent from the very start, where Alberich sounds in a much drier acoustic than the sleeping Hagen (quite the opposite from the effect in Culshaw’s artificial enhancement for Solti) and the halo around Hagen’s voice then brings him into a quite peculiar relationship to the backwardly placed chorus, where the balance in volume sounds very artificial indeed. I am not sure what instruments are employed to play Wagner’s specified ‘steerhorns’ (they sound rather like normal trombones) but again the balance which they are given sounds false. This I suspect is largely down to problems with microphone placement on the stage, since at the opening of Act Three the balance between the various onstage and offstage brass is perfectly managed.

The Naxos cycle has made a positive virtue of necessity by engaging largely unknown singers to take on some of the most strenuous roles in the operatic repertoire, and their efforts have often been rewarded with success; but the lack of consistency from one evening of the tetralogy to the next (only Mathias Goerne as Wotan remaining constant throughout, and of course missing from the final segment of the story) is regrettable. And I have particularly to regret the absence of Simon O’Neill as Siegfried, given the quality of his contribution to the previous evening. American tenor Daniel Brenna has a highly personable character, a good sense of drama, a lovely response to a lyrical phrase and a superbly poised top C; but all his artistry cannot conceal the fact that his voice is unlike O’Neill’s, decidedly a size too small for this heroic role, especially in passages like the ‘dawn duet’ during the Prologue when he appears to be set rather far back from the microphone. The young German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Brünnhilde gives a good performance as the warrior maiden; but then there are again places, such as her rejection of Waltraute at the end of Act One or her execration of Gutrune at the end of Act Two, when she seems to run out of voice. I get the impression that she will become a major exponent of the role in the next few years, but that time is not quite yet come; and I also remember some similarly promising Wagnerian sopranos who ran their careers into difficulties by attempting too much too soon. But she can still even at this early stage in her career produce some real thrills in the ferocity of her triumphantly pinging attack on high notes in the closing immolation.

American bass Eric Halfvarson is of course a Hagen with plenty of experience under his belt and provides plenty of full-scaled Wagnerian volume as required. Where he does cause concern, as so often in the past, is in the sense of blurring that surrounds the actual pitch of the notes he is singing – his calling of the vassals hardly begins to even approximate the falling semitone that afterwards will become one of Hagen’s leading motifs, and he is equally blustery elsewhere. By comparison the Chinese baritone Shenyang gives a thoroughly polished performance – with excellent definition in both pitch and diction – which renders him almost the most heroic character on stage, a rather strange inversion of Wagner’s intentions. Amanda Majeski is similarly a very positive Gutrune, indeed putting up a good fight against Brünnhilde in their final scene; and Michelle DeYoung is an excellent Waltraute even if her rich contralto can turn unwontedly matronly. Peter Kálmán is an agitated Alberich, with a nice line in whispered insinuation which works well in his brief scene. The Norns in the Prologue are a well-modulated bunch, and the Rhinemaidens in Act Three are suitably mellifluous. The chorus, with its internationally recruited personnel, make as much impact as their backward placement on the stage will allow; it is a pity that once again Wagner’s instructions for a single voice or small body of singers in some passages is ignored. I find it amazing that some many conductors (including experienced Wagnerians such as Solti, Goodall, Barenboim, Levine and so on) simply fail to appreciate the dramatic impact that the employment of the correct procedure can impart – even the 78rpm set of excerpts recorded in the 1930s got this right.

The recording has been assembled, as were the earlier instalments in the Naxos Ring, from a pair of concert performances, which has been sufficient to eliminate most of the mistakes and errors that can creep in during live stagings; and the audience are as quiet as mice, with none of the spluttering and coughing that can ruin so many live sessions in January. The booklet does not supply a text or translation (available online) but does include full artist biographies in English, and a brief introduction and substantial synopsis in both German and English. The layout on the discs is well managed, with the break between CDs in Act One taken at Siegfried’s entrance, earlier than usual but less disruptive dramatically and musically than most alternatives.

In the final pages of this performance, the combination of conducting, playing and engineering is every bit as good as in any of the rival versions on disc, with the themes marvellously balanced. The effect is only marred by van Zweden’s insertion of the ‘traditional’ luftpause before the final bars; it is not in Wagner’s score, and such conductors as Goodall, Haenchen, Levine and Barenboim have conclusively demonstrated that the music works better without it, reinforcing the continuing downward tread of the bass line. This cycle on Naxos, now complete, comprehensively trounces earlier releases on the label, and at its super-budget price might well form a recommendable modern representation of the score for newcomers to the field.

Paul Corfield Godfrey | February 2019


Jaap van Zweden blazes trail for the Hong Kong Philharmonic with Götterdämmerung

is a visionary not only because he sets challenging goals for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to spur them on to heights they never thought they were capable of, but also because he does so with keen insight into the limitations the environment places on what is possible. His project to mount concert performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four years has concluded with the final instalment – Götterdämmerung. To use a cliché, it was his crowning glory and, by most measures, a phenomenal success.

With the exception of the Rhinemaidens and Michelle DeYoung (Fricka in Rheingold and Walküre) as Waltraute, all the key characters in Götterdämmerung were new faces. Yet the new cast seemed to work just as seamlessly as the more familiar faces in the past. Whether as individual vocalists or together, and with the help of three choirs, they undoubtedly set a high bar for future productions. Nearly five hours of musical drama flew by as if it was a fleeting moment.

Götterdämmerung is a dark tale of intrigue, betrayal and revenge. In effect, it’s the story of Hagen’s machinations to win back the ring which his father, Alberich, had fashioned and on which he had placed a curse. American bass Eric Haflvarson’s brawny tones added an edgy sense of menace. Sometimes whispering under his breath, at other times in controlled outbursts, he made it sound as if it was impossible to plumb the depths of Hagen’s malevolent defiance more than he did. Despite repeated appearances in all three acts, he was able to maintain an enviable consistency and purity of tone.

Siegfried, a dragon-slaying superhero, has turned into a hapless pawn in Hagen’s evil scheme to gain control of the ring. Drugged into becoming a matchmaker for Gunther with the very woman to whom he has pledged his love, he goes on to propose marriage to Hagen’s sister, Gutrune. Daniel Brenna cut a dashing figure of youthful energy as Siegfried, replete with a touch of naivety and occasional mockery. Howver, his refined voice struggled to stay above the intrusive brass at times.

The star of the production was undoubtedly Gun-Brit Barkmin as Brünnhilde. She displayed an amazing range of emotional expression, from gentle lyrical beauty – as in her goose-pimple inducing lament for Siegfried upon his death – to high drama, as in her lashing out at the gods for their perverted cruelty. Svelte in the former and forceful in the latter, her voice displayed tremendous agility and malleability. Her voice was one of few which consistently projected above the orchestra throughout with impeccable diction. Unwavering intensity and clarity of purpose informed her character as a deity renounced by her father and jilted by the lover for whom she lost her divinity, but who nevertheless performs a final act of sacrifice.

Michelle DeYoung assumed a darkness befitting the pitiful state of her father Wotan and the imminent disintegration of his empire, yet warmth and sympathy still enveloped her plea to Brünnhilde to give up the ring. The role of two-dimensional and somewhat gullible Gutrune didn’t give Amanda Majeski much scope to explore the full potential of her vocal prowess, but what we did hear was soothing and adroit handling of the material. Bass-baritone Shenyang, 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, exuded more confidence than one would have expected from Gunther, acquiescent accomplice to Hagen’s manipulation and full of self-doubt about his leadership of the Gibichungs. His earnest and full-bodied tone was a good counterbalance to Hagen’s brazen lack of decency.

The returning Rhinemaiden trio provided much needed relief to the hefty dramatic material. The rhythmic ensemble of Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermione Haselböck was delightful in their ethereal and angelic delivery. By contrast, the combined choirs were a thunderously sonorous “third voice”.

The orchestra carefully and skilfully unravelled the multiple strains of Wagner’s intricate score, always in tandem with the singers. The strings and brass, emotional underpinning to the drama, inevitably upbraided some members of the cast for the occasional lack of projection, but solo woodwinds, notably the oboe and the clarinet, shone with moments of supreme tenderness. As Wagner’s story completed a full circle with the restoration of the ring to the Rhinemaidens, Jaap van Zweden blazed a trail for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to join the international big league.

Alan Yu | 22 Januar 2018


After four seasons, the much-acclaimed concert Ring cycle of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra came to a triumphant conclusion with two performances of Götterdämmerung at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall. It is nothing short of a wonder that music director Jaap van Zweden has, within a few years, transformed the Philharmonic into a Wagnerian orchestra to be reckoned with, whose lush sound and technical finesse, not to mention the musicians’ fierce sense of dedication, were again very much in evidence in this second performance on January 21, even though the overall playing, though still very impressive, did not quite reach the exalted level attained in last year’s Siegfried. While van Zweden may not be the most individual interpreter of this music, his pacing was unerringly right, with orchestral balances perfectly calibrated and the architecture of the music firmly within his command. It was a magisterial rendition that faithfully revealed Wagner’s score in all its glory.

Consistency in casting was not a top priority for this project, so that over the years we have been treated to three different singers for the role of Brünnhilde and two for Siegfried. Nevertheless, the overall standard of singing has been high, and there were some interesting casting choices along the way, with Matthias Goerne’s Wotan/Wanderer immediately coming to mind. Götterdämmerung featured a mostly new team of singers. In a notable role debut, Gun-Brit Barkmin gave an intelligent and deeply committed performance of Brünnhilde, conquering the role’s formidable difficulties with her athletic and resilient soprano, and she capped it all with a blazing Immolation. Although her interpretation would surely deepen with time and experience, it was in all respects a splendid assumption by a singer whose voice is in full bloom. Singing with uncommon lyricism, Daniel Brenna offered a dramatically incisive reading of the part of Siegfried, making clever use of the text to shape his vocal lines. While this may not be a very heroic conception in the traditional vein, it was undoubtedly a sympathetic one from a musical point of view, which underscored the tragedy that befell a fearless but naïve man when he was confronted with a world full of subterfuge.

Eric Halfvarson’s darkly intense Hagen was thrillingly enacted, and despite his having apparently caught a cold, he did not spare his voice. Shenyang presented an unusually aristocratic Gunther with his mellifluous bass-baritone, and although the part of Gutrune does not provide a lot of vocal opportunities for the soprano, Amanda Majeski’s silver-toned Gutrune sounded more than respectable in this assignment. Michelle DeYoung (the Fricka in the earlier operas) made much of the mini-drama in Waltraute’s narration with her plush mezzo whereas Peter Kálmán delivered Alberich’s urgings with quiet eagerness.

With her clarion voice and noble delivery, Stephanie Houtzeel’s Second Norn stood out in a solid trio that also included Sarah Castle and Jenufa Gleich, even if they were at times hard-pressed by the orchestra at full throttle. Making a welcome return after the 2015 Rheingold, Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermine Haselböck were the sublime Rhinemaidens, whose voices blended most beautifully. Coached by Eberhard Friedrich, chorus master of the Bayreuth Festival, the combined forces of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus, the Bamberg Symphony Chorus and the State Choir Latvija made a mighty sound and sang with dramatic conviction. Their contribution in Act 2 was definitely one of the musical highlights of the evening.

At the end of this sensational performance, the attentive audience rose as one to greet the musicians with the sort of prolonged rapturous ovations rarely witnessed in Hong Kong. Happily, those Naxos engineers working behind the scenes have ensured that another successful recording will emerge later in the year to document the final instalment of a daring venture by van Zweden and his admirable orchestra, the artistic results of which have surpassed all expectations.

Vincent H.K. Lau | Cultural Centre Concert Hall 21 January 2018


At the end of the day – which we have now reached for this live Hong Kong concert Ring cycle assembled over four years – this project’s main achievement may well prove to be the maturing of orchestra, conductor and recording team in performing Wagner’s music. Each instalment has represented a measurable advance on the last – and the orchestral brass, in particular, may feel proud of their work here. There have been objections to Naxos’s varying cast (though we have had a single Wotan, Mime and Erda) but this is not a stage cycle and these changes have helped keep the project in touch with today’s upcoming voices.

Of this recording’s ‘newcomers’, Gun Brit Barkmin (her debut in the role) brings imagination and flair. It’s quite a ‘white’ voice and not a huge one but she’s a committed projector of the drama. This cannot (quite) compensate in the sections of the score that are, at least for now, just too weighty for her, especially, in Act 2, the oath on the spear and the later outburst of grief which provokes Hagen’s offer of revenge. Daniel Brenna’s voice, again not heavy but well focused, certainly records comfortably and he is always fully in touch with the dramatic requirements. Eric Halfvarson’s Hagen, more experienced than this pair, is both vicious and frightening (as opposed to just plain ‘black’) of voice but occasionally sounds not in 100 per cent of health. Shenyang’s impeccably voiced Gunther sounds like he has just emerged from language school, so carefully received is his pronunciation. Amanda Majeski’s Gutrune is similarly noble without much dramatic impact; Michelle DeYoung is a reliable if rather neutral Waltraute, not helped by van Zweden’s uncertain pacing of the scene. Norns and Rhinedaughters contribute well.

Van Zweden keeps everything moving at a good clip but seems to respond more emotionally to certain scenes than to others. After a rather uncertain Norns’ scene the Dawn Duet and Rhine Journey go with terrific panache, an impact later rediscovered in the big ensemble scene of Act 2 after Brünnhilde is brought back from the rock. He is (unsurprisingly) not yet so sure of what all the music means, or relates to, and those little instrumental decorations which Barenboim, for example, colours and places so precisely (hear the 2013 Proms performances, if you can) tend rather to go for nothing. Also, more surprisingly for a noted Brucknerian, energy tends to drain away from slow-moving passages, which makes some of the final Immolation hang fire.

There are now so many Rings available at discounted prices that, in both marketing and artistic terms, it’s no longer possible simply to give this newcomer of very real merits a special bargain option box in some collectors’ batting order of desirability. The best of this latest instalment and its predecessors has that unique excitement that comes from a major task attempted for the first time. There’s little dull here, it always sounds good and it could make for an ideal economic first-time listen to the work. A selection of important rivals: Clemens Krauss (Pristine), Wilhelm Furtwängler (Pristine twice), Joseph Keilberth (Testament) and Daniel Barenboim (various).

Mike Ashman


Das Hong-Konger Ring-Experiment geht mit dieser am 18. und 21. Jänner 2018 live mitgeschnittenen Götterdämmerung aus der Cultural Centre Hall zu Ende. Jaap van Zweden hat das Unterfangen künstlerisch geleitet. Zuvörderst ihm ist zu verdanken, dass dieser Ring schon jetzt eine Sonderstellung hat und orchestral eine glänzende Wucht und Dramatik in bestem High Definition Sound entfalten kann. Während also von der Orchesterleistung her eine stete Steigerung (Streicher!) festzustellen istund also einem krönendem Abschluss gesprochen werden kann, ist die Sängerbesetzung mit wenigen Ausnahmen bloß (gutes) Mittelmaß.

Waren im Siegfried in den beiden Hauptrollen noch Simon O‘Neill und Heidi Melton aufgeboten (in der Walküre sang Petra Lang die Brünnhilde und Heidi Melton die Sieglinde), sind jetzt der amerikanische Tenor Daniel Brenna und Gun-Brit Barkmin als Siegfried und Brünnhilde dran. Die zurecht als Salome gerühmte jugendlich dramatische deutsche Sängerin ist zwar mit Abstand die stimmlich beste Brünnhilde in diesem Zyklus, nach langläufigen Begriffen der Wagner-Interpretation ist Gun-Brit Barkmin aber (noch) keine Götterdämmerungs-Brünnhilde. Mit ihrem in allen Lagen klangschönen, doch monochromem, nicht gerade wandlungsfähigem Sopran vermag sie zwar durch gute Technik, expressive Dramatik und stählernes Durchhaltevermögen zu beeindrucken, kann aber in entscheidenden Momenten nicht mit der nötigen Selbstverständlichkeit jene vokalen „Säulen„ setzen, die das hochdramatische Fach eben erfordert. Daher muss diese Götterdämmerungs-Brünnhilde noch eine – wenngleich vielversprechende – Kostprobe bleiben. Das Potential zu künftigen heldischen Abenteuern ist Anbetracht ihrer kräftigen, ruhig geführten Mittellage und guten Tiefe aber – vor allem wenn man die vierte Szene im zweiten Akt oder den Schlussgesang hört, auf jeden Fall da. Daniel Brenna als Siegfried wiederum kommt im Gegensatz zu seiner Bünnhilde bei der „Hellen Wehr“ an seine absoluten Grenzen, wo er durch Forcieren und steife Höhen leider nicht mit heldischem Glanz aufwarten kann. In der mit zu viel Druck geführten Mittellage klingt die Stimme gaumig. Im Übergangsregister sind Verengungen zu konstatieren, Spitzentöne geraten bisweilen gequetscht. Grosso modo kann er seinen Heldentenor aber der Partitur gemäß den Rhein entlang hinabführen. Ob das genügt, soll jeder Hörer selbst entscheiden. Mir reicht das nicht.

Die übrige Besetzung tut ihren Dienst mit dem ihr möglichen Engagement: Charakter- und vibratostark dialogisieren der Gunther des chinesischen Bassbaritons Shenyang und der von den Farben her allzu ähnliche Hagen des routinierten Eric Halfvarson. Die Nornen von Sarah Castle, Stephanie Houtzel und Jenufa Gleich hinterlassen als Figuren kaum Eindruck. Ihnen gleich blass enttäuscht die Gutrune der Amanda Majeski. Michelle De Young vermag als Waltraute stimmlich Großes an düsterer Prophetie und geschwisterlichem Mut zu setzen. Peter Kálman gibt einen hellen Alberich, ist insgesamt eine Empfehlung für diese kurze prägnante Szene wert. Die Rheintöchter – Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak und Hermine Haselböck – harmonisieren sehr gut und werfen auf die Wasserwogen mit ihren jugendlichen Stimmen schön glitzernde Reflexe.

Die vereinten Kräfte des symphonischen Chors aus Bamberg, des lettischen Staatschors und der Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus sind schlichtweg eine Wucht.

Die differenzierte, durchwegs brillante Leistung des Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra bildet das herausragende Element dieses Rings. Jaap van Zweden hat damit eine kräftige Duftmarke in der Wagner-Diskographie, nicht unähnlich den Ring-Versionen des Marek Janowski hinterlassen können. Die Zwischenspiele etwa geraten großartig. Janowksi hatte jedoch im Schnitt bessere Sänger zur Verfügung. Die Aufnahmequalität darf als technisch herausragend gelten, der teilweise vor allem den Sängern aufgepfropfte hallige Klang ist gewöhnungsbedürftig.

Dr. Ingobert Waltenberger | 11.11.2018

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555 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
Concert performance
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.