Das Rheingold

Simon Rattle
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
19 August 2004
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanWillard White
DonnerJames Rutherford
FrohTimothy Robinson
LogeKim Begley
FasoltPeter Rose
FafnerRobert Lloyd
AlberichOleg Bryjak
MimeRobin Leggate
FrickaYvonne Naef
FreiaGeraldine McGreevy
ErdaAnna Larsson
WoglindeKate Royal
WellgundeKaren England
FloßhildeChristine Rice

Nobody could ever accuse Sir Simon of resting on his laurels. Part of his success seems to stem from an ever-questing mind – one that embraces Wagner on period instruments, for example. And Rattle being Rattle, he has the clout to make it happen. So here is the first of the Ring (or the Ring’s ‘Vorabend’, to be completely accurate). In fact, Marshall Markus’ article in the Prom programme stated that, ‘tonight appears to be the first modern performance of a Wagner opera using these [ie period] instruments’. OK, leaving aside the argument of whether this is opera or music-drama (usually people in my presence who refer to Wagner’s ‘operas’ get a slap) Rattle in merely presenting Rheingold in this fashion is doing the musical world at large a great service.

Maybe the concert-going public felt this, for rarely have I seen the Albert Hall so stuffed (turn-outs like this are reserved usually for visiting Viennese or Berliners.) In fact I was lucky to be there at all – turning up at the Press Desk to find no ticket and my name omitted from the Press List for this of all concerts hardly helps the old blood-pressure.

Hearing original instruments in this repertoire does indeed lead to remarkable textural clarity. Of course, Rattle’s ear for detail is legendary by now so perhaps even with an augmented Berlin Philharmonic the score might have appeared newly-minted. More cause for concern was what the speeds might have been like. Well, 2 hours 36 minutes was what the clock said, and indeed Rattle seemed eminently sensitive to the ebb and flow of the music’s course. He refused to over-linger, yet there were no super-speeds in the name of the authentic.

The cast was a mix of the well-known (and extremely well-respected, in the cast of Sir Willard White and Robert Lloyd) and youth. Rarely can there have been such an attractive trio of Rhine-Maidens either (surely I was not the only person in the hall who felt like joining Alberich in their pursuit), and how interesting to see an Opera Babe there (Karen England is one half of said phenomenon.)

Interesting that in Rattle’s ‘authentic’ hands the famous Prelude (infamous for hornists, as ENO’s section reminded me at the onset of that house’s continuing cycle) accentuated the elemental feel, sounding very ‘outdoory’. Rattle’s ear really came into its own here (in fact the Prelude was one of the evening’s highlights), emerging as one great textural crescendo. Indeed, a similar attentiveness to slow but unbearably steady tension-building marked his handling of the final stages of the final scene, lending a symmetry to the entire evening. Kate Royal’s Woglinde was the first voice heard, warm and true with lovely high notes; Karen England followed, generally strong throughout, sometimes lacking some vocal body. But it was Christine Rice’s Flosshilde that was truly outstanding. Her mezzo is positively velvety, her diction faultless and her vocal acting excellent (how she blossomed as she taunted Alberich as ‘Seligster Mann!’.) A member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, she definitely is someone to watch.

The Nibelung Alberich was taken on this occasion by Kazakhstani baritone Oleg Bryjak (who sang this role at Chicago Lyric Opera last year.) He managed to sound as well as look lustful, and if his lower register revealed slight weakness, it was not unduly distracting. There was much power there (‘Wehe! Ach wehe!’.) Perhaps he could have been more weighty at the actual moment of his curse (with Wagner’s disorienting juxtaposition of timpani pedal and Alberich’s seemingly harmonically-unrelated arpeggiations.) Yet even here the Curse built to a frightening climax (at the unaccompanied ‘Bis in meiner Hand den geraubten wieder ich halte!’.)

Scene 2 introduces Wotan and Fricka, here Sir Willard White and Yvonne Naef, respectively. Naef’s operatic CV includes a Vienna State Opera debut in 2000 as Eboli and she will sing Brangaene in Paris in 2004-5. Her lovely contralto carried to the furthest reaches of the Albert Hall and, despite an underlying lyricism, still projected all the relevant emotions perfectly (her concern for Freia, most obviously.) Her appoggiaturas were marvellously expressive. White’s Wotan still carries weight, but not that of the greatest interpreters of this role. There is some ‘space’ around his voice and it’s not as focussed as it once was. This is not a disaster. Head-God he may be, but Wotan’s flawed character is central to the Ring, and something of that defiant vulnerability came across because of White’s shortcomings.

Freia was the well-loved soprano Geraldine McGreevy (the role was designated in the booklet as being Holda in parentheses, a term/name she is referred to during the course of the drama in an important couplet.) She will sing Gerhilde (Walküre) at Covent Garden next season. She exuded youth (and fear, for that matter, but of the right dramatic sort.) Her interaction with the giants was, if perhaps slightly hindered by stagey-acting on the parts of Fasolt and Fafner, generally coinvincing.

Basses Peter Rose and Robert Lloyd were the Albert Hall’s giants. Like White, Lloyd has had a long and distinguished career, but it was Peter Rose’s Fasolt that impressed most. More lyrical in conception than often heard, he was extremely sensitive to Wagnerian nuances. Perhaps a slight lack of heft prevented this from being an ideal assumption (he’s still supposed to be a giant, after all.) Memories of Lloyd at Covent Garden years back, though, made this a slightly uncomfortable experience.

The funniest entrance of the evening was reserved for the delightful Loge, here Kim Begley, no less, who minced on stage (there’s no other word for it!) Hilarious, and vocally he did not disappoint. Here was the Ur-wheeler-dealer, the Del-Boy Trotter of all of our subconscious hinterlands, an arbitrator between rival factions whose cheeky-rogue ways made this portrayal really special. His narration was, miraculously, both lyrical and impertinent. The point seemed to be that Wotan is moved like a chess-piece by others; if not Loge, then Freia, the power behind his throne.

Alberich and Mime’s exchanges in Scene 3 were wonderfully amusing, augmented by the arrival of Loge. Robin Leggate’s Mime was appropriately agile of line, Bryjak continuing his conniving from the first scene inimitably. Loge was just soooo much fun. This whole scene is so difficult to conduct, and Rattle followed his singers where necessary like a shadow.

The role of Erda is crucial, even though numbers of actual notes make it one of the smaller roles. Anna Larsson had a lovely creamy sound, and avoided undue vibrato. Her pronunciation of Weiche’ as ‘Weische’ was puzzling, but aside from that, she exuded an all-knowing sadness, as if she could feel the weight of her knowledge on her very shoulders.

Of the smaller roles, Timothy Robinson’s Froh was a disappointment. His entry must surely be a gift to singers as he calls ‘Zu mir, Freia!’ (Scene 2), and especially so here, as Rattle’s preparation was huge. Yet this Froh was not heroic, alas. Far more successful was James Rutherford’s Donner, nowhere more so than at his crucial ‘Bruder hierher!’ towards the very end of the drama (and how amazing was Rattle’s sense of accruing lines building up to this.)

The orchestra as picture-painter was very definitely on Rattle’s agenda here – the way the OAE suggested Alberich’s stumbling around in the fist scene, indeed even of slipping around, chasing the Maidens, is but one of many examples. The raising of the mists as the gods age in Scene 2 is another. But Rattle’s timing also impressed – the blossoming out at the Rheinemaidens’ trio-statement of ‘Rheingold’ late on in the chase with Alberich was massively impressive, and later the jubilant orchestral passage immediately before Alberich’s ‘Der Welt Erbe …’, complete with rollicking timpani, was incredibly exciting (as was the space Rattle gave his Alberich in the all-important denunciation of Love.) But maybe the primary example of Rattle’s awe-inspiring command of his forces came at the transition between Scenes 1 and 2, where Leitmotiven elided and transmuted. Rattle the alchemist was the order of the day here, his forces completely behind his ideas. Eyebrows were frequently raised during the course of this account – the intimation of Wagner’s debt to Weber during Scene 2 was but one example.

Pacing was magnificent. Again, examples seem so useless as there are so many, but to take one, maybe the moment where Alberich kisses the Ring in Scene 3, scattering his Nibelungs, cries out for a mention. The imposing nature of this in Rattle’s performance was entirely due to the long-range preparation.

A remarkable evening then, one in which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment excelled themselves, inspired by Rattle, the evening’s other giant. And it was Rattle’s interpretation that made up for any short-comings in the casting in the final analysis. I was not sure I would hear great Wagner under Rattle’s baton. In the event, to be honest, I didn’t, for whatever the many positives about this performance, it will not go down in the pantheon of unforgettables. But there are few, if any, conductors that can make us listen afresh, as Rattle can, and for that we must be grateful.

Colin Clarke | August 19th, 2004


This was, apparently, the first performance in modern times of a complete Wagner opera using ‘period’ instruments, and the beginning of a four-season Proms Ring cycle to be performed by disparate forces. Too often, such ‘authentic’ renditions simply draw attention to themselves by considering the use of particular instruments as the be-all and end-all. Purely musical concerns often fall by the wayside. But under the sure guidance of Sir Simon Rattle, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment placed itself at the service of the music and drama; instead of being a mere curiosity, the experience of hearing Wagner played in this way was extremely revealing and interesting.

The strings eschewed vibrato, and their comparatively lighter tone enabled woodwind details to emerge in a way that confirmed the composer’s extraordinarily fertile orchestral imagination. With its multitude of downright peculiar sonorities – made to sound even more so by the OAE – this music must have sounded quite amazing to the first audience when Das Rheingold was heard in Bayreuth in 1876. Granted it had been performed independently in Munich prior to this, but contrary to the wishes of the composer who only wanted it to be heard in the context of the complete Ring in his purpose-built theatre.

The woodwind ‘commentaries’ on words, thoughts and deeds were particularly well-realised. I loved the sounds of the gurgling clarinets who slithered in and out of the texture, whilst the oboes and cor anglais had a distinctly darker colouring then we are accustomed to hearing. Conversely, the flutes sounded somehow brighter, with an especially sparkling piccolo. There was some magnificent timpani playing from Adrian Bending, and the harps – all six of them (actually seven, including the one which was placed separately to accompany the ‘distant’ Rhinemaidens towards the close) glittered irresistibly.

My reservation concerned the brass. The horns at the start were affected by intonation difficulties. This is a horribly difficult passage to realise at the best of times, but the frequently fluffed notes did not make for the most evocative Prelude. There were similar problems later on, but their stopped notes were most menacing and such punctuation registered much more tellingly than is invariably the case with ‘traditional’ performances. The trombones appeared to be of a narrower bore than usual and whilst they rasped effectively, the bottom range was, inevitably, rather lighter than is customary. In one or two of the big climaxes, the sheer heft of a full Wagnerian sound of the kind we are used to was not provided by the OAE.

But the balance was fine between voices and orchestra – one or two moments apart where singers are bound to be overwhelmed by the force of the orchestral writing. Rattle had assembled a strong cast. Leading off was the trio of Rhinemaidens, well matched as a group and individually distinctive. Kate Royal’s delivery of the key line “Nur wen der Minne Macht versagt” (only he who forswears love’s power) which plants ideas into Alberich’s mind, was full of portent, whilst the frolicsome aspect of these flirty creatures never became arch or overly coy. Rattle was superb in pointing up the innocent, diatonic, music at the start of the scene, contrasted with the chromatic sliding that emerges when Alberich does. The dark, distinctive woodwinds helped at this point.

Kazakhstan-born Oleg Bryjak was a strong Alberich, firm of tone and projection. He was splendid in this first scene, and the moment of his renunciation of love conveyed all the despair that is written into the vocal line. I could have done without some of his cackles – not all of which are in the score – and, later on, I felt a want of variety of tone colour in some of Alberich’s other crucial scenes. Nevertheless, his curse on the ring was chilling and he is clearly already an Alberich of some stature.

Willard White, whose deportment and bearing were ideal for the tortured Wotan, headed the Gods. Not all of his pronouncements carried the apposite authority, however, and there were some moments of under-pitch singing. A line such as “Den Ring muss ich haben” needs to be enunciated with more bite than White provided, but he was noticeably fine when musing and brooding – as Wotan often does. It was good that he did not present a figure who is already neurotic from the word go, and his apostrophe towards the end – “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Augue” was movingly sung with a fine legato. Yvonne Naef was a positive Fricka and not a mere nagging irritant to Wotan’s plans. Her opening recitative-like exchanges with Wotan was greatly assisted by Rattle keeping these passages moving. One of the strengths of this reading with the sense of onward flow and urgency which lent the drama tangible excitement. Geraldine McGreevy made a positive impression as Freia. Although Wagner ascribes her some beautiful themes in the orchestra, her actual utterances are often confined to cries for help. She made these properly impassioned and although not an especially substantial part, she made Freia an important part of the drama – which she is. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were in the safe hands – and voices – of Peter Rose and Robert Lloyd. Rose was quite touching in his pining for beauty – in the form of Freia – whilst Lloyd’s more down-to-earth Fafner had all the gravitas one expects from this singer. His killing of his brother was, rightly, an uncomfortable moment. Robin Leggate was able to convey the whimpering Mime without exaggeration and Anna Larsson was grave and dignified as Erda. If her voice is ultimately not the deep contralto ideally required, she was, nevertheless, an apt conveyor of warning to Wotan and the gods. Kim Begley’s Loge was a fine portrayal, veering from the mercurial and ironic to an unusually expressive delivery of his report on his failure to find a replacement for “love and womankind”. This, then, was as convincing a cast, overall, as one is likely to find. It was good to see and hear the characters really interacting with one another and, of course, being audible. Rattle’s conception was on the swift side, but this lent the drama an inexorability that was quite compelling. The orchestral interludes were grippingly realised, and the thematic interweaving throughout could be fully appreciated. Described by Proms Director Nicholas Kenyon as an “experiment”, unlike many, this one worked. It might easily have misfired; however, it turned out to be an exceptionally well-realised performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

Timothy Ball | August 19, 2004

The Guardian.com

Simon Rattle’s Ring of truth

Last week’s historic performance of Das Rheingold on period instruments was a triumph at every level

Wagner on period instruments? Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, certainly. Even Brahms at a pinch. But Wagner? Surely not. Well, yes, actually… and long may it continue. A small piece of history was made on Thursday night when a packed Albert Hall and a worldwide audience of radio and internet listeners became the first people in modern times to hear a full Wagner opera performed on the instruments the composer had in mind.

Any lingering doubts Simon Rattle might have entertained about performing Das Rheingold with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment must have been quickly dispelled by the ecstatic shout of joy that greeted its closing bars. This, the first in the BBC Proms’ Ring cycle project, was an undoubted triumph.

From those first familiar E flat arpeggios that depict the depths of the Rhine, indeed the creation of the earth itself, we were in a different sound world, the vibrato-free gut strings of the violins creating a flexible raft on which the horns and woodwind could float their watery magic.

Wagner wrote for specific instruments: the traditional strings and brass sections, but also oboes with fewer keys than modern equivalents, and tubas (known always as Wagner tubas) made to his specifications for the Ring cycle – a horn with a bell pointing skywards which bridges the sound gap between the trombone and the conventional horn.

Oboist Richard Earle made his instrument, and the one played by his principal, Anthony Robson, especially for Thursday’s performance since no contemporary oboes are known to have survived in playable condition.

He based his on earlier 1807 models and added keys in line with changes that occurred before and after the first performance of Rheingold in 1869. The lovely colour of Earle’s instruments shone through the dark red texture of the woodwind section which was also adorned with sweet-sounding boxwood clarinets.

Naturally, this was a concert performance and, for once, this format, so often second rate, had huge advantages. Here, Wagner’s orchestral writing, which is always so important, had no production to get in the way. Without scenery, lighting, special effects or a director’s interpretation of the text, we could enjoy its glorious intricacy, and if I had to name one quality that shone throughout Thursday’s performance, it would be its clarity. Rattle’s conducting and the radiant quality of the playing laid bare everything in the score. Every motif, every phrase was clearly defined and beautifully finished.

Wagner writes for a massive orchestra: full strings, brass, percussion, eight horns, four Wagner tubas, seven harps. Of course, they are usually concealed in an opera-house pit (indeed, at Bayreuth, the home of the Ring cycle, the orchestra was completely hidden in what Wagner called a ‘magic abyss’), so it was an extra pleasure to have the players fully on view. It was, after all, their night, even if Willard White, Kim Begley and a host of top names were on the bill, too.

And what fun the singers had. No concert dress here. This was dress-down Friday Wagner, with a little vague colour co-ordination; Rhinemaidens in sexy black, baddies in boring black, gods in something red and Erda in a stunning electric blue gown. Continuing the informality, they made their entrances and exits from the sides, the arena steps, or even from underneath the stage (useful for those frequent descents into the realm of the Nibelungs).

Despite the restrictions of a concert performance, it had some moments of real drama, prompted, no doubt, by the fact that some of the cast were seasoned Wagnerians and so could dispense with the need to look at a vocal score, allowing them to move with ease around a crowded stage. Chief among them was tenor Kim Begley, who has sung the oily and deceitful Loge all over the world and gave his usual masterly performance of this demanding role.

New to the Proms, but another seasoned Wagnerian, is Oleg Bryjak, who was mesmerising as the evil dwarf Alberich who steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens and so begins the whole extraordinary saga. His baritone voice had a perfect cruel edge that cut through the heavy air of the Albert Hall like a whetted knife.

Wotan was sung with customary majestic ease by Willard White, so much so that the other bass-baritones – Donner (James Rutherford) and Fasolt (Peter Rose) – paled a little in his shadow. Outstanding, though, was bass Robert Lloyd as Fafner, a gorgeous voice that seems to improve as the years go by.

Wagner’s desire for the perfect unity of vocal and orchestral sound was beautifully realised at the radiant moment the Rhinemaidens – Woglinde (Kate Royal), Wellgunde (Karen England) and Flosshilde (Christine Rice) – sang of the sun reaching down through the depths to illuminate the Rhinegold. Rattle allowed the brass to fill the hall with a gorgeous, lustrous blaze as the falling-tone motif made its first of many appearances.

Another memorable moment came near the end, when Donner summons up a thunderstorm to clear the air. Ear-splitting crashes on timpani and sidedrum gave way to the six harps delicately tracing the consequent rainbow, which forms a bridge to Valhalla, the home of the gods.

The cast stood gazing out across the arena, as though the rainbow was stretching over the heads of the (gently perspiring) Prommers. The great arc of the drama was drawing to a close, but not the Ring cycle itself, which will continue in future years at the Proms in the hands of different interpreters. They have a hard act to follow. Sir Simon Rattle has set the gold standard.

Stephen Pritchard | 22 August 2004

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Concert performance from the BBC Proms (#45)