Das Rheingold

Mark Elder
The Hallé
27 November 2016 and rehearsals
Bridgewater Hall Manchester
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanIain Paterson
DonnerDavid Stout
FrohDavid Butt Philip
LogeWill Hartmann
FasoltReinhard Hagen
FafnerClive Bayley
AlberichSamuel Youn
MimeNicky Spence
FrickaSusan Bickley
FreiaEmma Bell
ErdaSusanne Resmark
WoglindeSarah Tynan
WellgundeMadeleine Shaw
FloßhildeLeah-Marian Jones
The Guardian (I)

Hallé bring the drama where patchy protagonists don’t

It was 2009 when Mark Elder and the Hallé began to work their way through The Ring in concert. They started with the last work in the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung, and after nine years they’ll finally complete their cycle this weekend, when Elder conducts the third part, Siegfried, in Manchester. Each instalment has subsequently appeared on disc, and the release of Das Rheingold, taken from the performance in the Bridgewater Hall in 2016, has been timed to coincide with that final live event.

With their minimal stage trappings, all the concerts have generally been well received. But the excitement of such live performances doesn’t automatically transfer to disc so convincingly, and with so many great, historic Ring cycles now available, a new CD version needs to provide a bit more than just an enduring memento for those who attended the live performances. And though the discrepancies may not be as pronounced as in Elder’s Parsifal from the 2013 Proms, which the orchestra released last year, there’s an unevenness about the performances in this Rheingold that militates against the set as a whole.

So Iain Paterson’s Wotan is certainly authoritative enough, but needs a more assertive foil than Samuel Youn’s surprisingly lightweight Alberich, for instance, as well as a more secure partner-in-crime than Will Hartmann’s Loge. But Clive Bayley’s fathomlessly dark Fafner, Susan Bickley’s humane Fricka and Nicky Spence’s instinctively theatrical Mime are all well worth preserving, as is the playing of the Hallé under Elder, and his unerring sense of the seamless musical architecture, all 165 minutes of it in this Rheingold. The perfectly paced orchestral episodes, whether the opening prelude, the descent into Nibelheim or the final progress of the gods into Valhalla, provide dramatic points of reference far more convincingly than the protagonists ever do.

Andrew Clements | 31 May 2018

The Guardian (II)

The Hallé prove you don’t need a theatre for vivid Wagner

Samuel Youn’s Alberich and Iain Paterson’s Wotan were among the highlights of the Hallé’s revelatory concert performance of Wagner’s Rheingold under Mark Elder

It may be heresy against the doctrine of the Gesamtkunstwerk – Wagner’s idealised synthesis of all the arts – but the more one sees of concert-based cycles emanating from the north of England, the more one is led to wonder if the Ring really needs a theatre at all.

That gauntlet was thrown down by Opera North’s acclaimed semi-stagings, born out of austerity and lack of elbow room for extra harps and tubas, but subsequently acclaimed as a new paradigm for Wagnerian performance. The Hallé Orchestra’s cycle has been more sporadic and out-of-sequence – it’s been seven years since Götterdämmerung was spread over two nights at the Bridgewater Hall. But having begun at the end, Mark Elder and his forces now have the chance to address the beginning.

In terms of staging, the Hallé doesn’t begin to compete with the digital enhancements of Opera North’s extravaganza: the props budget provided little more than a couple of thrones and bolt of gold lamé fabric to signify the fabled treasure. It could have been Donald Trump’s tablecloth – then again, the Rhinemaidens are subject to harassment by Samuel Youn’s Alberich, a sex-crazed, power-mad dwarf who cannot resist grabbing whatever he sees.

Everyone loves a villain, especially at this time of year, and Youn’s performance put you in mind that the Ring, with its population of dunderheaded giants and industrious dwarves, is not a million miles from pantomime. Youn’s eye-popping transformation into a toad was a priceless moment of comedy: more importantly, he had the most commanding voice of the evening, with a range of colour that ran from dark and rich to thin and wheedling, while always remaining charismatically evil.

He was matched for malign plausibility by Will Hartmann as Loge, Wotan’s slippery chief-of-staff, whose semi-divine status was signified by delivering asides from a box in the auditorium. The intimate, conversational style he was able to adopt was the single greatest benefit of betraying Wagner’s wishes and placing the orchestra behind the singers, as it instantly solved the balance issues that can cause many fully staged Rings to degenerate into bellowing contests between vocal heavyweights.

Iain Paterson has certainly entered that category, having been scheduled to become Bayreuth’s new Wotan in 2020. But the revelation here was how softly he was able to sing: his chairman of the gods became a dry, debauched high-roller who treats Valhalla like a pet scheme for a new casino.

But the Hallé’s Ring is a project designed to put the orchestra centre stage. Elder’s great achievement is to recognise that, for Wagner, conducting was synonymous with connectivity; and his shaping of the epic journey from the waters of the Rhine to the rainbow bridge was imparted with the seamlessness of a fantastical dream. Why spend all that extra money on lighting and scenery when the imagery can be as lucid as this?

Alfred Hickling | 28 Nov 2016

Musicweb-International.com (I)

Following on from Sir Mark Elder’s live concert recordings of Götterdämmerung (2009) and Die Walküre (2011), we now have this live performance of Das Rheingold from 2016. Elder will this June conduct Acts 1 and 2, then Act 3 of Siegfried on two separate evenings, so it would seem that despite his previous protestations of having no intention of recording a complete Ring cycle with the Hallé, we are almost there, albeit with extended and gaps and extensive cast changes along the way.

The opening is slow and portentous, not tense and exciting like Solti but dreamy and otherworldly; textures are very clear but it will all seem a bit low key to those weaned on Solti’s famous recording. There is some lovely playing, including sparkling articulation from the strings over a rich brass underlay when the Rhinemaidens hail the gold, for example. Elder is clearly aiming throughout for a shimmering sound which floats on a warm cushion of cellos, low brass and double basses; apparently the latter were divided into two groups of four each side of the stage to enhance their sonority. The prelude to Fricka waking Wotan is gorgeously played, the harps and horns as noble as one could wish, but the prologue to the Giants’ entrance and the descent into Nibelheim are suitably harsh and arresting, demonstrating that Elder is capable of embracing a variety of moods.

However, one vocal issue pervades much of the singing here: I am talking about the dreaded Wagnerian wobble. Immediately there is rather an excess of it – and also some edge in her tone – when Rhinemaiden Sarah Tynan begins to sing. Her mezzo companions are steadier and richer-voiced but hardly a singer here, from Emma Bell’s harsh-toned Freia down to the bass giants, is immune to the perceptible encroachment of some flap. The demands made by Wagner’s music can be ruinous to the finest voices and the current dearth points to that. One has only to make comparison between the plethora of live and studio recordings from the 50’s and 60’s and more recent efforts to hear the general deterioration and this latest “Rheingold” conforms to that pattern – even though it seems that few commentators notice or care.

There is still some fine singing here. Samuel Youn has a neat, flexible voice, tipped more towards baritone than bass, and thus perhaps a tad light for Wagner, but his singing is incisive and he is an excellent vocal actor. Seizing the ring, he gives a chilling, valedictory cackle which the recording captures perfectly as he recedes from the microphones and makes off into the distance. He finds more bite and weight when terrorising the Niblungen Hort and his Curse is a highlight; in general, he turns in a compelling performance.

Susan Bickley makes an unusually sympathetic, compelling Fricka, with a strong lower register and some beautifully controlled top notes. I knew what a fine Wagner singer Iain Paterson was from hearing his warm, noble Hans Sachs at the ENO but, to return my opening theme, I am slightly worried by the audible increase in the amplitude of his vibrato since I last heard him. His is still a fine voice and I hope it stays that way, especially as he is engaged to rise to the challenge of singing Wotan in Bayreuth in 2020; his soft singing is beguiling and suits his portrayal of Wotan as a smooth operator who over-estimates his ability to control events, but he does not have the heft of the heavyweight Wotans of the past, even if his quiet, effortless authority is admirable. His portrayal of Wotan matches Elder’s conducting: it is subtle, nuanced and slightly understated. Will Hartmann’s Loge is wily and expressive, but on extended high notes something close to a bleat starts to obtrude. Nicky Spence sings a suitably craven but strong-voiced Mime, his diction razor-sharp and his tone devoid of any unsteadiness. His performance as David in the same “Mastersingers” as Paterson’s Sachs had already alerted me to his vocal and acting skills and he turns in another superlative performance here. The Donner and Froh both make a very positive impression in their brief contributions; two promising young voices. Veteran Swedish mezzo-soprano Susanne Resmark delivers a grave, sonorous Erda.

The final scene following Fafner’s slaying of his brother Fasolt is crucial to the impact of this work. David Stout makes an especially good job of summoning the swirling mists leading up to Donner’s mighty hammer-blow; Elder’s horns and strings swell massively and Paterson intones Wotan’s salute to the new Valhalla with calm majesty before Loge’s ironic commentary and the Rhinemaidens’ concluding lament. It all hangs together admirably, even if the prevailing mood is cooler and more measured than most; the orchestral peroration is grand.

When all’s said and done, for all that I recognise the many virtues of this live recording, I cannot quite see why anyone would necessarily turn to it first in preference to established recordings insofar as, despite some excellent individual contributions, there is not the consistency of singing across the board to be found in the best accounts. However, if you want a souvenir of an excellent evening, in first-rate sound, showcasing Elder’s more transparent conception of the score, this will afford much pleasure.

Ralph Moore | May 2018

Musicweb-International.com (II)

More than a decade ago I reviewed what I believe was Sir Mark Elder’s first foray into the realm of Wagner. I was quite familiar with Elder as an opera conductor, heard him several times during his tenure at ENO, but then mostly in Verdi. However he turned out to be a splendid Wagnerian as well, which has later been confirmed by various complete sets on the Hallé label. The first was Götterdämmerung, enthusiastically reviewed here at MWI by Brian Wilson, whose enthusiasm I wholeheartedly share. Several later sets have for various reasons failed to reach my shelves, but when I found Das Rheingold on the latest wish-list I begged for it and here are my impressions:

The Hallé are certainly a fully-fledged Wagner orchestra and I can’t resist quoting myself eleven years ago: “There is an admirable homogeneity of sound, both as a total experience and within the different departments. The strings are warm and silvery, the brass is sonorous and punchy and the woodwind blend beautifully.” This is in evidence everywhere here too, and the excellent recording contributes greatly to let the orchestra blossom whenever there is an opportunity. Mostly of course in the purely instrumental music, and there is a lot of that. What is especially noteworthy is Sir Mark’s skilful handling of dynamics. The very opening is a classical example, taking us from an inaudible start, expanding organically in a relentless crescendo up to the rise of the curtain. To achieve this the conductor has to judge the dynamics so that the tension is constantly heated, with no slacking of intensity. The audience should, literally be sitting on the edge of their seats and feel the sweat pearling on their collective forehead. I don’t know what my audience colleagues in Bridgewater Hall felt on 27 November 2016, but I certainly had a distinct sense of white heat when listening on the Swedish National Day (6 June). Admittedly we had a heat wave in Scandinavia at the time but this heat came distinctly from within. And there are other places where Elder’s dynamic mastery pays dividends. The interlude before scene 2 is truly spectacular, where the music is a kind of equivalent to a continuous camera-tracking from the bottom of the Rhine to the top of the mountain where Wotan and Fricka are still asleep. I noted the same scrupulous gradations in Asher Fisch’s epoch-making first Australian Ring issued some ten years ago, and returning to my review of Das Rheingold I found that I had made almost identical descriptions of his handling of the orchestra. Generally I feel that there are several similarities between Fisch and Elder, which is a recommendation in itself. Where Fisch’s Rheingold was partly at a disadvantage concerned some of the singing. There were some wobblers in the cast and some others who overtaxed their voices. In that respect Elder’s cast wins hands down. He has an excellent trio of Rheinmaidens, their voices blending beautifully in the concerted passages and individually also very attractive. Samuel Youn’s dark and menacing Alberich can be compared favourably also with his counterparts on the legendary Solti, Böhm and Karajan sets and is vocally superior to Theo Adam’s expressive but wobbly dwarf on the in many respects highly recommendable Haitink set. Iain Paterson’s Wotan leaves me in two minds. He has the required power and can be quite impressive – but he also has an annoying beat in the voice now and then. But he also has an attractive lyrical restraint in many passages, making him very human. Susan Bickley’s Fricka has been hailed before and she certainly stands with the best in a very competitive field. Emma Bell does what she can with Freja’s rather nondescript role, while Reinhard Hagen and Clive Bayley’s giants are really towering experiences. David Stout’s Donner is the usual hothead – always brandishing his dreaded hammer – and he sings impressively his Schwüles Gedubst schwebt in der Luft (CD 3 tr. 10) and David Butt Philip shines in Froh’s Zur Burg führt die Brücke. Possibly the best two impersonations are Will Hartmann’s Loge and Nicky Spence’s Mime. Both are superb character tenors with wide pallets of vocal colours and full arrays of expressive nuances. They are both in the Graham Clarke division, which is praise indeed. The only weak link is Susanne Resmark’s uncharacteristically shaky and colourless Erda, but her solo takes a mere 5:32 and she also makes amends with some brilliant forte singing.

The finale is magnificent and the ovations that follow are understandable. This is a Rheingold that is well worth adding to anyone’s collection.

Göran Forsling | July 2018

Financial Times

Das Rheingold — ‘splendid depth and atmosphere’

It is just over 50 years since the first complete recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, conducted by Solti and released by Decca. It was greeted as a historic achievement at the time. Who could have had any idea how many recordings were to follow?

There has been one big change en route, as studio-recorded opera sets have all but died out.The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s new Ring, nearing completion on Naxos Records, is being recorded in live concert performances, and so is this ongoing cycle from The Hallé and its music director, Mark Elder.

Usually, that means compromising on sound quality, but not here. There is a splendid depth and atmosphere to the sound in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and the exemplary playing of The Hallé is the main pleasure of this new recording of the first of the Ring’s four constituent parts, Das Rheingold.

At times, the performance feels a bit like a highly promising final rehearsal, as the sense of spontaneity comes and goes, but Elder rises to the big moments with impressive grandeur. His is a warmly blended, grandiloquent Rheingold rather than one that taps into the drama’s quick-moving wit and political intrigue.

The cast has its ups and downs, as so often in live Wagner. After a wobbly start Iain Paterson settles in to sing a gently noble and eloquent Wotan, befitting Elder’s general style. The other gods include Susan Bickley as a keen Fricka and Emma Bell a cloudily sung Freia. As Alberich, Samuel Youn is a higher baritone than usual, hardly a parallel sound to his Wotan, though he sings incisively. Nicky Spence is a vivid Mime, Will Hartmann a strained Loge. Not all the casting has paid off, but this remains a distinctive Ring with a dignified Wagnerian profile.

Richard Fairman | June 22, 2018

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1.2 Mbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.4 GByte (flac 24-44)
Concert performance
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.