Bernard Haitink
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
November 1990
Herkulessaal der Residenz München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedSiegfried Jerusalem
MimePeter Haage
WotanJames Morris
AlberichTheo Adam
FafnerKurt Rydl
ErdaJadwiga Rappé
BrünnhildeÉva Marton
WaldvogelKiri te Kanawa

Here’s a third set of Wagner music drama within three months on which to lavish praise. Indeed, collectors of the Levine (DG) and/or Haitink Ring cycles will now be in something of a quandary. We still await Levine’s Siegfried, while EMI record Gotterdammerung only this month. It will be time to make considered, overall assessments when both versions are complete. At Covent Garden, Haitink’s most convincing interpretation of the cycle (at the time of writing) has been in this work, and in this recording, made not long after he conducted the piece at the Royal Opera House, his compelling, all-comprehending direction has been carried over successfully into the studio (or rather Munich’s Herkulessaal). He catches the spirited characterization of the early acts and manages their difficult transitions effortlessly. When Wagner raises his game in Act 3, so does his interpreter, the scenes with Erda and on the mountain-top having the kind of inner tautness and incandescence they call for. Above all, Haitink has learnt the art of finding the main pulse of a scene and a whole act, and also of providing the precise Klang so essential in each episode.

Take Act 2, one of my favourites in the whole cycle: the informative session between Alberich and Wotan goes with a nice touch of wit, then the Forest Murmurs—that single moment of unalloyed peace in the whole work—is here given just the right easy, unhurried lyricism (a superb horn call at its close). The mighty Siegfried-Fafner fight has magnificent brio, followed by a subtle re-living of the many motifs as the dragon dies and tells of his fate. The comedy of the Mime/Alberich scene is splendid, if a shade fast for the singers to articulate cleanly. Finally, Siegfried alone sounds suitably isolated before the Woodbird carries him off full of energy and ecstasy to the mountain. All this is conveyed splendidly by the Bavarian Radio Symphony players. Throughout this and the other acts, Haitink doesn’t delay, his pacing a shade faster than even Solti’s (Decca) or Janowski’s (Eurodisc/BMG), yet—with the one exception mentioned—there is no sense of hurry, only the wonderful energy and amazing inspiration that courses through this trail-blazing score. His orchestra play with the firm control they have shown throughout the cycle, the sound leaner than Levine’s Metropolitan band, more like Janowski’s Dresden orchestra. Haitink must have been pleased to have such intelligent, well-contrasted antagonists as Jerusalem’s Siegfried and Haage’s Mime. Jerusalem offers everything one has come to expect of him—free, steady tone, intelligent musicality and a keen understanding of the text, there matching Windgassen (Solti). He misses that extra heft called for in the final scene, but that can be willingly sacrificed when so much else is right. Above all, I admired his sustained line and so many examples of significant and well-executed control of dynamics. He is Bayreuth’s current incumbent in this role. Haage was Mime in the Peter Hall cycle there, and one of the most telling in the theatre as he is, again, on disc. No accuracy of note or deformation of line spoils his acutely sung and vivid performance, and he carefully builds the character to the neurotic revelations just before his demise. On disc, at any rate in studio performances, he is matched only by Schreier for Janowski. Haage is a fair match for Morris’s majestic Wanderer in their mutual quiz in Act 1. Hereabouts Morris sounds a shade gruff and gritty. However, he finds a warmer form for Acts 2 and 3, although throughout he has a nagging habit of over-emphasizing the main beat in every bar. Rappe is a gravely beautiful and mysterious Erda, but I wasn’t sure if I liked the echo-chamber effect given to her voice. High marks, again, for Theo Adam’s probing, louring Alberich, a wonder given his advancing years. Casting Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the Woodbird is a similar ploy to Decca putting Sutherland in the role: in both cases a round, lyrical voice is somewhat unsuited to a part that calls for, well, a more bird-like voice, though Dame Kiri makes an effort to lighten her tone. Marton sings with her customary involvement in the final scene, also with more variety of tone-colour than she sometimes contrives. Her tone as such doesn’t give great pleasure, while an appreciable vibrato disturbs ”Ewig war ich”.

The recording catches a satisfactory balance between voices and orchestra, and has a good compromise between space and immediacy. The booklet benefits from the inclusion of William Mann’s entertaining translation, but, beware, the indication given for track 11 on the finale disc is in the wrong place in the text.

I have confined my listening this time to the comparable, studio versions on Decca and Eurodisc. For all the many qualities of EMI, it is up against Decca’s three aces—Nilsson’s incomparably gleaming, glorious, steady Brunnhilde; Hotter’s authoritative, intelligent Wanderer; and the special warm quality of the Vienna Philharmonic’s string tone in the 1960s. If you listen to the opening of the final scene, ”Heil dir, Sonne!”, you’ll hear the VPO strings as even more persuas- ive than those of the Bavarian Radio Symphony and you’ll surely prefer Nilsson to Marton, who merely sings loudly where Nilsson touches the music with her supreme artistry, showing an ear for its refinement and creating through the voice the impression of the young goddess’s re-awakening. Then try the Wanderer’s first entry and the start of his colloquy with Mime: Hotter shades his tone and probes into the meaning of Wagner’s words, Morris merely sings them. On the other side of the balance, Stolze’s overdone and ugly-sounding Mime is no match for Haage’s. Strange to say the older recording has just the greater presence. In the case of the Eurodisc, Adam is another Wotan with an ability to shape his phrasing and words. This version also has Schreier as Mime, perhaps the most convincing of all (as I have already suggested), but an over-parted Brunnhilde. Where Siegfried is concerned my comparisons didn’t give Jerusalem quite such an advantage as I had expected over Eurodisc’s vital and intelligent Kollo, or the immensely experienced and eloquent Windgassen, although Jerusalem certainly has a more pleasing voice than either.

Where EMI scores is in Haitink’s conducting; less nervous and better shaped than Solti’s, always considering the longer view. Janowski is closer to Haitink, but is a shade on the light side in the more serious passages, and the Eurodisc recording doesn’t have the depth of sound of the EMI, which includes some stage effects, not all of them quite convincing. Decca’s management of Fafner in his lair is still a winner, as is Bohme’s account of the dragon’s music. All that said, without these comparisons, I found Haitink’s traversal of the score profoundly satisfying.’

Alan Blyth | Issue 11/1991

Bernard Haitink’s efficient conducting is just what this opera doesn’t need: Siegfried is vaguely comic, a series of big confrontational duets that should surprise, one after the other. In Haitink’s hands, it’s a vigilant piece of storytelling, with each group of instruments doing as they should, but we never sense any dramatic urgency. Brünnhilde’s Awakening is very pretty; the whole scene, up to and including it, should be rapturous. Haitink’s is a featureless reading.

Of course, if the singing were great, we could try to overlook such blandness, but it isn’t. James Morris as the Wanderer is better for Levine; here he has bad vocal habits like scooping into notes and exploding final syllables for effect. Siegfried Jerusalem’s Siegfried is hard-pressed in the Forging Song, though his Forest Murmur Scene is lovely. In fact, when he is not asked to be heroic–about a quarter of the role–he’s quite good.

We wait for three-and-a-half hours to hear Eva Marton’s Brünnhilde, and it’s not worth it. The reading of the text is intelligent and the transformation from goddess to woman is effective, but the sounds she makes are aggressive and flinch-worthy. Kurt Rydl’s Fafner is big and scary; Theo Adam struggles with Alberich’s music; as Mime, Peter Haage sounds almost as crazy as Gerhard Stolze for Solti; and Jadwiga Rappé’s Erda is not nearly as dark as we’d like. Kiri Te Kanawa’s Woodbird is ridiculously mumbly–almost as stupid as Sutherland’s with Solti. If you want a modern-sound Siegfried, go to Barenboim; otherwise Keilberth’s is the choice.

Artistic Quality: 6
Sound Quality : 8

Robert Levine

Das Rheingold is not even properly part of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which Wagner called a trilogy; it’s a brief, concise prologue from which no one expects a great deal of passion or emotional catharsis. After all, there’s not a single human being in the entire opera. Opera-goers do expect a great deal of Siegfried, however, and are usually disappointed. At four hours, it’s full-blown Wagner, and is usually named not only as everyone’s least favorite Ring opera, but everyone’s least favorite opera, even by otherwise perfect Wagnerites. It’s not hard to see why: With the exception of the Forest Bird’s four tiny songs, there are no female voices for the first 3 hours, and it’s notoriously difficult to make the young Siegfried believable or sympathetic. As actors say, “the lines give you nothing.”

However, for most of my late teens, Siegfried was my favorite Ring opera. It contains some of Wagner’s most consistently interesting scoring; in fact, Siegfried served as my primer in learning the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the viola, whose orchestral role, even though I’d played in school ensembles for years, had until then remained a mystery to me. In Siegfried Wagner seemed to have almost single-handedly invented the viola as a romantic voice of dark forboding, exponentially expanding the instrument’s orchestral language; page after page of the score read like excerpts from some vast, dark, High Romantic Concerto Grosso for the viola section—with vocal obbligato. Still, Siegfried remains, for most, the most difficult opera for which to acquire a taste.

But in his third installment of EMI’s new studio Ring cycle, Bernard Haitink conducts a Siegfried for people who hate Siegfried. This recording works in every way—dramatically, musically, sonically—as Haitink continues to confound all expectations with his exciting, straightforward, musical storytelling. Haitink’s conducting has generally been more respected than loved, more praised than listened to; words like “correct,” “careful,” “reverent,” and “refined” appear far more often in reviews of his recordings than do such adjectives as “heartfelt,” “powerful,” “passionate,” or even “warm.” The contrast of EMI’s cycle to the other Ring-in-progress, Levine’s for DG, is thus all the more puzzling: How could Levine, the Metropolitan Opera’s dynamic, ambitious man of the theater, consistently turn in such turgid, lackluster conducting as in his Rheingold and Walküre? (I emphatically except his conducting in the recently released Götterdämmerung, reviewed last month.) Perhaps Haitink, relatively unused to depending on the added excitement of a stage filled with sumptuous sets, dancing lights, and moving singers, instinctively knows that what doesn’t get on tape doesn’t count.

Regardless, this Siegfried, only the fourth studio recording ever made of the opera, is a triumph, right up there with the justly legendary recordings of the first, Solti’s, and the live Bayreuth recordings of Böhm and Krauss (my other favorites). Haitink never overemphasizes here (no surprise), but neither does he ever hold back (surprise!), always rising to the occasion with orchestral foils exactly supportive, perfectly contrapuntal to the dramatic action, whether staged or implied. And I always appreciate a conductor who can show me new things in a score I thought I knew: in Siegfried’s Act I Forging Song, Haitink brings out a foreboding, previously unheard (by me) dissonance in the horns just before “Hoho! Hoho!”; Act II’s “Forest Murmurs” is the tenderest I’ve heard; and the familiar lullaby-like music of Act III’s “Ewig war ich,” excerpted in the Siegfried Idyll, is the most affecting reading I know, slower even than Goodall and Gould, yet far more of a caress.

But Haitink is equally capable of carrying a big Wagnerian stick and speaking not softly at all, painting with a broad brush without missing a single detail. The preludes of all three acts are marvels of atmospheric scene-setting here, particularly that of III: Haitink makes this monumentally restless music heavy, yet still it moves (and yes, producer Wolfram Graul, I do appreciate all that beautifully recorded thunder and wind!).

Unlike so many Ring recordings—Karajan’s (DG, not Hunt/Memories), Janowski’s, Levine’s—there is never any doubt that Haitink consistently holds dramatic integrity higher than musical, though never at the latter’s expense; a delicate and difficult balance. The characters are always (with one exception; see below) fully rounded in the pit and on the stage, the singers creating living, breathing characters with complex motives and believably rich inner lives. All of this makes the three-fourths of Haitink’s Ring so far released more vital, more consistently exciting—more fun—than any studio or stage cycle since the very first—Solti’s. And nowhere is “fun” more important in the Ring than in Siegfried, the ultimate “boys’ opera,” which so often ends up a very unfunny unintended parody of Never Never Land ruled by a middle-aged, overweight, gallumphing, loudmouth braggart Pan.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the Haitink and Levine Rings is that, when listening to the latter, I’m always aware that I’m hearing singers and players, that I’m being “performed at.” Then I put on the Haitink: a sonic window opens onto a magical universe of real beings meeting real challenges, triumphs, tests, and tragedies; a world that has been going on long before I loaded the first disc into my player, and will continue long after I remove the last. I can’t imagine wanting any more from a recording.

The singing satisfies almost as uniformly as the conducting. Over the past 20 or so years Siegfried Jerusalem has, from not very impressive beginnings, grown into a Wagner singer of formidable skill, stamina, and stature. This all-but Heldentenor is intelligent, strong-voiced, a good actor at ease on stage, has almost no trouble with notes or volume, and seems—as he did in Levine’s televised Ring—to enjoy himself immensely as Siegfried. Unlike the formidable Windgassen, one of the most brilliant singers ever to assume the role, Jerusalem is never in the position of having to sing around his own voice—it’s become an instrument as polished and strong as Nothung itself. Only in a very few moments is there even a hint of strain; otherwise, Jerusalem fairly tears into the role like a teenaged Errol Flynn, calling on Youth’s endless reserves and easy relaxation. And his attempts to mimic the Forest Bird on the “stupid reed” comprise the funniest—and not at all precious—acting of the scene I’ve ever heard. It sounds as if Jerusalem’s actually playing that sour English horn.

But in Act I (though not in II or III) Jerusalem shares with Peter Haage’s Mime a tendency toward a rote observance of the score’s written rhythms. This works from time to time for dramatic effect, but all the time amounts to sing-song. I prefer a looser, more creative way with a phrase.

But not James Morris’s way! For all his beauty of voice and presence of mind and heart, Morris goes to the opposite extreme. Again, as in Levine’s PBS Ring, Morris’s Wanderer is almost too relaxed, at the expense of dramatic tension or (more to the point) emotional investment. His Act I scene with Mime is all mellow and avuncular, and while those elements are certainly germane, Wotan’s vital interest is missing. However, when compared with his stiff, youthful, grasping Rheingold Wotan, it’s clear that Morris has a firm grasp on the evolution and growth of Wotan—by far the most complex character in all of opera. And, by Act III, Morris has awakened sufficiently to rouse not only the sleeping Erda but any drowsy listeners as well, and his first and last meeting—triumphant, tragic, Oedipal—with his rowdy, unwitting grandson Siegfried, is thoroughly, deeply felt.

Peter Haage’s Mime is so good, so naturally right in this large but thankless role, that I barely noticed him as singer or actor; he strikes a perfect balance between the hilarious if over-the-top buffoonery of a Gerhard Stolze (Solti) and the merely excellent singing of the too-polite Peter Schreier (Janowski). It was wonderful to hear a fully fleshed-out person actually hitting all the notes, and the Mime/Alberich confrontation in Act II raises blisters.

In the four smaller roles, Jadwiga Rappé is a strong if wobbly Erda, a classic clotted-cream contralto; Kurt Rydl’s Fafner is technically perfect if somewhat emotionally distant; and Theo Adam continues his late-career exploration of Alberich’s noble desperation with more musicality and no less angst than he did in Haitink’s Rheingold. But Kiri Te Kanawa as the Forest Bird (!!) is a delight as unalloyed as it is unexpected—by a long shot, she’s the best I’ve heard in the part. Wagner’s/Haitink’s settings of the Forest Bird’s four brief Act II “songs” are absolutely magical, enchanting, breathtaking, and Te Kanawa’s sheer beauty and freshness of tone are, for once, in the service of a lively interpretation (though I don’t think even the sharpest-eared native speaker could unravel her German).

But just as there are no perfect Ring cycles, there is no perfect Siegfried—the problem here is Eva Martón’s Brünnhilde. Her rich voice is immense, but so is her vibrato/wobble; she seems to expend most of her energy in simply controlling her pitch and belting out the notes. By the end of Act III, I was much less aware of her success at accurate vocal production than of the effort she had to make to do so—and I’d rather be aware of neither. Her Brünnhilde seemed more an exhausting exercise in vocal gymnastics than a living, breathing dramatic character who just happens to be speaking through an opera singer. Needless to say, Martón had little energy left over for characterization. Still, there were moments: a tender “Ewig war ich,” and an almost pathetically vulnerable “Ich bin ohne Schutz und Schirm.” I don’t want to overstate my cricitisms: after all, Brünnhilde sings for less than 30 of this Siegfried’s 230 minutes. Still, Martón remains the only flaw in my otherwise rabid anticipation of the Fall release of Haitink’s Götterdämmerung.

Helping conductor, singers, and orchestra alike is a wonderfully supportive recording style. At no point did I not believe that I was hearing a simply, accurately miked re-creation of a mature, seasoned orchestra and singers in a warm, uncavernous, perfectly sized venue—Munich’s Herkulesaal, the BRSO’s home. This is all exactly opposite of the Levine Ring’s sonic frigidity. Once again, the marvelous clarity and spaciousness that characterized the Haitink/EMI Rheingold and Walküre are fully in evidence; as I said in my review of the former, the music seems to rise like a golden mist through the orchestra rather than from it. Still, the orchestra retains its integrity: there is little or no spotmiking; things don’t jump out at you, yet there is as much detailed “soundstaging” as you’d ever want. An utterly believable recording, in terms of both musicality and accuracy—except for a horrendous edit at the climax of Act I, just before Siegfried sings “So schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!” It’s the only glitch in an otherwise stellar sonic production, one whose sheer sound alone made me feel warm and good for four straight hours.

Richard Lehnert | Apr 2, 2008

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
556 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 880 MByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.