Marek Janowski
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
1 March 2013
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedStephen Gould
MimeChristian Elsner
WotanTomasz Konieczny
AlberichJochen Schmeckenbecher
FafnerMatti Salminen
ErdaAnna Larsson
BrünnhildeVioleta Urmana
WaldvogelSophie Klussmann

Janowski, a celebrated Wagner conductor, made the first digital recording of the complete Ring cycle between 1980 and 1983 for RCA Red Seal (Sony 886919 15482 5). That was with the Staatskapelle Dresden. With these new performances his intention is to focus attention entirely on Wagner’s music without any directorial distractions. This point is emphasised by Norbert Lammert, president of the German Bundestag, in his ‘greeting’ in the accompanying booklet. There is also a full German/English libretto and interesting background notes on the opera by Steffen Georgi translated into French, as well as, English. Janowski wants to make it possible to hear some of the nuances in Wagner’s works that can often be lost in the opera house. At the same time this concentration on the voices and the music – along with the excellent acoustics of Berlin’s famous Philharmonie – gave the best possible conditions for a live recording.

When I was watching in the Philharmonie it was obvious that there was some concession to spatial separation and the balance of the singers. As heard on the SACDs with their magnificent sound for Die Walküre, it was clear that the Valkyries were singing in a line on the far left. Hunding declaimed from his placing to the back on the right of – what in the concert hall – was a crowded platform. It can be clearly heard that in this Siegfried there is again an attempt to repeat this. Something of a cave-like atmosphere is created for most of Fafner’s utterances with the Woodbird sounding suitably high up and Erda in Act III somewhat down below.

Again a director’s Konzept is not missed. As a result the theatrical impact of Siegfried that Marek Janowski can bring out in the performance is never compromised: as Dr Lammert writes: ‘Instead of this, he invites a clear reflection of the essentials, of the music. In this way, he speaks from his heart to many long-time aficionados of Wagner’s works, and this will gain many more friends for the composer.’

It is possible that conductors have a lot to answer for over the dearth of genuine Wagner singers in recent decades. Since the halcyon days of Alberto Remedios rarely is a Siegfried heard who can sing the entire role as written. Often – as with Stephen Gould here – there must be compromises. Although it only needs eight singers, Siegfried is notorious as the most difficult of the four Ring operas to cast successfully. This is on account of the perceived extreme vocal challenge of singing its eponymous hero. Here Gould, one of the leading heldentenors of this generation, with his basically baritonal voice, seems to have the stamina and the power for the role. However the speed that Janowski wants for the ‘Forging Scene’ means that he just about gets his words out and hits his top notes. The pluses are evident in Act II during the ‘Forest Murmurs’ soliloquy and his dialogue with Sophie Klussmann’s piping Woodbird. In those instances there is eloquently tender singing of great lyrical beauty. Gould appears to get to the end of the opera only on great strength of will rather than with any vocal ease. Faced with a rather shrill Brünnhilde he does not slug it out note for note with her at the end of their climactic Act III love duet. This is not as ecstatic as it could be.

Christian Elsner is generally a very fine Mime for a recording concentrating on the music rather than the drama. He sings the part with an unfailing beauty of tone and excellent use of the text. Near Mime’s end, just listen to his sneering ‘lassen’ on the phrase ‘dein Leben musst dir mir lassen!’ (‘you must pay me with your life!’). Great care is taken over all his words and there’s little of the exaggerated caricature Wagner’s frustrated dwarf needs on stage to distinguish him from Siegfried – think Graham Clark. The point is that Elsner – who sings Parsifal for Janowski’s recording – is clearly not just a ‘character tenor’. He sounds such a strong singer at times that I wonder whether he will be a Siegfried himself one day. When they are together there were certainly times when it was difficult to make out whether it is him or Stephen Gould singing – especially in Act I.

In Die Walküre Petra Lang sang Brünnhilde – and will do so again in the forthcoming Götterdämmerung. Here we have the Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana, another former mezzo-soprano. She is a very experienced Wagner singer (Kundry, Isolde and Sieglinde, amongst others). This recording is however her role début as Brünnhilde in Siegfried. Vocally she sounds a little tentative and matronly at the start of the final scene of Act III, the infamous ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht’ (‘Hail to thee, sun! Hail to thee, light!’). Everything settles down quickly but it is still a steely insistent voice with little of the burgeoning ardour Brünnhilde should reveal. To her credit she tackles the high tessitura fearlessly, however she always remains a warrior and never becomes a woman.

The Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan in Die Walküre) impresses again as a noble Wanderer who is just a little bowed by his travails. Dark-toned and also with excellent diction he has a total understanding of his character’s psyche. He is one of the vocal discoveries of this cycle. In the smaller roles Jochen Schmeckenbecher is excellent as the bitter and vengeful Alberich. The distinguished Finnish bass Matti Salminen is luxury casting as Fafner. This veteran is every bit the sleepy, hungry dragon required with his cavernous voice still powerful enough for the part. The roll-call is completed by Anna Larsson who is a world-renowned Erda. Perhaps her weary sound was part of her interpretation but I have heard it sung a lot better.

That I still believe this Siegfried must be added to any self-respecting Wagner library is mainly because of Janowski’s masterly conducting of his first-rate orchestra. There are many marvellous passages. These include, notably the Preludes to each of the Acts, his accompaniments to the arrival of the Wanderer in Act I and Siegfried’s reflections under the lime tree in Act II. There’s also the incredibly pictorial – beautifully incandescent – passages in Act III as the clouds disperse and Siegfried braves the flames to reach the sleeping Brünnhilde and awaken her.

The opera fits neatly onto 3 SACDs (one act per CD). I am not an ‘anorak’ and do not have long lists of Wagner timings – though if anyone reading this has anything please send it to me. However, by comparison, the three acts for my favourite Siegfried – leisurely conducted by Reginald Goodall – were timed at c. 95/86/96 minutes; the opera was therefore about 40 minutes longer. Such a propulsive Siegfried as Janowski’s is the norm these days but some of the singing does suffer the consequences as a result. This fuels the debate on casting the huge Wagner operas in the twenty-first century, which is something I can only allude to here.

Jim Pritchard | 13 December 2013

This is a lively and enjoyable performance of what Wagner called his ‘heroic comedy’. In this, the third opera in Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, the greatest pleasure comes from the orchestral playing and the conducting of Marek Janowski, who seems much more at home here than he was in Die Walküre (the second opera of the cycle, reviewed Christmas 2013). Away from the pressures of expressing intense emotion, Wagner was able to enjoy himself in this score, evoking nature with extraordinary originality. In the third Act – composed 12 years after the first two (which were composed by 1857), when he was a far more sophisticated composer – he displays remarkable feats of counterpoint and colouring which Janowski brings off to thrilling effect: listen to the short but dense Prelude and you’ll hear many things that you won’t have heard on any other recording, combined with terrific drive. You realise immediately that this is the beginning of the end, to be worked out fully in the next drama.

Siegfried, Wagner’s single most taxing role, is sung adequately but not excitingly here by Stephen Gould. He is less of a barker, more of a phraser than he once was, but his voice has no intrinsic beauty. The other half of Act I’s double act, Mime, is taken by Christian Elsner, who verges on ugly caricature. The Wanderer is Tomasz Konieczny, here dry of voice and unimposing, but with the right ideas about the part. The Fafner of Matti Salminen is wonderful, luxury casting, and Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich is almost as fine. Violeta Urmana takes over the role of Brünnhilde for this opera, and has many moments of shrillness and wobbliness, but she is an intelligent artist. In summary, the whole here is very much more than the sum of its parts – worth acquiring.

Michael Tanner | April 28, 2014


An uneven Walküre then, if beautifully recorded and played. Siegfried is more consistent, although Christian Elsner’s Mime has elements of a lyric tenor slumming it. Some of his colouring of the character’s rage and frustration (and gloating) feels applied. Gould, however – and it’s tempting to add ‘at last’ – is captured in a performance that does his experience and capabilities justice: he never forces loud, weighty passages and seems to have done much (re)thinking of his texts for colour and even fun. Konieczny is in good voice and most effective in his confrontations with Erda (Larsson, now the world owner of the part and deservedly so) and Siegfried.

Urmana is almost a debutante in this part of the role – it is (and sounds) high for her. Just occasionally one misses the colour of a ‘real’ soprano (Evans or Leider) but line, intensity and intelligence see her through. While Janowski’s pacing of the forging scene is swift and exciting, he might have allowed the first scene of Act 3 more room. That fear of grandeur again?

No matter. Siegfried is a strong follow-up to this cycle’s Rheingold, and Walküre no less well conducted. On to the fall of the gods – extensive cross-cycle comparisons then.

Mike Ashman | Issue 12/2013

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
654 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
Broadcast of a concert performance
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.