Götterdämmerung

Mark Elder
Hallé Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, The Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus, The Hallé
Date/Location
9 May 2009 [act 1], 10 May 2009 [act 2/3]
Bridgewater Hall Manchester
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
SiegfriedLars Cleveman
BrünnhildeKatarina Dalayman
GuntherPeter Coleman-Wright
GutruneNancy Gustafson
AlberichAndrew Shore
HagenAttila Jun
WaltrauteSusan Bickley
WoglindeKatherine Broderick
WellgundeMadeleine Shaw
FloßhildeLeah-Marian Jones
1. NornCeri Williams
2. NornYvonne Howard
3. NornMiranda Keys
Gallery
Reviews
The Guardian

The one significant gap in Mark Elder’s operatic CV to date is a Ring cycle. Plans to mount one at English National Opera when Elder was music director during the “Power House” years produced only a production of Die Walküre. But as music director of the Hallé, Elder now seems determined to conduct the complete tetralogy, at least in concert. He began a year ago with a performance of Götterdämmerung that was spread across two evenings at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, and from which this recording is taken. The concerts were rapturously received, though including eight minutes of applause as a final track here is a rather embarrassing indulgence, and what evidently worked so well in concert does not always transfer convincingly to disc.

Elder and his orchestra certainly do not disappoint; the playing has wonderful refinement and presence, and Elder paces the great musical span and the set pieces with the surest of hands. There are some fine individual performances, too – Peter Coleman-Wright’s Günther, Andrew Shore’s Alberich, Susan Bickley’s Waltraute – but unfortunately the central core of the drama does not depend on them, and the three main protagonists are much more problematic. Attila Jun’s Hagen creates some strikingly beautiful sounds, but the basic colour of his voice simply isn’t dark enough, nor are his words sufficiently weighted to make the dramatic impact that’s required; Lars Cleveman’s Siegfried is workmanlike, but never really heroic, while Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde may be impressive enough in the lower registers but becomes increasingly unpredictable the higher she goes.

Andrew Clements | 20 May 2010

Gramophone

Recorded “live” over two nights at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall last May, this performance serves as both culmination of, and progress report on, Sir Mark Elder’s first decade with the Hallé. It gives the players, in extenso, the chance to display their current skills and to show how the Hallé has come to reacquire, under Elder, its verve in Romantic 19th- and early 20th-century scores.

Although Elder was an early student of both Georg Solti and Edward Downes, relatively quick Wagnerians, his own Wagner has more parallels in texturing and overall Klang to the 1970s ENO Ring performances under Reginald Goodall (Elder’s act lengths are 122’18” / 70’48” / 90’58”; Goodall in London 1974 took 138’18” / 78’58” / 94’13”, while the “fast” Clemens Krauss – at speeds more typical of today’s practice – travelled in 1953 at 115’09” / 66’48” / 75’10”). There is evidence of how Elder has absorbed Goodall-like detail and patience and passed it on to his players: the wind playing throughout, the needlepoint-accurate placing and enunciation of the timpani part, or the tricky string concertato under Gutrune’s final, vain attempt to denounce Brünnhilde in Act 3.

But Elder uses time to put distinct space or style into a particular scene more than to make grand, weighty effects. His Act 1 Gibich court, characterfully inhabited by experienced vocal actors Peter Coleman-Wright and Nancy Gustafson, is rather French in its instrumental cadenzas and trills – a reference Wagner surely intended. And much of Act 3’s longer-than-usual playing time is used, in the hunters’ feast scene that precedes Siegfried’s murder, for careful observation of Wagner’s pauses and tempo changes to achieve a tension not normally attained until the Funeral March proper.

The situation of a concert performance – including here the splitting of the opera over two nights – allows for greater freshness of voice and accuracy in passages like Siegfried’s exit aria in Act 2 (“Munter, ihr Mannen!”) or the intervals Brünnhilde has to negotiate in her Act 2 accusations. Attila Jun not only sounds like one of the blackest Hagens since the Greindl/Frick heyday but can place his bleating sheep imitations and other cadential moments spot on the note. Rhinemaidens and Norns (definitely some Wagnerians of the future here) are rich individually and together. Susan Bickley makes Waltraute’s tale a tragedy of loss more than a disguised plea for the ring, and Andrew Shore returns his Alberich from Bayreuth with interest.

The whole is topped by a serious and quite dark pair from Sweden. Lars Cleveman is a thinking, tragic Siegfried, well matching his conductor’s conception of the work. His Brünnhilde, Katarina Dalayman, brings a good mixture of soprano and mezzo colours to the role, by turns steely and strong, or touchingly vulnerable. Her Immolation is unusually visionary and clear-sighted.

The recording quality plays to, or has used, the hall and the performance well, accommodating the large full chorus. There is a goodly space around the orchestra, the singers and important solos never sounding artificially engineered. Off- or near-stage perspectives are convincingly realised. This release on the Halle’s own label intriguingly offers the opera on either a single MP3 disc or a five-CD set, making the new performance competitive and immediately tempting as a second-option choice. In any event it’s the most compelling and best-cast Götterdämmerung on disc since Barenboim’s from Bayreuth (10/94).

Mike Ashman

ClassicalSource.com

The Hallé’s recording of “Götterdämmerung” derives from concert performances spread across two evenings, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, in May 2009. Orchestrally the result is magnificent, testament to the quality that Sir Mark has engendered in the Hallé during his decade as Music Director. Wagner’s rich score alternately broods and glows, the writing brought to life with exemplary care for phrasing and dynamics. The brass playing is superb. I’ve never heard the canonic passage for eight horns at the start of Act Two/Scene 2 delivered with such eloquent nobility, nor Siegfried’s horn-calls played with such splendid bravura.

At 275 minutes, Elder’s is a spacious performance, comparable in length with the recordings by Karajan, Thielemann and Levine rather than the slightly swifter readings of Haitink, Keilberth and Böhm. Elder’s sense of line and care for detail compels the listener’s attention, successfully sustaining tension over the long spans. His magisterial approach is, however, less helpful during the work’s emotional high peaks, notably the culmination of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love duet, Siegfried’s Funeral March and the conclusion of the Immolation Scene, all of which ideally require more adrenaline to register their full effect.

Katarina Dalayman’s performance of Brünnhilde, much acclaimed at the time of the concert, is not ideal in recorded terms. In quieter passages her voice is attractively dark-hued and she communicates the text with sensitivity and lyricism. When under pressure, however, her voice is less controlled and her enunciation of consonants is often inaudible, making it difficult to follow the libretto, an issue when listening at home without the benefit of surtitles.

Siegfried was originally due to be sung by Ben Heppner, but the latter’s unavailability led to Lars Cleveman taking on the role. Cleveman is reserved in the earlier stages but becomes more engaged as the drama progresses, sounding both mellifluous and heroic by the time of his final monologue in Act Three.

Attila Jun’s Hagen is the finest performance here, an interpretation of sustained potency and menace, underpinned by a tenebrous, resonant voice. His account of Hagen’s Watch, supported by Elder’s raptly intense accompaniment, is a particular highlight. Almost as fine is Susan Bickley’s Waltraute, conveying a deeply moving sense of pleading and sorrow in her encounter with Brünnhilde in Act One.

Peter Coleman-Wright brings an attractive warmth to the equivocal character of Gunther, and Andrew Shore is impressive during his brief appearance as Alberich in Act Two. Nancy Gustafson is an attractive although not especially distinctive Gutrune. The singing of the Norns and Rhinemaidens is refined and involving. The choral contributions are superb, the Vassals’ greeting to Gunther and Brünnhilde in Act Two building to an overwhelming climax.

The recording, which slightly favours the orchestra over the singers, is weighty and atmospheric, solid in the bass and slightly veiled in the treble. Audience noise is minimal, although there are some extraneous vocalisations (from Elder?) audible at certain points. A short amount of applause is included after Acts One and two, and a rather indulgent 8 minutes after Act Three!

The recording is available as either a five-CD set, with Acts One and Three split across two discs, or a single MP3 disc encoded at a bit-rate of 320 mbps. Most modern CD-players will have no problem reading the MP3 disc (it worked not only in my Onkyo CD-player, but also in a Pioneer DVD player and a Panasonic DVD recorder). I was unable to discern any difference in sound quality between the CD and MP3.

However, all three machines used to check the MP3 disc inserted a two-second pause between each track, rendering it virtually unlistenable. Anyone hoping to play the MP3 disc direct (rather than transferring the contents to an MP3 player) will therefore need to check the situation with their player. A PDF of the libretto, including an English translation, is included on the last disc of the CD set and on the MP3 disc, but no information about the work or the cast.

Among the more-modern recordings of “Götterdämmerung”, Elder’s performance faces strong competition from Haitink (recorded under studio conditions in 1991) and Thielemann (recorded live at Bayreuth in 2008). Haitink’s account has greater intensity than Elder’s in the work’s significant moments, a strong cast (notably Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried and John Tomlinson as Hagen) and excellent sound. Thielemann’s performance is less well sung and recorded than Haitink’s, but the performance has an epic sweep and power and is enormously compelling. Elder brings insights that are not found elsewhere, however, and is certainly worth investigating, even if not an automatic first choice.

Christian Hoskins

MusicalCriticism.com

Although it was largely a musical triumph from start to finish, the Hallé’s concert performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was perhaps more significant as a statement about the role of the orchestra in Manchester.

The fifteen-minute standing ovation that greeted the conclusion of the second of the two concerts – the Prologue and Act 1 were performed on Saturday, followed by the final two acts on Sunday – was a sign that the Hallé really matters to its audience now. The hall was pretty packed for both nights, especially the Sunday concert, and in spite of the arduous length of the event – made even more so by necessitating two trips to the Bridgewater Hall in one weekend – there was a rapt concentration from nearly everyone present. Whilst Hugh Canning expressed doubts about Manchester’s ability to draw a decent crowd to an operatic event in his review of the BBC Philharmonic’s Damnation of Faust last weekend, it’s perhaps more the case that the public is selective about who it wants to see on the platform, rather than opera not being popular with the people of the North-West.

After a troubled period in the 1990s, when the orchestra suffered both artistically and financially, the Hallé now sits comfortably amongst the country’s top two or three symphony orchestras, largely thanks to the contribution made by Sir Mark Elder since his arrival in 2000. Musical standards have certainly increased, but what’s striking is that the orchestra is far younger, contains far more women than the average UK ensemble, and has a younger audience. For once, I wasn’t the youngest person there, and there were quite a lot of people of my age around. To present a performance of Götterdämmerung is a massive undertaking for a regional orchestra, and it obviously taxed them to their limits in every sense, but the air of community pride both onstage and in the audience fully justified the endeavour.

Inevitably, dividing the opera over two days had some effect on the overall momentum of the performance, and the second night was undoubtedly more exciting than the first. And colour, rather than pace, was Elder’s priority throughout. This was in line with his speech given to introduce the opera on the Saturday evening, in which the conductor highlighted how the unprecedented size of the Götterdämmerung orchestra was as much designed to expand Wagner’s expressive palette as to provide loud climaxes. We heard the benefit of this during the second and third acts particularly, where the inner psychological conflicts between Brünnhilde and the Gibichungs is illustrated with eerie chords played by various combinations of wind instruments. For me, the string section lacked a degree of attack and depth until the third act, when the playing became utterly world-class; the brass playing, however, was absolutely magnificent throughout the two nights, highlights including the passage between the Prologue and Act 1, the offstage effects during all three acts, and, of course, Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Elder’s feeling for the poignancy of the ending of the Ring Cycle, his evocation of the contrasting worlds of the Valkyrie and the humans, and his ability to breathe with the singers, combined to make this a compelling performance. For my taste, his decision to conduct without using a baton had a negative effect on the accuracy of the performance: the opening chords of the entire piece were not placed by all the instruments at the same time, and at the other end of the opera, Brünnhilde’s distinctive theme in the violins during the Immolation scene was not quite perfectly together, largely because the beat was not clearly indicated. But it’s a small complaint, and Elder’s inspired leadership was unquestionably the foundation on which the performance was built.

Mark ElderWhat made this a memorable Götterdämmerung for me, though, was the Brünnhilde of Katarina Dalayman. I don’t think the role could be better taken: vocally, Dalayman’s stamina was remarkable, never showing a sign of tiring, while her physical beauty and dignified poise made one long to see her in a staged production. Performing without a score, she inhabited the role completely, whether expressing the deepest passion in the Prologue’s love duet, betrayal in the first act, outrage in the second act or an avenging spirit in the third. For someone so comparatively small, her money notes are impressively full, while her richness of tone in the middle is ideal for the extended narratives. Capped by a riveting performance of the Immolation, Dalayman’s portrayal of the role helped make this a special occasion.

Siegfried was to have been sung by Ben Heppner, but a cancellation brought us Lars Cleveman in his place. The change was a disappointment, made even more so by Cleveman’s lack of heft compared to several of the other cast members. His singing was always beautiful, however, and the tessitura caused him no problems whatsoever, so there was plenty to admire in his performance from the very beginning, and on the Sunday evening he upped his game and sang more forcefully, ending with a moving performance of Siegfried’s death.

Attila Jun’s Hagen was an audience favourite, and although at times he might have been more wily and psychologically probing in the way that John Tomlinson is in this role, it seems churlish to complain when the voice was so astounding. Jun’s call to rouse the Gibichungs was chilling, and his ability to project over the orchestra even over climaxes caused many a jaw to drop. He also engaged closely with the text, and personified evil with a strong dramatic ability. Peter Coleman-Wright’s elegant and intelligent performance as Gunther made much of this dislikeable character, while Andrew Shore’s brief appearance as Alberich was as impeccable as one would expect. Susan Bickley was an outstanding, top-notch Waltraute: her encounter with Brünnhilde was the high point of the Saturday night, and only Nancy Gustafson’s awkward Gutrune was disappointing.

The team of Norns was slightly uneven, with Yvonne Howard’s forthright, textually-aware Second Norn standing out in this difficult narration, but the Rhinemaidens (Katherine Broderick, Madeline Shaw and Leah-Marian Jones) were brilliantly matched. Perhaps the biggest treat of all was to hear Wagner’s choral writing in this piece – the only instalment of the Ring to involve choirs – sung by the combined forces of the Hallé Choir, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus and the Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus. Their scenes had the entire audience on the edge of their seats.

But it was the Hallé’s night, and Mark Elder’s. After nearly a decade together, orchestra and Music Director are at one, and it seems that no challenge is beyond them. Such high artistic standards surely call for a complete Ring for Manchester.

Dominic McHugh

MusicWeb-International.com

We already knew from an earlier CD of highlights what an accomplished Wagner conductor Mark Elder is (CDHLL7517 – see review), so I was keen to see how well that accomplishment holds up across the whole span of Götterdämmerung, especially when there are so many excellent recordings already in the catalogue. Having missed the broadcast on BBC Radio 3, I was very pleased to receive the CDs for review.

My consideration of this recording occurs in three phases. The first concerns the question whether this or any other performance can convince me that Götterdämmerung really is the worthy culmination of the Ring cycle, when the heart of the action of the Germanic legends of Sigurð/Siegfried, the slaying of the dragon and his braving of the flames to woo the Valkyrie Brynhild/Brünnhilde lies in its predecessor, Siegfried.

Götterdämmerung is different from the rest of the Ring cycle in that Wagner makes much more use of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, though he adapts the story considerably and omits the second half, whereas in the earlier operas in the cycle he had based the plot on his own imaginative reworking of the legend of the fabulous hoard of Rhine gold and on the Norse Völsungasaga with its account of Sigmund’s/Siegmund’s death at the hands of Oðin/Wotan – to which Wagner adds his incestuous love of Sieglinde – and the growth to manhood of Siegfried. In the saga and the Edda, the incestuous relationship with Signy produced Sigurð’s half-brother, Sinfjötli; Sigurð was the offspring of Sigmund and Hiordis.

In Götterdämmerung the drama is intense but more internal, almost ‘domestic’, though Wagner takes up earlier themes in Hagen’s revenge for his father Alberich and the destruction of Valhalla which follows the return of the Ring to the Rhinemaidens. We are back in the world of Norse mythology at the conclusion, Ragnarök, which means the downfall of the Gods rather than just their twilight, as recounted in the poetic Edda.

The answer to my first question depends to a large extent on the other two phases, the first of which concerns the comparison between the performances of Elder and his team and those of Solti and Karajan, the two versions which I know best; I own the former on CD, owned the latter on LP and downloaded the current release from passionato:

Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Claire Watson, Gottlob Frick, Gustav Neidlinger, Helen Watts, Anita Valkki, Grace Hoffman, Lucia Popp, Gwyneth Jones, Maureen Guy; Vienna Philharmonic Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti DECCA 455 5692 [4 CDs: 62:49 + 57:26 + 67:04 + 77:50]

Helga Dernesch, Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Catarina Ligendza, Helge Brilioth, Thomas Stewart, Lili Chookasian, Zoltan Kelemen, Karl Ridderbusch; Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan rec. 1969. ADD. DG ORIGINALS 457 7952 [4 CDs: 64:31 + 60:16 + 78:50 + 71:45] – on CD or from passionato.com (320 kbps mp3)

The third phase involves the internal comparison between Elder on 5 ‘normal’ CDs and the same recording on one mp3 CD. Nimbus already have two such mp3 offerings with the complete Haydn symphonies – see review – and the complete organ works of J.S. Bach which I reviewed recently in both formats – see review.

If you were expecting that the Hallé performance would fail to match those illustrious predecessors, let me say at once that you would be wrong. I knew what favourable reviews the live performances had received and that Katarina Dalyman and Lars Cleveman had shone in the Stockholm Ring – see reviews by Göran Forsling of Siegfried here and Götterdämmerung here, but I was still a little sceptical that a cast largely unknown internationally could equal the likes of Nilsson, Windgassen and Fischer-Dieskau (Decca) or Dernesch, Janowitz and Stewart (DG). I suppose that I was expecting some kind of good also-ran, like the Janowski Ring on Eurodisc/RCA, no longer available but a decent bargain when it was.

Solti’s Siegfried, Wolfgang Windgassen, was the Siegfried of his day and his performance still takes a great deal of beating. I’ve just been listening to him singing a truncated account of Brünnhilde, heilige Braut on a recent DG Spotlight reissue, Wolfgang Windgassen singt Wagner (477 6543, with the Munich Philharmonic and Leopold Ludwig, in good mono sound, CD or download from passionato.com.) Apart from the truncation – the music should lead straight into the Funeral March – this is an apt reminder of Windgassen at his freshest. Yet his voice sounds almost as fresh, several years later, on the Solti recording, allowing for the slightly slower pace, which also permits him to put a little more drama into his singing. Helge Brilioth and Karajan polish it off in just over four minutes, which looks rather too fast but works quite well in practice, while Elder closely matches Solti’s more sedate tempo. I don’t think that either Cleveman or Brilioth quite matches either of the Windgassen versions: both are a little more tentative and less heroic, but it’s a close-run thing.

There are those who prefer Helga Dernesch as Brünnhilde even to Birgit Nilsson; certainly both are glorious in the role, but Katarina Dalayman is hardly put to shame by comparison, though her voice is recorded less forward than Dernesch in particular. In all three versions Brünnhilde’s Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde comes as a ray of sunshine after the darkness of the scene with the Norns.

Very occasionally, in the more dramatic scenes, Dalayman’s German diction slips a little. Occasionally, too, the recording favours the orchestra to the extent that her words are almost lost, an almost inevitable consequence of live recording.

Detailed comparisons with the Decca and DG casts, however, soon proved unnecessary. Allowing for the fact that they were performing live, the Hallé singers can hold their heads high in the company of their predecessors. Nor is Elder’s direction eclipsed by Solti or Karajan: his tempi, generally broader than Karajan’s and slightly faster than Solti’s, work well and his concept of the work is convincing.

As regards the comparison between the two formats, I found little to choose between the 5-disc conventional set and the single-disc mp3. The multi-disc set is housed in an ingenious box designed to hold up to six discs in the same size of case that normally holds up to four, but it still takes up twice the shelf space of the mp3 – quite a consideration if your collection is bursting at the seams. In fact, the new recording in both formats and its two older competitors sound very well indeed. See below, however, for some detailed advice on how to play the mp3; it won’t play on most CD players.

Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine at the end of the Prologue is one of those great life-enhancing pieces of music: little wonder that it is often excerpted in a purely orchestral form. Even Beecham, who maintained a selective attitude to Wagner – though he conducted the Ring at Covent Garden, he classified Parsifal alongside Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius as ‘holy water in a German beer barrel’ – recorded this chunk on a Columbia recording which used to be available on Philips. Perhaps someone might rescue and reissue that recording, last seen on Sony SMK89889 – see review.

That Beecham performance remains a classic, but all three more recent competitors give it a good run for its money. At 5:53 Elder is a minute faster than Solti and almost a minute slower than Karajan. Heard on their own, the two older versions sound fine, but close comparison suggests that Karajan is a little too eager to get the hero on his way and Solti a little too tardy, while Elder’s journey strikes me as just about right.

As well as the Rhine Journey, Beecham recorded the Funeral Music, Hier sitz’ich zur Wacht from Act 1 and Hoi-ho! from Act 3 with Ludwig Weber, Herbert Hanssen, the Covent Garden Chorus and the LPO live in 1936 (Dutton CDEA5023). I note from the Dutton website that stocks of this CD are running low and may not be replenished.

Hier sitz’ich aur Wacht was a favourite ‘bleeding chunk’ in the days when that was about all that we had. At one time I owned a DGG 7” EP of Josef Greindl singing it, with an excerpt from Meistersinger on the reverse. Attila Jun offers a very dark account on the Hallé recording, though I think he is slightly eclipsed for power by Gottlob Frick on the Solti recording. The ensuing orchestral interlude, which takes us from the hall to Brünnhilde’s rock, has been mentioned as a prime example of Solti’s ability to handle what might otherwise be a long-winded transition. Solti certainly does avoid the tedium with the assistance of some virtuoso playing from the VPO. At 6:30, Elder is again a little faster than Solti and a little slower than Karajan, and the augmented Hallé don’t quite match the power of their Viennese and Berlin counterparts, but the new version doesn’t fall far short of equalling its predecessors.

The following dialogue between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, too, can sometimes seem to outstay its welcome, but again Elder, with the assistance of some excellent singing from Katarina Dalayman and Susan Bickley, makes it seem far less of a low point.

Snippets such as Beecham’s aside, it was not until Decca took the extremely risky decision to record the whole Ring cycle under Solti that we had a worthy and fully complete version of Götterdämmerung on record. I discount the 1956 Decca recording: though Flagstad and Svanholm remained in good voice and Fjeldstad was a sympathetic conductor, even if at the time, the rest of the enterprise failed to receive general acclaim. There had been an earlier Decca recording of Act 1 of Die Walküre with Knappertsbusch at the helm (Eloquence 466 6782, with Siegfried’s Death Music) and another of the Todersverkündigung and Act 3 of Walküre under Solti, with Kirsten Flagstad, past her best but still impressive, in both. Acts 1 and 3 are also available on Eloquence 480 1892 – see review.

We now know that Decca recorded Knappertsbusch’s Götterdämmerung (SBT4175) and Keilberth’s (twice, on SBT 41393 – see review – and SBT 41433 – see review), both at Bayreuth, but none of these saw the light of open day until Testament recently issued them to great acclaim. Clemens Krauss’s live 1953 recording of The Ring, with its strong cast, survives in a transfer which cannot make much of the rather crumbly original sound.

The Culshaw/Solti Ring enterprise which culminated in Götterdämmerung was rightly seen at the time as ground-breaking and remains, for me, the template by which to judge the rest, but it must not be regarded as so definitive as to eclipse all others. The Karajan recordings which followed a few years later suffered partly by comparison with Solti and partly because of a less than ideal Siegfried, with Jess Thomas in the title role. Götterdämmerung was far preferable vocally, yet it has always been seen as an also-ran.

I very much hope that this new Hallé recording does not also come to be seen as the good also-ran which I initially expected. It can take on both Solti and Karajan without having to make allowance for the fact that it is a live recording competing with studio versions.

To take one more example, Siegfried’s Funeral March and Brünnhilde’s Immolation from the end of the opera are rightly regarded as highlights of the Solti recording – if you don’t own the complete set and don’t intend to, they can be found on an inexpensive Decca CD, along with excerpts from the other Ring operas (458 2102, apparently no longer available on CD; download from passionato.com).

For this episode Wagner returns to his Norse source material: das Nibelungenlied updates matters by giving Siegfried a Christian burial and seems to forget Brünnhilde. The latter part of the poem then moves to Kriemhild’s (= Gutrune’s) marriage to Etzel (Attila) and her eventual revenge on Hagen and Gunther. The Prose Edda gives the most succinct account of the Nordic versions, somewhat expanded in Chapter 32 of Wagner’s source, the Völsunga Saga:

Eftir þat lagði Brynhildr sik sverði, ok var hon brennd með Sigurði

(After this Brynhild stabbed herself with a sword and she was burned with Sigurd.)

For the benefit of those tempted to economise by purchasing the Naxos recording (8.660179-82), I listened first via the Naxos Music Library to Luana de Vol’s account of the Immolation. As Ian Bailey writes in his review, “She manages to keep something in reserve for the Immolation scene, and certainly doesn’t disgrace herself, although she is inevitably found wanting in relation to the great shadows of the past such as Nilsson and Varnay.” Göran Forsling was also appreciative: “She has insight, dramatic conviction, an expressive way with words and in the immolation scene … she sings beautifully” – see review. Like both of them, I was somewhat surprised to find myself enjoying her performance and I continued listening from Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort to the end of the opera. Available for just over £17 on CD – which is actually a few pounds cheaper than downloading it from classicsonline or passionato – this was a genuine bargain for those who must economise until the new Hallé recording decisively displaced it in terms of value and performance.

Listening to that Hallé recording immediately afterwards was like seeing a well-known painting that has been restored. Katarina Dalayman’s voice possesses greater power than de Vol’s, but, crucially, also greater brightness and variety of expression. Lothar Zagrosek has a genuine feeling for Wagner and his Stuttgart Opera Orchestra plays well, but Mark Elder has the surer touch and his augmented Hallé give their all. Comparing like with like – the Hallé mp3 with the Naxos Music Library mp3 – the new recording also sounds slightly more open. The difference makes the whole more involving and the ending sounds truly cataclysmic.

The qualities of Helga Dernesch’s performance at this juncture are complementary to Dalayman’s; in particular, she sounds more commanding in Schweigt eures Jammers jauchzender Schwall – she really does sound like an adult chiding children who are crying over spilt milk: Kinder hört’ich/greinen nach der Mutter/da Süße Milch sie verschüttet – but her voice also has the freshness which Dalayman possesses and which de Vol rather lacks. In both versions, I was so involved in the singing of Brünnhilde that I found it almost an anti-climax when Alberich interposed his last bid for the ring.

If anything, Birgit Nilsson is even more imperious as she bids the squabbling infants cease their clamour; she even sounds uncannily like Kirsten Flagstad in her prime, had she been better recorded. If I had to choose just one desert island version of this scene, then, it would have to be Nilsson and Solti on Decca and the recording still has a strong claim to sound the best of all, despite its age. The ending is even more cataclysmic – even Alberich’s fatal greed didn’t seem like an intrusion this time.

Yet it’s only by playing the four versions consecutively – the Building a Library process which emphasises differences not otherwise apparent – that Dalayman and Dernesch are surpassed. Heard in their own context, both convey the drama of the scene very effectively.

In order to achieve a level playing field in comparing the different recordings, as far as possible, I played both of the conventional CD recordings (Elder and Solti) via my Arcam Solo and the two mp3 versions (Elder and Karajan) via Squeezebox, but again through the amplifier of the Arcam Solo.

The recording is made at rather a low level in both formats; I found myself turning up the volume by about 5dB right from the opening. The first part of the Prologue is dark and mysterious, with the Norns weaving their spells, but I think you will want to hear it at much higher than your usual volume. Once that is done, the recording is good: by the time that Siegfried gets started on his journey down the Rhine, the guns have begun to blaze.

Listening to Karajan on DG immediately afterwards, however, even in 320kbps mp3, revealed that the current transfer of the 1960s analogue sound has worn very well. The fact that the DG is at a higher level, and that the recording favours the voices more than the Hallé, complicates the comparison but I certainly felt that no allowance had to be made for the age of the recording, now sounding much better than I recall it on LP.

That the Solti recording also still sounds very well almost goes without saying, even on my copy on 414 1152, which pre-dates the most recent re-mastering.

Immediately after hearing the Karajan and Solti versions of the Prologue I played the Elder on mp3 and, paradoxically, thought the sound slightly more open in that form than on the 5-CD Hallé set, more closely approaching the immediacy of the rivals, though the voices of the Norns still sound slightly backward, even with a volume boost.

One of the advantages of the Decca studio recording, made in Sonicstage, a kind of aural forerunner of CGI technology, is the ability to make the spirit of Alberich sound sufficiently ghostly in his appeal to Hagen for revenge, Schläfst du Hagen, mein Sohn? The effect, however, is not overdone, so the live Hallé recording is not at too much of a disadvantage. Andrew Shore fails to inject quite the same menace into his voice that Gustav Neidlinger achieves – Attila Jun’s Alberich sounds the more dominant voice, whereas the boot is on the other foot on Decca – and Elder takes a little longer over this episode than Solti or Karajan. Without the aid of technology, Alberich’s voice and the accompaniment fade away at the end almost as effectively as on the Decca and DG recordings. Of the three versions, Karajan achieves the most sleep-like mood at the start and the greatest sense of urgency and menace, with the able assistance of the well-matched voices of Zoltan Kelemen and Karl Ridderbusch but, again, hearing the recordings in sequence emphasises the differences between three very good accounts.

There is a very detailed synopsis in the Hallé booklet, which is virtually common to both versions. The libretto and a good, idiomatic English translation are included on CD 5 of the multi-disc set and on the single mp3 disc as a pdf document. You will need to print this out, as the CD cannot be in the player and the computer at the same time. Better still, arm yourself with The Ring of the Nibelung (Faber, 1977), the complete original text with Andrew Porter’s performance-friendly translation, if you can find a copy: it’s out of print, but there are several offers of used copies online as I write.

I’m definitely not planning to dispose of Solti’s Götterdämmerung and I’m very pleased to renew the acquaintance of the Karajan, but the new Hallé recording certainly takes its place alongside them. John Culshaw, discussing the Solti recording which he had master-minded, wrote of how all concerned had been aware that their recording might be around in some form for a hundred years or more. I’m sure that his prediction was correct. I’m also sure that the Karajan suffered by comparison and deserves its own acclaim.

The Hallé now joins these and the Keilberth recordings as a strong recommendation. It also comes with a very favourable price differential in both formats: the Keilberth recordings sell for around £44, the Solti set for around £35 and the Karajan for a pound or so less. Even as a download, the Karajan costs £21.99 from passionato, which is comparable with the price of the 5-CD Hallé set direct from MusicWeb International, while the mp3 costs little more than half that amount.

Which version of the Elder recording I shall play will, I think, be determined by convenience. The mp3, complete on Squeeze Center, offers the ability to listen to the whole opera right through. Both the 5-CD and the single mp3 disc offer very good value for money, but I don’t think that the slight (if any) superiority of sound of the conventional set overcomes the inconvenience of having to change discs. Both sound well.

Not a replacement, then, for Solti, Karajan or Keilberth, but an excellent addition to anyone’s Wagner collection, at a very reasonable price. It’s a measure of the quality of all three versions that I compared that when I listened to a particular track, I couldn’t tear myself away until several tracks later. I may not quite have managed to hear the whole opera in one go in the new recording, but I did listen to each evening’s segment complete. I guess that Elder offers as convincing an answer as his rivals to my overarching question whether Götterdämmerung really can convince me as much as Rheingold and Siegfried; I just hadn’t been listening attentively enough. Now I need to convince myself about the first two acts of die Walküre.

Brian Wilson | 10 May 2010

Rating
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Media Type/Label
Hallé
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Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 411 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
Broadcast of a concert performance