Die Walküre

Bernard Haitink
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
February/March 1988
Herkulessaal der Residenz München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundReiner Goldberg
HundingMatti Salminen
WotanJames Morris
SieglindeCheryl Studer
BrünnhildeÉva Marton
FrickaWaltraud Meier
HelmwigeRuth Falcon
GerhildeAnita Soldh
OrtlindeSilvia Herman
WaltrauteUte Walther
SiegruneMargaretha Hintermeier
GrimgerdeCarolyn Watkinson
SchwertleiteUrsula Kunz
RoßweißeMargarita Lilowa

Bernard Haitink’s Wagner is no longer an unknown quantity: in 1988 alone he has conducted both Parsifal and Das Rheingold at Covent Garden. And yet, as he embarks on his first Ring cycles in the theatre and on record, one senses a continuing search for an identity, a quest for a distinctive, personal quality within what is in some respects a relatively orthodox reading of this familiar yet formidable work. It is obviously harder to create a strongly individual impression from a basis of orthodoxy than from one of eccentricity. In the case of James Levine’s recent DG recording of Die Walkure, for example, both likers and loathers will recognize its amplitude, and what seems to be a deliberate opposition between strongly dramatic and intensely lyrical impulses as characteristic of this conductor and no other (at least on disc). In the crucial matter of tempo Haitink offers fewer surprises, fewer challenges to what one instinctively feels to be the right pace. And yet the most personal feature of his approach evident on these new records is a tendency to point up the expressiveness of certain episodes by slowing down to what can seem like a dangerously unnatural extent, given his basically forthright, unmannered way with the work. The result is a reading in which a sense of dramatic tension remains satisfyingly predominant, but whether it is quite all of a piece is a matter of opinion, and of longer acquaintance.

Like his 1985 recording of Tannhauser (also for EMI) Haitink’s Walkure is based in Munich, and on the secure foundation of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose sweet, reedy oboes and woody horns are merely the most obvious evidence of a distinctive and most attractive sound, easily distinguishable from Levine’s magnificent Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but not significantly inferior. Haitink and Levine are at their most complementary in Act 1. In place of Levine’s majestically assured Jessye Norman, Haitink has the affectingly vulnerable Cheryl Studer as Sieglinde. In place of Levine’s rather reticent Gary Lakes, Haitink’s Siegmund is the stronger, at times stolid Reiner Goldberg—though even he lacks the baritonal timbre of James King for Bohm (Philips) or Ramon Vinay for Krauss (Laudis/Music Discount Centre). Haitink’s sensitive phrasing enables both Goldberg and Studer to give of their best. Goldberg may tend to be unyielding, and not always ideally secure in the upper register, but he responds well to the text and offers a convincing account of Siegmund’s progress from despair to ardour. Cheryl Studer may hold back a little too much in the act’s exultant later stages, but she is as successful as any Sieglinde on disc (and certainly in the studio recordings) in conveying the character’s dreamlike transformation from subservience to decisiveness. With Matti Salminen as a peerless Hunding, the omens for Haitink’s Walkure are excellent. Yet it is Hunding’s music in Act 1 that gives the first indication of that ‘personal’ way with tempo change that I mentioned in my first paragraph. Hunding’s characterizing chords—a kind of baleful bass fanfare—seem too deliberately articulated, and the central stages of the act, until the tempo suddenly picks up again at Siegmund’s ”Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater”, lose some of the necessary concentration and impetus.

In Act 2 there are only minor instances of such awkward reining-in—Fricka’s final statement, Siegmund’s ”Zauberfest”. Indeed, if there is a problem in this act, it is in the other direction, with an impulsive Todesverkundigung that misses rather too much of the gravity necessary to balance the urgency. Once again, this is very much a matter of taste, and of which other performance is most vividly in your mind as you hear the Haitink. The contrast with Levine could scarcely be greater, not just because of tempo but because of the differences between Brunnhildes. Levine has the sensitive, sympathetic Hildegard Behrens, Haitink the grandly imperious Eva Marton. Marton’s account is by no means so stentorian or unvaried as one might fear from her first appearance. In quiet phrases, especially in the lower register, she can be warmly expressive. Higher up there is a certain amount of shrill, squally singing with too little purity of tone on the really high notes to equal the best interpreters of the role—Nilsson for Bohm (and Solti on Decca) and Varnay for Krauss. Yet it may well be Marton’s sheer power, coupled with Haitink’s search for dramatic spontaneity, that combine to inspire a Wotan from James Morris that adds a few extra degrees of involvement and excitement to his DG account.

Morris’s Act 2 narration has even greater variety of colour and responsiveness to the text in the Haitink recording than it does in the Levine, and his progress from rage to resignation in Act 3 is, if anything, even more moving. Sometimes sheer intensity does roughen the tone and disturb the line, but this is still overall a performance of great distinction, and to mention such details as the underarticulated final word—”nie!”—is merely to report a reaction to a mannerism (evident also on the DG recording) that is very unlikely to affect anyone’s response to the whole. As with the Hunding music in Act 1, it is possible to feel that Haitink holds back the central stages of the dialogue between Brunnhilde and Wotan too severely, and that the concluding Feuerzauber, at least to start with, is too dance-like and easygoing, Levine is immensely imposing here. Such unevenness is also to be found when Haitink underlines certain phrases, as if consciously to counter a tendency towards understatement, and it is points like this that led me to suggest earlier that this performance may not be quite all of a piece. Such relatively slight reservations must be set against the excellence of much of the singing (including Waltraud Meier’s vibrant Fricka), the fine orchestral playing, and a recorded sound which, if not so deeply spacious as the DG, is well suited to Haitink’s generally unfussy handling of the drama. I am still reluctant to raise Haitink (or Levine) above the performances that are already established in the catalogue—Bohm and Krauss, in particular. Yet, if you buy either or both of these new studio versions, you will have the excitement of hearing two fine conductors working hard to carve out their own niches in an already crowded Pantheon. And either will certainly complement the qualities of any earlier recordings you may already have. Above all, it is James Morris who ensures that these new recordings are far from carbon copies of their predecessors.’

Arnold Whittall | Issue 12/1988

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548 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 891 MByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.