Die Walküre

Christoph von Dohnányi
The Cleveland Orchestra
November 1992
Severance Hall Cleveland
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundPoul Elming
HundingAlfred Muff
WotanRobert Hale
SieglindeAlessandra Marc
BrünnhildeGabriele Schnaut
FrickaAnja Silja
HelmwigeRuth Falcon
GerhildeMichele Crider
OrtlindeSusan Marie Pierson
WaltrauteKarin Goltz
SiegruneKatherine Ciesinski
GrimgerdeSandra Walker
SchwertleitePenelope Walker
RoßweißeSusan Shafer
New York Times

Mr. Dohnanyi’s directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra has been impressive. A probing and accomplished musician, the conductor, born in Germany with a distinguished Hungarian musical heritage, presides over one of America’s most skilled, sonorous and responsive orchestras. He clearly wants to leave for posterity an account of Wagner’s ”Ring” cycle, a touchstone work for any conductor, with the Cleveland Orchestra, and his ”Walkure” is the second installment of the four operas in the cycle, with ”Das Rheingold” already available.

The conductor brings magisterial scope, a keen ear for telling detail, and an uncanny control of dynamics to his work here. The orchestra plays with virtuosic technique, impressive textural clarity and vibrant color. The extended final scene, in which Wotan lays Brunnhilde to rest atop a mountain surrounded by crackling, impenetrable flames, is serene and luminous.

The problem is the cast. These are mostly good artists and gifted singers who in a stage performance would provide some rewards. But with several classic ”Ring” cycles available on CD, this cast is hard to justify for a recording.

Poul Elming, a Danish tenor as Siegmund, has a nice, beefy heroic tenor voice, but his performance does not grab the listener. There is a boorish quality to his conception of the role, which lacks much sense of a despairing young man who blames himself for having been abandoned by his father. The American dramatic soprano Alessandra Marc, who sings Sieglinde, has yet to live up to her early promise, and this performance is no exception. Her voice is essentially vibrant in character, but her singing is often scoopy, unsteady and unattractive.

The Brunnhilde, the German soprano Gabriele Schnaut, is reliable and solid but not much more. Robert Hale, the American bass, fares better as Wotan, bringing a baritonal lyricism to his singing, but he lacks the expressive depth for a truly memorable portrayal. Fricka is sung by Anja Silja, Mr. Dohnanyi’s wife and an estimable artist, captured way past her vocal prime. There is a wealth of knowledge in her work, but the singing is sad to hear.

Plans to record the final two operas have been stalled while Decca/London, along with the rest of the opera world, awaits a tenor who can sing the intimidating role of Siegfried in a way that merits documentation. But the label has just reissued the classic Solti ”Ring” on remastered disks, so no one will be surprised if Mr. Dohnanyi’s hope to complete the cycle goes unrealized. Still, Mr. Dohnanyi’s clout is clear: London Records gave the go-ahead to ”Die Walkure,” even without a cast on board that merited being recorded.



This is a grand, satisfying performance on almost every count. Its stature allows me for the moment to put aside the baggage of all earlier recordings and assess it on its own merits alone. In the first place, following on his successful Rheingold (Decca, 11/95), Dohnanyi conducts a well-paced, thought-through reading that at once creates dramatic excitement and attends to the longer view. From the opening storm right through to the Magic Fire Music there’s a welcome sense of forward movement everywhere, except in the middle of Act 2 where in places Dohnanyi slows down inordinately, allowing the score to become momentarily becalmed.

Otherwise we sense the inner pleasures and anxieties of each character in turn: Siegmund’s extended defiance, Sieglinde’s ecstasy in Act 1, even more her spiritual desperation in Act 2 and final elevation when she knows she is pregnant, Wotan’s misery, fury, love, Brunnhilde’s missionary zeal in Act 2, her remorse in Act 3. In brief the conductor persuades singers and players alike to give us the essence of the work. One can hardly ask for more, apart from a level of excellence in execution on both sides. Neither orchestra nor cast disappoints, the players responding with a fiery, expertly played and vital performance.

In Act 1 we encounter the warm, dark-grained Sieglinde of Alessandra Marc, whose slightly covered, expressive tone and phrasing recall that of Rysanek in the part. Poul Elming, who sang Siegmund on the most recent version conducted by Barenboim, recorded in 1992 only months before this one, is again almost ideal in the part, his tone pleasing with that slightly metallic touch common in Scandinavian singers, especially tenors, his reading sung eagerly off the words. Note, for example, his stunned surprise when the sword is lit up and his purposeful defiance of Brunnhilde in the announcement of the Death scene, and when pure lyricism is called for, as in the “Wintersturme”, he isn’t found wanting. His antagonist, Hunding, is sung with astonishing immediacy and biting venom by Alfred Muff, every syllable made to tell.

In Act 2 we meet at once Gabriele Schnaut’s very positive Brunnhilde. Bright and forceful in her war cry, she shows suitable concern at her father’s distress, is wise and dignified in her colloquy with Siegmund, the phrase starting “So wenig achtest du” as inward as it should be. In Act 3 her appeal to Wotan “War es so schmahlich?” is lovingly projected with more than a touch of Varnay in her voice, praise enough. Even better is the phrase later in the scene, “zu lieben, was du geliebt”, where Schnaut’s basically bright tone takes on a softer timbre. It may be thought that it sometimes suffers from an uncomfortable edge, but I find that tolerable in the context of – at last – a voice fit in heft and body for the part as a whole.

Robert Hale’s Wotan is a more familiar quantity, but none the less welcome for that. With a voice properly poised for the part between baritone and bass, he has no difficulty with either his high or low notes, can sing a true line, as he proves throughout, and is fully conversant with every facet of Wotan’s dilemma, which is authoritatively laid before us in the long Act 2 Narration, where Wotan’s divesting of his divinity goes to the heart. He is no less successful in trying to defy Fricka or in thundering against his errant daughter. You may find the ultimate in psychological insight missing, but most of the interior anguish of the part is there, impeccably delivered.

As his Fricka, Anja Silja gives a typically intelligent, keenly articulated performance even if once or twice one notices the vocal effort involved. The Walkyries are on the whole good, but a couple of harsh sopranos do curdle the mixture in the ensemble passages. The recording, including a few unobtrusive sound effects, is large in scale. My only reservations concern the fact that the voices sometimes sound on a different level, in a different acoustic from the orchestra (but the fault is minor) and the fact that you need a magnifying glass to read the minute print used for text and translations.

For once I turned reluctantly to comparisons. Haitink’s sound, middle-of-the-road reading sounds a shade undramatic beside Dohnanyi’s, and I don’t think his singers, taken all round, are as convincing as those on the new set, although Studer’s Sieglinde is more evenly and beautifully sung than Marc’s. Barenboim’s reading, made live at Bayreuth, is possibly more metaphysical than Dohnanyi’s and it enjoys a more natural recording in the Bayreuth acoustic. Vocally, like the Haitink, it yields to the new set. Of course several older and/or historic sets offer special perspectives but, in terms of modern reproduction, are not in the league of the new Decca. If you have any of these, or indeed, the famous Decca/Solti, with Nilsson, Hotter et al, you probably need not consider another purchase, but newcomers should probably choose this version over recent counterparts.

Alan Blyth

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
569 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 950 MByte (flac)
Second part of a planed studio Ring that was abandoned (–> Das Rheingold).