Die Walküre

Mark Elder
The Hallé
15 July [act 1]
16 July 2011 [act 2/3] and rehearsals
Bridgewater Hall Manchester
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundStig Fogh Andersen
HundingClive Bayley
WotanEgils Siliņš
SieglindeYvonne Howard
BrünnhildeSusan Bullock
FrickaSusan Bickley
HelmwigeKatherine Broderick
GerhildeMiranda Keys
OrtlindeElaine McKrill
WaltrauteSarah Castle
SiegruneAlison Kettlewell
GrimgerdeCeri Williams
SchwertleiteLinda Finnie
RoßweißeLeah Marian Jones

You must have experienced the incongruity of a party which was buzzing but where you just could not get into the spirit of things. Well, Sir Reginald Goodall’s legendary Ring cycle, famous for stately tempi plus attention to beauteous orchestral detail, has many admirers, including Sir Mark Elder. Not me. Too often I felt Goodall left the handbrake on, smothering the Ring’s natural flow under his affected concept.

Both conductors raise questions of why listeners may associate the magisterial and monumental with slower-than-the-norm tempi and the extent to which attention to internal orchestral textures, singing lines and transparency can buoy speeds which would otherwise sag. Also we are challenged as to how a performance may establish and maintain its own dramatic time-frame, confounding an audience’s preconceptions.

Elder’s 2010 live Götterdämmerung (reviewed here and here) and this new Die Walkure are surely under Goodall’s spell not least as both feature deliberate tempi, although both sets are far more flexible than Goodall’s recordings. Elder’s Act I Prelude at once establishes a beautifully shaped storm with transparent orchestral colours, founded on clear lower strings. Dark energies emerge through rhythmic surge within the lower strings and the capping timpani open with cushioned attack rather than a thunderous crack. This is a micro-span within a 65-plus minute overarching line that structurally anchors all of Act I. Yet measured control dominates Elder’s storm whereas Karajan seizes the listener by the throat and flings her or him into a vortex, somewhat undermined by too distant timpani. Similarly Elder’s Act II prelude and Act III Ride are oddly civilised, barely airborne in either trampling tempi or spirit. Furtwängler (1953) evokes both energy and craziness.

Certainly Elder and the Hallé can raise temperatures, such as in the seamless upsweep towards Siegmund claiming Notung and the magisterial power of the orchestral arch as Wotan kisses away Brünnhilde’s godhead. Elder’s Magic Fire Music is the set’s highlight, beautifully steered with real command and dramatic immersion. Just occasionally I wanted to seize my CD player and shout “just get on with it!”. The Act II Invocation of Death leading towards Wotan despatching Hunding is too weighty and much of Wotan’s conversations with Brünnhilde in Act III are too self-consciously profound, as if trapped within a grand Edwardian oratorio. The hard-to-find Dohnanyi/Cleveland (Decca) has greater dramatic bite here and the quality of the Clevelanders’ playing shows that those vital internal details need not lose clarity within swifter tempi.

Elder’s singers delivered a great night out in those Manchester concert performances, but are they super-special for posterity? Gundula Janowitz sang prettily as Sieglinde for Karajan (DG) but with little register of Wagner’s development of light, Spring and love. At the other end of the scale Leonie Rysanek’s Sieglinde in Böhm’s Ring (Decca) evokes not only ardour but also a frank sexuality, clearly attracted to her new-found twin, culminating in a primal, near orgasmic scream, as Siegmund wins Nothung. Stig Andersen and Yvonne Howard’s incestuous siblings lie somewhere between these extremes but with unevenness under pressure, particularly from Anderson. They don ‘t come close to eclipsing from memory the distinguished vocal chops of John Vickers, Rysanek or, Flagstad. Where is the chemistry of Melchior and Lehmann both in the studio (EMI) or live (Myto) as voices open out in abandon and each revels in the other’s singing? Try also the celebrated pairing of Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer in a DVD performance (reviewed here) you’ll want to enjoy time and time again.

The opening of Act II brings further disappointment with Susan Bullock’s titular Brünnhilde. For me this is particularly sad as I heard Bullock sing Isolde in Nottingham 2003 and was floored by the sheer power of her voice and that ‘pinging’ quality which allowed her voice to laser through the orchestra and hit the back of the auditorium. By 2011 Bullock retains that fresh tone, and her diction is absolutely clear, but there is a worrying vibrato under pressure as the support underpinning her voice evaporates. Bullock’s beautiful inward singing at the start of her final confrontation with Wotan shows what might have been if her Brünnhilde had been captured ten years earlier. Egils Silins’s Wotan is authoritative and well-acted and I enjoyed the blazing, metallic tones of Susan Bickley’s Fricka, but would you invest in this set for them?

Certainly future generations need a record of the Hallé Orchestra’s splendid playing, resurgent under Elder’s baton. Imagine the section rehearsals to get this attention to inner balances and colours! I wondered if the timpani’s soft-focused attacks, and much else, was influenced by the Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan partnership and their emphasis on gorgeous textures in Wagner? All the Hallé musicians are rightly named in the accompanying booklet as they are the heroes of this Die Walküre.

Steve Portnoi’s sound engineering is certainly in the front rank, boasting bloom, a wide sound-stage and voices forward but beautifully integrated so all Wagner’s orchestral wonders ring out. It’s all very natural. Someone should send Portnoi to the BBC to sort out the overtly multi-miked horrors foisted on Radio 3 opera listeners these days.

Barenboim and Karajan remain the safest bet for a modern stereo Die Walküre. Zubin Mehta’s Valencia cast mostly trump their Manchester counterparts, although for all of Jennifer Wilson’s warmth and power I’ve watched better acting on a Schwarzenegger movie. She is best heard, not seen. Between his 1953 Rome and 1954 studio recordings, Furtwängler is unassailed for immersion into Wagner’s drama. Only Clemens Krauss comes close. Janowski’s second attempt at recording The Ring is pencilled in for 2013 and the cast, including Petra Lang as Brünnhilde, looks intriguing. Perhaps you should be putting your occasional pennies into a glass jar for this instead?

David Harbin

Musicweb-International.com (II)

In the light of my enthusiasm for the Hallé/Sir Mark Elder Götterdämmerung in 2010 – Bargain of the Month, see review – it’s almost enough simply to note the appearance of this set. Also let’s not forget the rave reviews which these performances of Die Walküre received in July 2011. I missed the Radio 3 broadcast, so I’m all the more pleased to have received these CDs for review. To all its other virtues add the fact that the set is available at a very competitive price and that’s all that some readers may wish to know.

For those who have bravely decided to read on, let me lay some cards on the table. If you were to ask me to name the two greatest opera composers, I wouldn’t hesitate to name Mozart and Wagner – I really wouldn’t like to choose between them. Inevitably some of their works feature more often than others in my listening schedule. I must admit that I find Die Walküre the one opera from the Ring cycle to which I return least frequently. This is inexplicable because here Wagner most closely follows the action of the Old Norse Vølsungasaga which was one of his sources and I’m a great fan of the sagas. That said, I would still want to have a recording of Walküre on my desert island.

We certainly weren’t short of good versions. For many years the only LPs which I owned were of Kirsten Flagstad’s wonderful recording of Act III. That was a kind of trial run for Georg Solti ahead of his complete Decca cycle. It was recently reissued inexpensively with Knappertsbusch’s Act I on Australian Eloquence 480 1892 (2 CDs – see review). This was later supplemented by the complete Karajan recording (now DG Originals 457 7852, 4 CDs).

Somehow I managed to miss Solti’s recording of the whole opera as part of his Ring cycle until I reviewed a download of it in my June 2010 Download Roundup (Decca 455 5592, 4 CDs) alongside Böhm’s 1967 Bayreuth recording. The latter is now available again separately on Decca Opera 478 3061 (4 CDs for around £20 or less) or as part of his very inexpensive complete Ring cycle, Decca Collectors Edition 478 2367 (14 CDs for around £47 – see review of the complete cycle). Ignore the download links to passionato.com which I gave – no longer a source of downloads. If you’re looking to download, go to hmvdigital.com for the both (Solti £19.99, Böhm £13.99, both in 320kb/s mp3).

I compared the two Solti recordings and Böhm with an underrated recording made by Eric Leinsdorf with Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Gré Brouwenstijn and the LSO, not currently available but last seen in economical 3-CD format on Decca 430 3912; it’s worth looking out for a second-hand copy. My conclusion was that all four versions have their advantages and disadvantages. It would be nice to combine the generally vigorous pace of Böhm and Leinsdorf with the quality of recording which Decca achieved for the complete Solti. Flagstad was past her best when she made the Eloquence recording, but she still sounds magnificent and that remains the Act 3 which I play the most. Nilsson is superb in all three versions on which she features – perhaps at her best for Böhm, but that version is vitiated slightly for me by Rysanek’s less than ideal Sieglinde. King and Nilsson are common to both the Solti and Böhm versions and both more than make up for any shortcomings there.

Apart from the Karajan, which I haven’t heard for a long time, I’ve used these recordings, together with Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior and Bruno Walter in Act I and Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter and Leopold Ludwig in Act III – both EMI; details below – as benchmarks for the new set.

As for the one DVD set which has come my way, from Lothar Zagrosek at Stuttgart, for all the variable virtues of the performance, the crazy production ruins the whole thing. It’s best to draw a discreet veil over the whole enterprise – see Tony Hayward’s review of Rheingold and Walküre and my review of the complete Ring cycle. You will, however, find that my DVD review also sums up the virtues of the complete Goodall Ring on a Chandos USB (CHUSB0005, the contents of 16 CDs in both mp3 and lossless sound), though I’ll leave that, too out of the reckoning because it’s sung in English.

Elder takes his time over the Prelude – 4:16 against Solti’s 3:16, Leinsdorf’s 3:23 and Böhm’s 3:50. I don’t consider Solti or Leinsdorf too hasty, though the latter’s tempi are on the fast side throughout, This is why the set can be fitted on three discs. The brooding mood is certainly intensified by Elder’s approach, especially with the volume turned up a few notches higher than usual; if you don’t, the opening interchange between Siegmund and Sieglinde is almost inaudible.

When things get going in Scene Three, Stig Andersen and Yvonne Howard are up against stiff competition from their distinguished predecessors in the big set-pieces. In Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater Andersen gives a fine account of himself. Once again Elder takes the music at a fairly sedate pace by comparison with Leinsdorf and Solti, though at around the same pace as Karajan and even a trifle faster than Böhm. I wondered at first if the tempo was going to work, but very soon willingly suspended disbelief (track 10). In Winterstürme wichen dem Mond (CD 1, track 13) Elder keeps the music moving, as the winter storms yield to the music of May. Here again Andersen rises to the occasion, yielding nothing to James King (Solti and Böhm) or Jon Vickers (Leinsdorf).

I cut some of my first Wagnerian teeth on Kirsten Flagstad singing der Männer Sippe and Du bist der Lenz (with Knappertsbusch, coupled with Wesendoncklieder, now on Eloquence 480 1796, 2 CDs – see review). Though Flagstad was then over 60, her performance here and in the complete Act I which she recorded a year later was a stupendous achievement. Even Régine Crespin (Solti) and Gré Brouwenstijn (Leinsdorf) don’t quite match her, but they come very close – Leonie Rysanek (Böhm) less so – and so does Yvonne Howard (CD1, track 14) who, I understand, took on the role at short notice.

Together she and Andersen bring the act to a glorious conclusion. It’s a difficult task for just the two singers to keep interest alive throughout over an hour in the first act. That’s perhaps the reason why my interest perks up towards the end of Act Two and throughout Act Three. That said, Andersen, Howard and Elder almost achieve the impossible. The well-deserved applause is retained throughout. I mention that because I know that some listeners are put off by it.

For the ultimate test in Act I, I turned to Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde and Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund (1935, with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic). Though the sound is inevitably dated, the EMI transfer is good enough to allow us to hear what a stupendous version this is. Surprisingly, the Naxos Music Library doesn’t seem to offer their own 2-CD transfer of the whole of Act I and part of Act II – see review by Jonathan Woolf and review by Robert J Farr – but you will find the EMI version of Act I there (no longer available on CD except from Arkivmusic.com?). UK purchasers can download the Naxos from classicsonline.com. NB: the tracks on the EMI transfer are badly placed, with Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond and Du bist der Lenz starting well after the beginning in each case; the Naxos divisions are more carefully done.

I must warn you that returning to this recording, which I hadn’t heard for a considerable time, knocked my socks off. If you listen even to the 30-second excerpts from the classicsonline.com website, whatever other Walküre you have you’ll need to have this in one form or another; there’s also a Danacord transfer. The new Hallé version, very good as it is, can’t quite match up to it.

I haven’t mentioned Clive Bayley’s Hunding; he’s good – menacing even when offering temporary hospitality to his enemy, without dominating the action to the same extent as Gottlob Frick on the Solti recording. I understand that some of the applause was – justifiably – directed at him.

The Prelude to Act II is taken at a fairly fast pace – mere seconds slower than Solti or Böhm. Egils Silins as Wotan and Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde are a little slower to warm up than some of their rivals. Here I felt that the live recording yielded a little to the studio versions and even to the live Böhm recording. Both voices are slightly backward in the balance. Silins was apparently poorly – the notorious Manchester weather – which perhaps accounts for my slight disappointment. It may be that seeing the singers would have helped redress this balance problem, but I note that some of those present on the night were also slightly underwhelmed by both Silins and Bullock.

Fricka should come over as a wife not to mess with. I thought that Susan Bickley was only partially successful in intimidating Wotan into agreeing to destroy Siegmund. She doesn’t quite summon up the violent storm which Brünnhilde predicts when she approaches and which the stage direction demands: in höchste Entrüstung ausbrechend. Whatever else I think of Silins his reluctant and defeated Was verlangst du? (CD 2, tr.6) certainly conveys the henpecked husband most successfully.

The ensuing discussion between Wotan and Brünnhilde is effectively managed, though it has to be admitted that the plot summary of the action of Das Rheingold – yet to be composed when Die Walküre was first performed, so necessary because Wagner conceived the operas in reverse order – is somewhat tedious. It’s important too that those not familiar with the Norse story of the Vølsungs should know of Wotan’s guise as Wälse and his engendering of Siegmund and Sieglinde. This is the most arid part of the opera and even Elder and his singers can’t make it otherwise.

CD 3 opens with the Act II Todesverkündigung, in which Brünnhilde warns Siegmund of his impending death and journey to Valhalla. Flagstad recorded this scene with Set Svanholm and Georg Solti – it originally appeared with Act III on a 2-LP set. It now features on the Eloquence set with Wesendoncklieder, which I’ve already mentioned in connection with Du bist der Lenz. Both Flagstad and Svanholm are in glorious voice and they remain my benchmark for this scene. Try listening on Spotify if you need to be convinced or reminded. You’ll find the whole 10-CD Decca Kirsten Flagstad Edition there, free if you can bear the ads. Don’t be tempted by what looks like a bargain download version offered by several websites on the Hallmark label – the short extracts from it which I’ve sampled suggest that a very poor copy of the original LPs was employed.

Neither Bullock nor Andersen can quite match the power of Flagstad and Svanholm. They take a little while to reach full throttle, though Elder and Hallé give them very able support. After a slowish burn, the scene develops the requisite intensity. I haven’t yet mentioned the vital part which the orchestra plays, so let me say that they have some claim to be the stars of the whole production, even by comparison with the Vienna Philharmonic on rival recordings.

Even leaving aside that earlier recording with Flagstad and Svanholm, Nilsson, King and Solti achieve more intensity here and do so more quickly, assisted by the greater presence of the studio recording. The same is true of the same two singers on the Böhm recording, though that was recorded live. It’s only by making comparisons, as in the case of Siegmund’s So grüße mir Walhall, that the new version disappoints slightly. Take it on its own merits and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

I’m not going to make detailed comparisons with the Flagstad/Solti Act III – it’s beyond comparison. There is, however, one other classic recording which needs to be considered. As well as appearing on the three complete recordings, Birgit Nilsson recorded the last 39 minutes of Act III, with Hans Hotter, for EMI: Great Recordings 5097022, a very well filled CD, with music from other Wagner operas. In War es so schmählich? she starts in an understated manner, keeping the power of her voice in check. Even so, she does not allow her powerful voice to be swamped by Hotter, still at full strength when the recording was made in the late 1950s.

These performances still sound as stupendous as they did in 1959 when Philip Hope-Wallace reviewed the LP. Colin Clarke was equally impressed by the CD reissue – review – as was Göran Forsling by the parallel reissue on the Archipel label (ARPCD0334: Recording of the Month – review). Listen to this recording via the Naxos Music Library and, like the Lehmann-Melchior-Walter Act I, you’ll want it in your collection. Don’t be tempted to purchase via the classicsonline.com button, though: the download will cost you twice as much as the CD – the latter available for around £7 – unless their illogical pricing policy has been sorted out by the time that you read this review. If the Magic Fire Music (track 9) is a little less than magical in the hands of Leopold Ludwig, that’s no great handicap.

Elder and his team can’t quite match that, but they don’t disappoint. The Interlude which opens Scene 3 is taken at a sedate pace and, as with the Todesverkündigung, the tension builds only slowly in the interchange between Brünnhilde and Wotan. I don’t want to suggest that Elder’s pace is too slow. In fact it falls between extremes; on the new recording, tracks 9 to 12 take a total of 15:27 against Böhm’s 13:46, Solti’s 16:56 and Nilsson, Hotter/Ludwig 17:31. I can’t give an exact equivalent for Flagstad/Solti or Leinsdorf, where the tracks are differently divided, but Leinsdorf is on the faster side here, like Böhm. Splitting the difference isn’t always the answer, but here it seems to me about right. Above all it’s the tenderness of the father-daughter relationship that is stressed more strongly on the Hallé set than anywhere else.

If Leopold Ludwig slightly let the side down in 1957 with the Magic Fire Music, here Elder’s direction of the Hallé and their glorious performance of the closing moments is one of the glories of the set. Once again the brief selection of applause that has been retained is very well deserved.

Apart from the occasional balance problems which I’ve mentioned – almost inevitable in a live recording, even with some subtle assistance from the rehearsal – the sound is very good throughout, though benefiting from a volume increase.

The new recording is enshrined on five discs, all presented neatly in the kind of case that used to be employed for 2- and 3-disc sets. Four CDs contain the performance; the fifth disc has the text, English translation and photographs from the performance. The slim booklet offers only a brief synopsis. It’s a nuisance having to print out the libretto or keep looking at the computer screen, but it does keep down the cost. If you have another recording you can use the booklet from that – better still if you have the Faber book with the texts of the whole Ring alongside Andrew Porter’s translation.

I’m pleased to see that the Hallé translation is a good deal more idiomatic than the one which I first borrowed from the Oxford Union library to listen to a Bayreuth broadcast fifty years ago. The opening words of Sieglinde there unfortunately translated as ‘A stranger here/I must accost him.’ That becomes ‘A stranger?/I must question him.’ in the new version. Better still, though less literal is Andrew Porter’s singable and idiomatic English ‘A stranger here?/Where has he come from?’

It doesn’t appear that the Hallé plan to repeat the experiment of offering a version on mp3 alongside the conventional CD set, as they did so successfully with Götterdämmerung. Die Walküre is, however, offered at a keen price – £22 post free world-wide from MusicWeb International here – which makes it competitive with the latest releases of the older recordings. I’m not about to jettison any of the rivals which I’ve mentioned, apart from the DVD set, but I’m sure to be returning to Elder and his team. After almost two weeks of exhaustive comparisons between different versions of this opera, without tiring of hearing it, it’s fair to say that Die Walküre has risen in my estimation, a tribute not least to this new recording.

Brian Wilson

Musicweb-International.com (III)

Mark Elder insists that he and the Hallé Orchestra are not in the process of recording a full Ring cycle. That’s a great shame, as this Walküre is as fine a recording as their previous and much-lauded Götterdämmerung. Wagner recorded live in concert is rapidly becoming the rule rather than the exception, and full Ring cycles in that format from both Gergiev and Janowski are scheduled for the composer’s bicentenary in 2013. No doubt both will be impressive offerings, but it is hard to imagine that either will have anything further to say on Walküre than Mark Elder has had to say here.

The performance was split across two consecutive evenings at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. There were no patch sessions, but the mics were in place at the rehearsals, and some of this has been edited in. The result manages to capture the best of both worlds – it’s as note-perfect as a studio recording, but as atmospheric and dramatically coherent as a concert performance.

From Mark Elder’s description of the project, the whole thing was much more precarious than the assured quality of the recording suggests. The concerts were only made possible through sponsorship hastily convened by the Manchester Festival. The cast includes three singers, Sarah Castle, Yvonne Howard and Elaine McKrill, who were drafted in as short-notice replacements.

Mark Elder is clearly the sort of conductor who would only embark on such a project if he knew he could do it full justice. He has rehearsed the orchestra magnificently, not only to follow his occasionally esoteric tempos, but also to maintain a consistency of spirit and tone across the huge spans of each of the acts. Elder also has that crucial operatic quality of being able to give his soloists, both vocal and instrumental, the space they need to shape their melodic lines, while still maintaining the symphonic logic of the whole. The orchestra repays his confidence in them with inspired playing at every turn. The horns deserve a special mention. They are kept busy throughout, but rarely have the horn parts sounded so fresh and vital as here. Great woodwind playing too. The woodwind soloists really benefit from the quality of the sound recording, which both balances them against the ensemble, and picks them out from the centre of the group with consistent clarity. You’ll also hear better trumpets and trombones here than on most other recordings of the work.

The performance is very much an interpretation, with Mark Elder imprinting his musical personality on every phrase. Elder’s pacing is similar to the way he speaks. It is steady, clear and undemonstrative. Clarity of phrase and rhythm comes though accentuation, from the heels of the strings’ bows and from the brass, while the passion and drama are projected through the very wide dynamic range. The orchestral set pieces – the Act 1 Prelude, the Ride of the Valkyries, the Magic Fire music – are all on the steady side as far as tempos go. The definite and deliberate accentuation ensures that the slower speeds never threaten the atmosphere or drama. Everything feels like an emphatic statement, and nothing is ever treated as trivial or transitory. In the context of other famous recordings of the work, Elder’s steady tempos resemble Haitink, the agogic weight from the orchestra approaches Solti, while the communication from the podium and the immaculate preparation are more akin to Karajan.

There are no huge names in the cast, which ironically helps to maintain consistent quality between the singers. Every one of them is equal to Wagner’s challenges, and despite the concert hall setting, there is a real feeling of dramatic involvement from each of the leads. Susan Bickley is a suitably angry Fricka, while Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde sounds both wayward and emotionally complex. The singers also articulate the German with a rare clarity, another quality that benefits from the excellent sound engineering. The bass in the mix is particularly strong and well-defined, all the better to hear the excellent performances from the lower male voices, Clive Bayley as Hunding and Eglis Silins as Wotan.

No cast for a Wagner opera is completely flawless. Susan Bullock is considered one of the finest Brünnhildes of today, but I find her wide, penetrating vibrato excessive, especially on the top notes. That said, her performance is less abrasive than on the recent recording of the work from Frankfurt Opera (Oehms Classics OC 936). Despite the fact that the opera was divided across two nights, some of the singers can be heard to tire, which is perfectly understandable given the duration and intensity of many of the monologues. Stig Andersen’s Siegmund sounds much fresher at the start of Act 1 than at the end. Eglis Silins has similar problems towards the end of Act 2, although he’s back on form for Act 3, and then manages to maintain the tone right until the end.

These are minor quibbles though, and the overall impression this recording gives is of consistently high musical standards from singers and orchestra alike. Excellent sound quality too, all of which suggests significant investment to make the recording the best it could possibly be. The packaging is a little less opulent. The booklet gives only a track-listing, a very brief synopsis and an orchestra list, all on unlaminated paper. An additional CD-ROM is included with images of the concerts and a pdf libretto. In fact, there are only three photos, a cursory offering at best, and the libretto seems redundant, considering that it is widely available online. Personally, I’d rather a pdf of the full score, which could easily be added at no further expense to anybody.

The packaging is the only concession to economy here, and if the qualities of the recording itself were not enough to recommend the release, the budget price tag ought to seal the deal. Even the reissues of Solti and Karajan conducting the opera cost more than this brand new one. So here’s hoping that the resources and opportunities will be found for a Rheingold and Siegfried in the same series. Should they materialise, this could become one of the great Ring cycles of our times.

Gavin Dixon


The concert hall is fast becoming the medium of choice for operatic recording. It’s easy to see why: the frisson of live performance is safeguarded, yet the pitfalls – not least ‘noises off’ – of a busy stage are largely avoided. Die Walküre, steeped as it is in psychological intimacy, lends itself particularly well to being performed as ‘pure’ music, because if one excludes the set-piece ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ practically the entire opera unfolds in scenes of emotional turmoil between two or three characters. So if, as Mark Elder has signalled, this second instalment of his ‘Manchester Ring’ is likely to be the last, then he has chosen well. His performance of Die Walküre, which comes hard on the heels of a mightily successful live recording of Götterdämmerung, is a triumph of musicianship and raw drama.

The decision to split the performance across two evenings ensured that fatigue was held at bay among musicians and singers alike, and from first note to last the collective accuracy and energy remain crisp despite the conductor’s expansive tempos and demanding technical standards. Elder takes no prisoners with this reading, yet his troops serve him well thoughout Wagner’s heavenly lengths.

Of the two pairings at the opera’s heart the immortals, Brünnhilde and Wotan, are more powerfully characterised than the latter’s incestuous offspring. Stig Andersen is an impassioned Siegmund, but his voice lacks heroic luminosity and there is no great sense of connection between him and his new-found sister, Sieglinde – a role that Yvonne Howard assumed at very short notice for this performance. Howard is note-perfect and vocally ideal for the part; however, even before I became aware that she had been a last-minute substitute it was apparent that this fine soprano was not fully ‘inside’ the role.

The real excitement lies in the psychological dialogue between Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde and the Wotan of Egils Silins. The Latvian bass-baritone’s remarkable account of this complex role is consistently truthful, his voice sympathetically caught by the microphones. Silins did not exactly dominate the stage when he stood in as the Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera in 2011, and here too it is true that his vocal quality lacks bloom and heft; yet such are his intelligence and engagement with the score’s dramatic impetus that the troubled god’s anguish is rendered utterly gripping.

It helps that Silins is partnered by an equally outstanding Brünnhilde. Any perceived exhaustion belongs not to the singer but to Brünnhilde herself as she struggles to appease her father while standing by her principles. Tensions between the two immortals are brilliantly sustained throughout, despite Elder’s deliberate speeds and lack of febricity, and as for Bullock’s ‘Valkyrie’ moments, the pinging accuracy of her high whoops makes the spine tingle.

Eight more strong Valkyries ride hard above the orchestral swell at the start of Act Three, each of them adding lustre to the musical excitement, while two astute artists, Clive Bayley (Hunding) and Susan Bickley (Fricka), make their own telling contributions to the recording’s success. Notwithstanding the retention of intrusive applause at the end of each act and the inadequacy of the documentation on the accompanying disc (it contains a bare-bones libretto and translation without so much as a stage direction to illuminate the context), this version of Die Walküre is far more than a souvenir of a memorable event. Among a rich harvest of great recordings, it is a contender.

Mark Valencia

The Guardian

With a fine cast led by that pearl among current Brünnhildes, Susan Bullock, and conducted by Mark Elder, an inspired Wagnerian of long standing, this live 2011 concert recording of Die Walküre is a knockout. The Hallé and Elder have built up their Wagner gradually, first with single movements and then, starting at the end of the Ring cycle, with a blistering Götterdämmerung. Here in the second opera once again the orchestral playing is richly nuanced, never hurried, alert in detail. Stig Andersen and Yvonne Howard express blazing urgency as Siegmund and Sieglinde, with Clive Bayley a masterful, brutal Hunding. Egils Silins’s Wotan is tender and anguished in his farewell to Brünnhilde. Loge’s fire music burns with slow intensity, no mere sparkler but an all-consuming furnace.

Fiona Maddocks | 27 May 2012

The Telegraph

Mark Elder’s conducting emphasises the score’s romantic grandeur through the cultivation of a rich, deep orchestral sound in this recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Following their magnificent Götterdämmerung in 2008, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé continue what one hopes will ultimately be a complete recording of the Ring cycle with this hugely impressive account of its second episode. Like Götterdämmerung, it has been taken live from rehearsals and a concert performance in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, given last July as part of the Manchester International Festival.

Elder’s conducting emphasises the score’s romantic grandeur through the cultivation of a rich, deep orchestral sound and firm, even stately tempos which build tension over the long arcs of each act. Some credit for the total confidence he evinces must pass to the players of the Hallé, with whom he has developed such a powerful bond and whose performance is world class.

If only the singing matched up. A very decent cast has been assembled and it pulls its weight valiantly, but one longs in vain for voices that can ride the music at the same level as the conductor and orchestra. The best of them is Susan Bullock, a Brünnhilde of admirable intelligence and musicality, if less than radiant of tone. But Yvonne Howard’s Sieglinde is workaday, Egils Silins turns Wotan into a dull dog and Stig Andersen makes a geriatric Siegmund. The Valkyries, however, are excellent.

The recording is spread over four CDs; a fifth contains the libretto and translation and pictures from the performance. At a bargain price, this is something that can be recommended to every true Wagner fan.

Rupert Christiansen | 15 Jun 2012


In 2010, the Hallé performed Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in two concerts in Manchester; the recording made from the live performances was named BBC Music Magazine Opera Choice in July that year. Following that success, I’m pleased to report that this recording of Die Walküre is every bit as good. As before, Sir Mark Elder is the driving force, with an approach that’s powerfully measured and beautifully detailed, nowhere more so than in Act I.

His cast is also excellent. Even tenor Stig Andersen, after some disappointing recent performances, proves a capable Siegmund; and though mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard was a late replacement, her nervy, vulnerable Sieglinde is beautifully sung. After his Opera North years, Clive Bayley has matured into a black bass, equal to great Germans such as Josef Greindl and Gottlob Frick.

From Act II on, though, the performance really gathers fire. Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins is a truly towering Wotan, embodying the god’s strengths and sorrows with compelling personality and vocal power. Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley’s steely Fricka could grace any stage in the world, and their confrontation is electrifying.

Soprano Susan Bullock’s initially girlish, bright-toned Brünnhilde acquires heroic stature so swiftly that one ignores her minor moments of strain. Her Valkyrie sisters, too, are a vibrantly fresh-sounding crew.

This special recording knocks spots off anything we’ve had from the continent in recent years.

Michael Scott Rohan | 28 August 2012


The Hallé’s L-O-N-G Walküre

I had read such great things about these performances on an opera chat board when they were current (the opera was recorded in two sections on two consecutive evenings in Manchester, England—July 15 and 16, 2011), that I looked forward to the release of the CDs. The performance isn’t for me.

As a rule, I prefer Böhm/Krauss-like performances to Levine/Furtwängler-like performances—i.e., quick and tense rather than slow and epic/narrative, but there are exceptions, such as the Karajan Walküre, which though slowish, is simply ravishing. Mark Elder, on this set, is very slow: just for the record, his acts take 71 minutes, 99 minutes, and 77 minutes, respectively. I won’t offer a thorough comparison and will not cheat by comparing his four-hours-and-seven-minutes to Boulez’s speed-freak 3 hours and 37 minutes, but I will note that the notoriously pokey Reginald Goodall, whose Walküre is strangely quick (for him), is only three minutes longer than Elder. Goodall somehow gets away with it; his tension is of a different, god-is-in-the-details type.

Elder allows things to slacken. The very fact that his prelude is a full third slower than Solti’s (4:16 vs 3:15) is a giveaway. You are more aware of the sheer sound of the very low strings than you are of the depiction of a treacherous storm; it chugs along like a train going up a hill. And his control over dynamics can throw things off—both the orchestra and voices during the opening exchange between the twins are so hushed as to be inaudible at any normally-set volume level. Hunding’s menace is undercut by the slow reaction time as well.

On the other hand, once the “Wintersturme” gets going, the flow is properly enchanting and the act ends in exultation, as it should. The slowness continues throughout, with the Brünnhilde/Wotan Act 2 give-and-take and Wotan’s Farewell so micro-managed that they lack the requisite tension: we’re too aware of the music to hear the drama. An odd critique, I realize, but there it is. The Todesverkündigung lacks the sheer opulence of voices required, and normally, when Brünnhilde is trying to lure Siegmund to Valhalla, the orchestra glistens with peace, majesty, and beauty. It goes for little here. However, the Valkyries’ chatter after the Ride and through Sieglinde’s outburst is both thrilling and chilling.

The singing is mostly quite good. Both Stig Andersen (Siegmund) and Yvonne Howard (Sieglinde) can almost stand up to the competition, which is fierce, and she reaches greatness in in Act 3. Clyve Bayley’s Hunding sounds nasty and unyielding, but as mentioned, a shorter temper would have been welcome. Susan Bickley’s Fricka is a formidable foe, but the voice itself is not on the level of, say, Christa Ludwig, and she does not rule the roost as she ought to in her brief but potent appearance.

Susan Bullock is the Brünnhilde. She begins quite poorly, with a nasty wobble on the sustained high Bs (here, Elder’s tempos are sensibly urgent, which should have helped), but she is a sensitive artist and her words always seem to come first. The fear in her voice as the final scene begins is palpable, and she is very moving throughout the scene, with the tessitura in a comfortable place. Egils Silins, a Latvian bass-baritone, has a wonderful way with both words and music. Most of his second act is sung quietly (saving his voice?) and he tells his long tale to Brünnhlide as a loving father would. Much later in the opera, after his anger abates, he reverts to quiet singing: this is a very sad Wotan, more at home with being a father than a god. It’s a fine performance and might have been better had the second-act narrative not threatened to come to a grinding halt.

The orchestra has some brass bobbles in the last act but is otherwise excellent. And Elder, like it or not—and I’ve made it clear that I don’t—has a point of view that he argues well. He has the long, story-telling arc down pat; one scene melts into the next with a natural flow. But let’s face it: there’s not a voice—or personality—here that can compare with Talvela or Frick as Hunding; Rysanek or Janowitz as Sieglinde; Varnay or Nilsson as Brünnhilde; Hotter or Tomlinson as Wotan; or Vickers as Siegmund. The opera is on 4 CDs, with a fifth containing libretto and notes.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 8

Robert Levine


I suspect that, to an even greater extent than his award-winning Götterdämmerung (7/10), the second instalment of Sir Mark Elder’s Hallé Ring cycle will divide critical opinion. The fruit of the conductor’s long experience of Wagner, and with the benefit of orchestral playing strong in discipline and powerful in eloquence, this performance is as coherent and consistent as any of the many other fine recordings currently on offer. Even a listener who finds the main tempo of the final scene too slow, generating more sentimentality than solemnity, is likely to be struck by the unusual restraint of the orchestral playing as Wotan lays Brünnhilde to rest, and by the remarkable range of moods, between gentle quietness and heroic incisiveness, summoned up by the Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins.

Silins’s achievement is the more spectacular since it was apparently thought until shortly before Act 2 began that indisposition might prevent him from completing the performance. With Yvonne Howard a late substitute for the planned Sieglinde, this was clearly one of those Wagner events in which the resolve of all concerned was tested to the utmost, and the fact that the recording includes takes from rehearsals as well as from the actual performances doubtless reflects this. Like Susan Bullock (Brünnhilde), Howard might have sounded less edgily vibrant in a less closely focused acoustic. Neither singer seems entirely at ease with the German text, yet they are both as dramatically engaged as they would be on stage, and Bullock’s final plea to Wotan is as thrilling as with most if not all of her recorded rivals. Susan Bickley also makes as much as possible of Fricka’s starchy tirades in Act 2.

Elder’s preference for relatively broad tempi is clear from early in Act 1; parts of Siegmund’s monologue, as well as ‘Winterstürme’, could well be judged lethargic, though Stig Andersen is alert and characterful throughout, without excessive emoting, and Clive Bayley is an imposingly black-voiced Hunding. With fewer issues concerning tempo, Act 2 contributes greatly to the accumulating dramatic tension and to confirming the overall conviction of Elder’s approach. Perhaps the most important point is that, in a crowded field, Elder has a cast, as well as an interpretative stance, that ensure a distinctive as well as a memorable experience. However well you think you know Die Walküre, this recording should leave you in renewed awe at Wagner’s genius – not a bad thing as his bicentenary approaches.

Arnold Whittall


The Hallé Orchestra, led by Sir Mark Elder, followed their award-winning 2009 Götterdämmerung with a concert performance of Die Walküre over two nights, prefaced by Gerard McBurney’s new work, The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan. With an array of famed soloists, Elder masterminded a triumph, with the magnificent Hallé showing their quality on the concert stage.

The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan is a drama for three actors, supported by lighting and orchestral excerpts from The Ring. The central figure is Richard Wagner, played by Roger Allam (The Thick of It), reading from the composer’s letters, essays and conversations, and interacting with two supporting figures, who read from others’ writing to and about Wagner. The work shows the composition of various elements of The Ring in the circumstance of Wagner’s political activism. Interesting links were made with the present, serving to give context to the Hallé performance. Most striking of these was the likening of the descent into Nibelheim to the industrial Manchester described by Friedrich Engels. Many other themes were suggested, but the nature of the piece as a brief introduction to Wagner and Walküre prevented full exploration. It was, however, a useful prologue to the opera to follow, and Allam’s Wagner was very well-acted.

Though Acts II and III were presented on the following day, the performance might nearly have been as one. Elder’s sense of structure drove the music at precisely the right pace through the whole opera. Yvonne Howard was a late replacement as Sieglinde, and despite singing from the score she gave a touching performance, her voice carrying a sense of the young Wälsung’s innocence. Clive Bayley’ Hunding was suitably powerful and contemptuous, filling the sound-space with great conviction. The finest performance, though, came from Stig Anderson as Siegmund. He captured every nuance of the role, rising from exhaustion to ecstatic joy at the end of Act I. The Orchestra played very well indeed to Elder’s high demands. The lower strings were particularly impressive, giving nervous menace to the prelude and lyrical tenderness later. One or two dramatic moments were slightly cautious, but overall the playing was excellent.

Elder’s ability to craft a passage or act into good shape was evident throughout, with the later acts growing in intensity to powerful climaxes. The characters themselves were well crafted by the singers. Wotan’s struggle with Fricka gave a hint of his diminishing powers, and Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde gave a full spectrum of emotion from young confidence, defiant anger and, faced with Wotan, childlike fear. Brünnhilde’s development from early innocence to tragedy commanded pity and respect by the time she came to be left to sleep. Similarly, Wotan’s rage and subsequent shift to sorrow at leaving Brünnhilde, was very well engineered by Egils Silins. Elder warned the audience before the start of the second night that all was not well with Silins’ voice, and that a deputy Wotan was hurrying up the M6. The deputy was not needed, however, as Silins gave no indication of ailing. He sang in turns with tremendous power, quiet anger and tragic resignation when required, all the while underpinned by an equally varied orchestral palette. The Hallé played magnificently throughout, with hauntingly touching solos from cor anglais and cello. The large brass and percussion sections were excellent, always achieving an ideal sound.

The two evenings of Walküre were very successful, and the standing ovation was well deserved. The performance was recorded, and listeners will wait eagerly for the release of the recording, and, hopefully, completion of the Hallé Ring in the next few years.

Rohan Shotton | 19 Juli 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1.1 Mbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 2.1 GByte (flac 24-44)
Broadcast (BBC 3)
Concert performances from the Manchester International Festival in 2011
I don’t know if the BBC broadcast and the CD release are identical.
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.