Die Walküre

Jaap van Zweden
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
21/23 January 2016
Cultural Centre Concert Hall Hong Kong
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundStuart Skelton
HundingFalk Struckmann
WotanMatthias Goerne
SieglindeHeidi Melton
BrünnhildePetra Lang
FrickaMichelle DeYoung
HelmwigeKatherine Broderick
GerhildeKaren Foster
OrtlindeElaine McKrill
WaltrauteSarah Castle
SiegruneAurhelia Varak
GrimgerdeOkka von der Damerau
SchwertleiteAnna Burford
RoßweißeLaura Nykänen

From the very opening moments, it is clear that this is going to be a particularly fine Walküre. The Hong Kong Philharmonic may have had a chequered past on disc (as well as in the flesh, it has to be said) but they have landed firmly on their feet with their current Wagner project. Under their musical director, Jaap van Zweden, they easily pass muster as one of the more instinctive Wagner orchestras of our time. This is not just very good playing: it is outstanding. It has a wonderful breadth of sound—superbly recorded in these live sessions taken from concert performances in the somewhat difficult acoustic environment of Hong Kong’s iconic wedge-shaped Cultural Centre—and Zweden masterfully manipulates the balance, so that we have a gloriously rich and robust sound across the entire orchestral spectrum. Brass is smooth and polished, never uncomfortably dominant, strings have a tremendously incisive cutting edge, especially in their lower registers, while the woodwind and percussion give it all a sense of great richness.

Jaap van Zweden’s decision to perform Wagner’s complete Ring cycle in Hong Kong—the first time it has ever been done there and the first time ever by a Chinese orchestra—left many marvelling at his faith in an orchestra not in any way versed in the intricacies of such music, let alone in involving themselves in serious opera. The four parts are being presented in instalments over a four-year period as concert performances. Das Rheingold opened the proceedings in 2015, with Siegfried being done there this month and Götterdämmerung early in 2018. Each of the four parts of the cycle is being recorded by Naxos which, let us not forget, is also based in Hong Kong.

If Das Rheingold was good, Die Walküre is exceptional. Much of that is down to the orchestral playing, which never flags for a moment and produces a truly spectacular conclusion to Act 1 and a wonderfully exhilarating “Ride of the Valkyries” in Act 3. Zweden’s sense of dramatic timing and overall pacing drives it all along with a growing feeling of inevitability. His climaxes are reserved but skilfully managed, and the moments of real musical drama (as with Wotan’s rage as he pursues the errant Brünnhilde in Act 3) are vividly conveyed. As for the cast, Zweden has collected a particularly good team around him. They may not all be at the very top of their game, but none of them could be identified as a weak spot.

No reservations about Stuart Skelton as a gloriously robust, virile and assertive Siegmund, nor Heidi Melton’s delicious Sieglinde. Matthias Goerne’s Wotan is uneven, often richly expressive and suitably commanding, especially in his Act 2 command to Brünnhilde to ensure Siegmund’s victory over Hunding. Occasionally he lacks the authority to be convincing, notably in his confrontation with Fricka, who, imperiously sung by Michelle DeYoung, is very much in vocal command here. I am uncomfortable with Petra Lang’s almost screeching swoops as she sets out to do Wotan’s bidding in Act 2. It sometimes seem that her recent switch from mezzo to soprano has left some of the control wanting as she moves from one part of the voice to another. However, as with Falk Struckmann’s Hunding, the characters are vividly portrayed even if the voices have inconsistencies. Particular praise must go to the group of Valkyries who sing with a remarkable sense of unity and vocal balance. Between them they produce some of the most enchanting singing on the discs.

Any Wagner production is the result of a successful bringing together of many diverse strands, not all of which may, in isolation, withstand the closest scrutiny. By extremely good fortune, what we have here is a Wagner production which has brought together some very impressive performers and created a singularly outstanding whole. This Hong Kong production is turning out to be a Ring of exceptional quality.

Marc Rochester

The Guardian

Van Zweden’s thrillingly vivid concert recording

Recorded in concert in Hong Kong at the beginning of this year, the second part of Jaap van Zweden’s Ring Cycle for Naxos easily maintains the high standard and promise of Das Rheingold, 12 months ago.

As before, the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra provides the foundation of the performance, putting down its marker in a taut, intense account of the first-act prelude and maintaining its grip right through to the radiant account of the Magic Fire music with which Die Walküre ends. Van Zweden’s sense of pacing and drama never falters either, and some of the climaxes he engineers are thrillingly vivid – the orchestral depiction of Wotan’s rage as he seeks out Brünnhilde in the third act is as frightening as any on disc.

And once again, he has a first rate cast. The Siegmund and Sieglinde are Stuart Skelton and Heidi Melton, the Tristan and Isolde in ENO’s recent production.

Some may find Melton’s fast, tight vibrato intrusive at times, though her commitment and steely intensity are never to be doubted, and she really rises to the challenge of her final scene with Siegmund. Skelton is magnificent throughout, surely without a rival in the role today. He’s meltingly lyrical in the love duet, bringing a baritonal richness to some phrases, and sounds even more youthful and ardent alongside Falk Struckmann’s rather woolly, elderly sounding Hunding.

Matthias Goerne’s Wotan sometimes seems to be a performance in the making. There are phrases, in the Farewell especially, that are wonderfully gilded and coloured, while others seem gruff and peremptory, and moments in his long second-act confrontation with Fricka, who is very much a woman not to be denied as Michelle DeYoung presents her, when his sound becomes gravelly and introspective, as if he was singing into his metaphorical beard.

But Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde makes a formidable foil; as a former mezzo who has been born again as a dramatic soprano, she makes the most of her striking lower register, especially in the annunciation of death scene with Skelton in the second act, even though that part of her voice does not always connect smoothly with the higher registers. Overall, the performances become much more than the sum of their parts, some of which are outstanding anyway.

Andrew Clements | 9 November 2016


The second instalment of Naxos’s live Hong Kong concert Ring is more compelling than last year’s respectable but careful Das Rheingold (11/15). Most noticeably, Jaap van Zweden has broken free of both tradition and over-literal score-reading to interpret what is in front of him. Now he’s not afraid with either his singers or his players to vary tempi and dynamics quite radically according to the drama of the libretto.

Thus Heidi Melton’s generous-voiced Sieglinde is given all the space in the world to make the narration about the twins’ father Wotan the high point of Act 1 that it should be – a result only slightly hindered by Naxos’s microphones seeming less sympathetic to her enunciation than, say, Bavarian Radio’s were at Bayreuth last summer. Van Zweden follows up by allowing Stuart Skelton’s accurate and virile Siegmund equal space in ‘Heiligste Minne, höchste Not’ to prepare the drawing of the sword from the tree. He then wraps up the act – to hell with written instructions – with an all-out gallop to the final curtain.

Similarly, in Acts 2 and 3, the chosen tempi regularly contrast slow, grand (and self-doubting) Wotan with swift, instinctive and impetuous Brünnhilde. Matthias Goerne is in almost indecently good voice, helped no doubt by the recording conditions (selection of material from two concerts plus ‘patching’ sessions) to last out the role’s length with aplomb. Petra Lang may annoy as much as she pleases. The standard euphemism about ‘great character’ – and an uncanny similarity to Martha Mödl’s singing of the role in the 1950s – covers some sins not so much of pitch but of placing of the voice. Lang can sound both very old and very young but there’s never a doubt where we are in the role’s psychology.

Around these big four the supporting cast are not lacking. Michelle DeYoung argues Fricka’s case with power and sweep; Falk Struckmann, in a new part of the Wagner Fach for him, uses text rather than colour to frighten as Hunding. The Valkyrie group is well chosen – someone with an excellent ear has sampled recent European cast lists skilfully. These girls not only make for a tight ensemble but provide a real foil in their little individual moments for Wotan and Brünnhilde.

The recorded balance favours the voices at all times, pushing the consistently fine orchestra further back than it sounded in Das Rheingold. So this is not a theatre balance and I could occasionally have done with more sheer heft from the band, for example as Wotan (and the brass) starts to get very angry both before and after his Act 2 monologue. Overall though – and notwithstanding the amount of strong, familiar and older competition from the rest of the catalogue – this is an impressive and likeable achievement.

Mike Ashman

Washington Post

The new Naxos recording of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” marks tenor Stuart Skelton’s fourth commercial recording of the role of Siegmund, and easily his most impressive one. Only Jonas Kaufmann, among the Wagner-tenor elite, could arguably best Skelton’s handsomely sung, dramatically nuanced performance, and even Kaufmann can’t quite match the baritonal heft so thrillingly in evidence through much of Skelton’s singing.

Happily, Naxos has populated the rest of the cast with fine singing actors, as well. Matthias Goerne — an artist best known for his intimate, word-sensitive recitals of art song — is unexpectedly larger than life as Valhalla’s chief god, Wotan. His customarily lithe bass-baritone skews here toward an inky, glowering darkness, and his interpretation throughout is freighted with tragic import. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung partners Goerne well as a regally assured Fricka. Soprano Heidi Melton, as Sieglinde, compensates for an upper register that hardens under pressure by throwing herself fervently into the heroine’s downward-spiraling arc. And if Falk Struckmann’s baritone sounds a shade light in the menacing bass role of Hunding, his years of experience singing the part of Wotan have transferred intriguingly into an uncommonly noble-sounding take on this very different role.

With the linchpin character of Brunnhilde, we’re on somewhat shakier ground. Former mezzo Petra Lang has made this daunting soprano part something of a calling card of late. But, here, as in her appearance in the same role in Marek Janowski’s recent recording of this opera, her Martha Modl-like patchwork of gleaming high notes, hollow chest tones, sensitive phrasing and ungainly gearshifts between registers can be counted, at best, an idiosyncratic success.

This “Walküre” is part of an ongoing “Ring” cycle from the Hong Kong Philharmonic under its music director, Jaap van Zweden (recently appointed to the same post at the New York Philharmonic). Van Zweden conducts a structurally rock-solid account that builds effectively to the big moments but scores even more eloquently in beautifully molded, introspective treatments of the opera’s many quieter passages, supported by gorgeous work from the Hong Kong wind section. What a shame, then, that the exaggeratedly voice-forward recording balance dampens and distances much of Van Zweden’s excellent work with the orchestra. Better engineering could have made this “Walkure” a choice contender among recent recordings.

Joe Banno | December 16, 2016

Opera News

JAAP VAN ZWEDEN’S approach to Sieglinde’s “Du bist der Lenz” offers an index of his reading of Die Walküre. Some conductors rev up the aria’s intensity, making it the passionate climax of the three-aria sequence that starts with “Der Männer Sippe.” But that can turn the subsequent duet, “O süsseste Wonne,” into an anticlimax—a lull before the act’s culmination several minutes later. Van Zweden avoids that trap by pulling back, turning the aria into a moment of tender reverie—a mood carried forward in the dialogue that follows. The whole of Act I, Scene 3, emerges as a single arc, the climax placed exactly when Siegmund draws the sword from the tree and the twins acknowledge each other as siblings and lovers.

The sense of proportion that the conductor brings to the passage carries through the entire release, drawn from January 2016 Hong Kong concert performances. The big moments may pack less wallop than in other readings, but the musical throughline of the three acts emerges lucidly and lyrically. The texture of the Hong Kong Philharmonic is in general less weighty than that of a Central European orchestra—the lower strings depicting Siegmund’s trek through the storm are particularly papery—but its attention to timbral balance could be that of a chamber ensemble. Due perhaps to Naxos’s engineering, or to the acoustics of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, the orchestral sound is recessed in a way seldom heard in this music; at times, the voices seem all too far forward. But the band consistently offers the singers a luminous frame for their work—never more so than in Wotan’s monologue, in which the brass create a delicate web of sound to support Matthias Goerne’s exquisite singing.

As he was in last year’s Rheingold with the same forces, Goerne is a revelation. His beauty of tone and vivid projection of text will be no surprise to listeners who know his work in lieder; what’s astonishing is his ability to sustain these virtues throughout the long role, even in its most strenuous passages. I cannot guess whether Goerne would be able to achieve this level of distinction in a staged performance, but in the present circumstances he is ideal—a Hans Hotter for our time.

The Brünnhilde, Petra Lang, is unlikely to erase anyone’s memories of Flagstad or Nilsson, but she’s affecting. As might be expected of a former mezzo, her top is not her glory, making the opening battle cry rather rough. Lower down, her sound has an odd “bottled” quality—interesting to hear, if not remotely youthful. But her voice has the proper weight for the role, and her work is engaged and committed, with an attention to text rivaling Goerne’s. Lang made me attend to the warrior maiden’s plight as if I were encountering it for the first time.

Stuart Skelton, the Siegmund, has the thrust of a true Wagnerian tenor—as anyone who heard his recent Met Tristan could attest. But here I was struck by the voice’s sweetness. His Siegmund is as much lover as martial hero, thoroughly in line with van Zweden’s lyrical conception of the work. Heidi Melton, the Sieglinde, matches Skelton in tender beauty in her lower range. If she were able to bring commensurate warmth and fullness to her top notes, Melton would be a Wagnerian for the ages. But her voice unfortunately loses its center above the staff, which makes her singing least effective just when it should make its biggest impact.

The toughness of Michelle DeYoung’s tone allows her to portray Fricka’s anger vividly. But it’s a one-note performance, offering little sense of the goddess’s wounded pride or her thwarted affection for her wandering husband. Falk Struckmann, moving downward from the baritone repertory where he first made his mark, here sings Hunding. The traces of grit in his tone fit the warrior’s pitiless character; the veteran singer’s interpretive stance is solid. The Valkyries are somewhat less noisy than usual, their concerted bursts of laughter remarkably well-calibrated, very much in keeping with the character of this unusual—and unusually satisfying—Walküre.

Fred Cohn | March 2017 — Vol. 81, No. 9


NAXOS setzt mit dieser Aufnahme neue audiophile Maßstäbe

Basierend auf zwei konzertanten Aufführungen in der Cultural Centre Concert Hall vom Jänner 2016 ist der Hong Konger Ring nun in der Halbzeit angelangt. Nach einem aufsehenerregenden Rheingold allein schon wegen des Rollendebüts vom Matthias Goerne als Wotan, folgt nunmehr eine Walküre, die vor allem dank des spektakulären High Definition Sounds viel Freude bereitet. Kaum je wurde der Klang der menschlichen Stimme akustisch so authentisch und plastisch abgebildet, wie dies den Toningenieuren von NAXOS hier gelungen ist. Zu hören auf der Blu-ray Audio Version.

Der musikalische spiritus rector des Unterfangens, Jaap van Zweden, verlangt dem Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, das bei Bläsern; Harfen etc. durch Musiker aus Deutschland, Australien und den USA ergänzt wurde, viel an differenziertem Spiel ab. Die Tempi sind insbesondere im ersten Akt sehr breit gewählt, was Raum für Details gibt, aber Gefahr für die Spannung und das sängerische Durchhaltevermögen birgt. Im Vergleich zu Karajan (3h55), Haitink (3h50), Furtwängler (3h48) und den flotten Dirigenten C. Krauss (3h30) und Böhm (3h28) ist van Zweden mit 3h56 insgesamt der langsamste. Das Orchester klingt tendenziell hell und transparent, eine gehörige Portion Romantik mit eingeschlossen.

Die Besetzung zeigt viel von Freud und Leid in Bezug auf den Wagnergesang heute. Uneingeschränktes Lob und Bewunderung gebührt Stuart Skelton als Siegmund, der in dieser Rolle schon zweimal auf Tonträgern repräsentiert ist. In der Aufnahme aus dem Jahr 2010 mit den Hamburger Philharmonikern unter der Leitung von Simone Young und in der Ring-Gesamtaufnahme der Seattle Opera (2013) mit Asher Fisch als Dirigenten. In Hong Kong singt er einen jugendlich dramatischen Siegmund, metallisch grundiert mit viel Fingerspitzengefühl für die emotionalen Valeurs und spektakulären Höhepunkte seines Parts. Er ist in dieser Rolle auf jeden Fall in einem Atemzug mit Jonas Kaufmann und Andreas Schager zu nennen.

Ihm zur Seite gestaltet Heidi Melton die Sieglinde mit schöner dunkler Mittellage und schlanken Höhen. Gegenüber ihrer Sieglinde in Berlin ist mir aufgefallen, dass die Stimme zuweilen oben zu weit ausschwingt, was nicht gerade für eine lupenreine Gesangstechnik spricht.

Der Hunding wird von Falk Struckmann mit der nötigen Autorität und dräuendem Grollen interpretiert. Viele Qualitäten seines heldischen Wotans kommen auch beim Hunding voll zur Geltung, wenngleich unüberhörbar ist, dass Struckmann Bariton und kein Bass ist.

Im Zentrum des zweiten Akts steht das Rollendebüt von Matthias Goerne als Wotan. Mit seinem breit geführten, dicht textierten Bariton vermag er wie schon im Rheingold für tief empfundene und beinahe schon belkantesk gesungene Linien zu sorgen. Die deklamatorischen Passagen von Wotans Erzählung sind exquisit vorgetragen. Wo es hochdramatisch wird, gelangt Goernes samtenes Stimmmaterial aber hörbar an seine Grenzen. Augenzeugenberichten zufolge soll Goerne gerade im zweiten Akt seinen Blick nicht von der Partitur gelöst haben, ein untrügliches Zeichen für noch mangelnde Sicherheit in der Rolle. Auf der Habenseite steht wiederum, dass einer der besten Liedinterpreten der Jetztzeit sich überhaupt an eine Grenzpartie wagt, was neue Eindrücke und ein neues Verständnis der Rolle schafft. Im dritten Akt gelingt Wotans Abschied berührend und stimmlich souverän. Freilich hilft Goerne die formidable Aufnahmetechnik, wodurch mögliche Mängel in der Projektion abgemildert und die Stimme extrem klar hörbar mit dem Orchester abgemischt ertönt. Dass dieser sympathische Sänger den Wotan je auf der Bühne singen könnte, will man sich allerdings jetzt noch nicht so recht vorstellen.

Als sein Wotanskind Brünnhilde agiert Petra Lang routiniert. Klanglich berückend schönen Momenten wie etwa in der Todesverkündigung stehen angestrengt und unsauber intonierte Hojotohos gegenüber. Lang schleift manche Töne über Gebühr an, insgesamt klingt der Vortrag infolge des häufigen Einsatzes von Portamenti bisweilen antiquiert. Abgesehen davon ist ihre Brünnhilde grosso modo sehr gut gesungen und nicht besser oder schlechter als andere aktuell erfolgreiche Rollenvertreterinnen. Die Fricka von Michelle DeYoung ist ein Kaliber für sich. Mit prächtig aufblühendem Mezzo und beispielhafter Dekamation ist es der Gattin Wotans und Göttin der Ehe ein Leichtes, ihren Wunsch „Lass von dem Wälsung“ erfüllt zu bekommen.

Die Walküren (Sarah Castle, Karen Foster, Katherine Broderick, Anna Burford, Elaine McKrill, Aurhelia Varak, Okka von der Damerau und Laura Nykänen) werfen sich mit Elan in ihren jauchzenden Schlachtgesang.

Insgesamt kann der Aufnahme in Bezug auf Technik und die hohe Qualität der musikalischen Leitung Ausnahmerang attestiert werden. Bei grundsätzlich exzellentem sängerischem Niveau gilt es aber vereinzelt Abstriche zu machen. High End Freaks werden auf alle Fälle ihre helle Freude mit der klanglich zukunftsweisenden Tonqualität der Blu-ray Audio Disc haben.

Dr. Ingobert Waltenberger | 11.11.2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 324 MByte (MP3)
Concert performance
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.