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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen - highlights
Track-listing and casting details at end of review
State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Asher Fisch
rec. Adelaide Festival Theatre, 16 November - 12 December 2004
MELBA MR 301133-34 [77.55 + 76.30]

Asher Fisch’s recordings of the complete Ring earned many critical accolades on their original release, not only for the fact that this was the first issue of the cycle in SACD sound but also for the quality of the performances.
This reissue, handsomely packaged in a very substantial booklet with a valuable essay by the always perceptive Mike Ashman, complete biographies of all the singers involved, and complete texts and translations, gives us a selection of excerpts from that cycle. Some sense of ‘bleeding chunks’ is inevitable but the choice of the passages is wide-ranging and extends well beyond the usual collection of expected highlights - although it includes all of these as well with the exception perhaps of the ‘forest murmurs’ from Siegfried and the descent into Nibelheim.
Fisch’s performance of the Rheingold prelude gets things off to an impressive start, with the orchestral playing secure and well-balanced; we hear the opening lines of Woglinde, rapidly faded out as the action begins. In the following excerpt from the end of the opening scene we hear the excellent balance between stage and orchestra, with a marvellous sense of depth and plenty of bloom of the voices of the superb trio of Rheintochter. This is the only section we get to hear of John Wegner’s firmly-voiced Alberich, and I am sorry that the production does not allow us to hear his “mocking laughter” after the theft of the gold as requested by Wagner in the score. We are however given a large part of the marvellous transition music which follows the scene, faded out cruelly in mid-phrase.
We are given the whole of the final section of Rheingold, launched by the firm if rather uncharacterful Timothy deFore as Donner summoning the storm-clouds and leading to a stunning thunderclap. One wonders at the rather metallic sound of his hammer striking the rock - Solti did the same in his renowned recording - which surely is the wrong sort of effect. Andrew Brunsdon is a marvellously lyrical Froh as the rainbow bridge is revealed, and John Bröcheler is a heroic-sounding Wotan, totally devoid of any hint of woolliness, and with a ringing top F to crown his following monologue. Elizabeth Campbell sounds rather shrewish in her brief contribution here, but Christopher Doig is a full-voiced Loge with plenty of character and a welcome avoidance of Sprechstimme. The booklet reveals that the six harp parts plus a further player offstage that Wagner wrote here are ‘boiled down’ to a mere five players, but then that is not altogether unusual. The Rheintochter are perhaps a little too distant to make the best impact in their final lament, but better that than an unnaturally close balance. Audience applause at the end is faded out quickly.
Fisch delivers a blistering account of the stormy prelude to Walküre, only marred by what sounds like an unwritten cymbal clash - or is it a thunder sheet? - at the climax; whichever it is, Wagner’s music needs no such extraneous additions here. We hear Siegmund’s opening phrase, again quickly faded out, before we move to Stuart Skelton’s heartfelt delivery of the Spring song, taken thankfully at not too quick a speed. The conductor Hartmut Haenchen in his notes for his live Amsterdam recording of the Ring contends that the music here should be taken more rapidly than is usual nowadays, and says that Wagner did not wish the song to be treated as an independent aria but too speedy a traversal of the music surely renders the lyricism of the scene meaningless. Deborah Riedel is a marvellously womanly Sieglinde; it is hard to believe, as the booklet informs us, that at the time of the performances she was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually tragically kill her. The prelude to the Second Act, powerfully delivered, is unfortunately faded out at Wotan’s first words so we are denied the chance to hear Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde delivering her war-cry. Instead the first we hear of her is her brief recitative following Wotan’s monologue at the end of the second scene, a rather forlorn little section that makes little sense on its own although it is all we are given of her performance of Brünnhilde in this opera. We are also given the whole of the following scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, an odd choice for a selection of Ring highlights, which nevertheless gives us Riedel’s superb Sieglinde once again.
From the Third Act we have the expected highlights: a stirringly paced Walkürenritt and the closing scene from Wotan’s Farewell onwards. The Valkyries are a strongly voiced bunch of ladies, and the recording gives us the proper sense of distance for the offstage voices - in SACD they come unexpectedly from the rear speakers. Bröcheler moulds the lyrical music of the Farewell nicely, although again when he strikes his spear on the rock to summon Loge the sound is much more metallic than Wagner’s stage directions would imply. By the way, we have in the closing section of this scene the only error I detected in these performances, where Bröcheler omits the final syllable on Speeres in his phrase “Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet” - an error unfortunately emphasised when the trombones solemnly repeat the phrase with the missing note in the correct place (track 9, 13.13).
We are given only two excerpts from Siegfried - unfortunately omitting the overwhelming Prelude to Act Three, one of Wagner’s finest inspirations in the whole of the cycle. The booklet tells us that Gary Rideout stepped into the production at the last minute; but he is very impressive in the Forging Song although he frequently distorts his vowel sounds, presumably in an attempt to gain the maximum audibility - and one gets the impression at times that this is a real battle for him. Richard Greager is an excellent Mime, much more than the usual character tenor with a real sense of evil and menace as he plots to poison his foster-son. As Siegfried hammers out the sword, the ringing anvil sounds in a completely different acoustic from the voice; was it ‘dubbed in’ by an off-stage percussionist? Later the hammer comes into a completely different perspective, only to revert to the original sound shortly thereafter; and in the final section it is clearly Rideout himself who is doing the hammering, if the rhythmic imprecision is anything to judge by.
In the closing segment of the Love Duet we have our first proper encounter with Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. It is perhaps unfortunate that this lyrical section finds her in less than perfect voice. It is all too evident that she is trying to scale back her natural volume and not always succeeding. She is a very womanly warrior maiden, but she has the required trill and when at the end of the passage she cuts loose in full heroic mould she suddenly comes into her own. However Rideout at the end of a very long and strenuous evening comes across as tired, and he evidently finds it difficult match her overwhelming ardour. Although he manages to recover in time for the final duet section, he is overwhelmed both by his soprano and the orchestra. These two excerpts from Siegfried serve to identify this part of the cycle as a weak link in the whole, despite the excellent and exciting playing from the orchestra under Fisch.
From Götterdämmerung we are given the usual three excerpts, although the substantial opening segment runs from the very beginning of the dawn music through the whole of the succeeding duet into the following orchestral interlude known as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.Gasteen is superbly romantic here, but the role of Siegfried has now been taken over by Timothy Mussard, whose reedy and strained singing makes one long to have Rideout back again. Quite apart from the unprepossessing sound of his voice, he has a habit of landing on the flat side of the note (as at 11.56, 12.27 and 12.53) which makes Brünnhilde’s desire to despatch him on new adventures only too understandable although Gasteen too fails quite to rise to her final high C. It is left to Fisch and the orchestra to rescue matters with an impulsive and exciting reading of the orchestral interlude. They also acquit themselves with honour in Siegfried’s Funeral March, although for some reason the ominous opening timpani beats are omitted; the extract begins with the rising string theme two-and-a-half bars into the march itself. In the same way the extract ends just before the Gutrune theme appears to lead into the final scene. Nothing to be done about the latter in the context of a complete performance; but the opening truncation sounds distinctly odd.
Gasteen immediately rivets the attention as she begins her long Immolation scene, a clarion call to arms as she bids the vassals pile high logs for Siegfried’s funeral pyre. In the quieter central section she manages to scale back her voice to good effect. In the final section she conjures up a positive storm - her summons to the ravens to call Loge to Walhall is absolutely riveting. This is some of the best singing of a Wagnerian soprano role that we have had since the heyday of Birgit Nilsson, with only the slightest occasional suspicion of tiredness or strain at the end of a long evening. Fisch does nothing to rein back the orchestral tempest that surrounds her. Unfortunately Duccio del Monte spoils the orchestral peroration by shouting rather than singing Zuruck vom Ring! - this is a bad habit which has become endemic since the days of Gottlob Frick, and should be curbed. Fisch gives us a stunning delivery of the long orchestral peroration, but he makes a brief Luftpause before the final seven bars which is not marked in the score. This is another bad habit - Solti did the same thing - and it is undesirable musically because it interrupts the downward progress of the ominous bass line in the orchestra. Haenchen in his booklet notes, to which I have already referred, makes the same point, but incorrectly states that he is the first conductor in modern times not to make the pause. Goodall performs the passage correctly, as can be heard in the recording of his live English National Opera staging. He also correctly observes that the descending bass line should be louder than the redemption theme which rides above it - it is marked fortissimo diminuendo, while the theme in the upper strings is already piano only gradually swelling out to take over the main melodic interest. Levine in his Metropolitan DVD also performs the passage correctly. 
Some photographs of the production in the booklet make one rather glad that one did not encounter the staging in the theatre or on DVD, but this is no matter in the context of an audio recording. The cast list gives us the complete roster of soloists for the production, although some are not featured on the items included here. We are given nothing of Erda or the Norns, for example, although the singers of these roles are listed. At the same time the names of the singers of Gunther, Gutrune and Hunding - who are entirely eliminated from the excerpts here - are duly omitted. In my listing I have deleted the superfluous information. The presence of Andrew Porter’s singing translation made for the English National Opera is a real plus, only marred by the omission of the stage directions. I note that a similar complaint was made by critics of the original issues. Otherwise the presentation is excellent, with the two CDs inserted in sleeves at the back of the hardback booklet.
One is struck by the superlative quality of the orchestral playing throughout. The Adelaide orchestra is hardly an internationally renowned body of instrumentalists, but they are considerably more secure than the English National Opera players were for Goodall in their 1970s cycles - the live recording, assembled from a number of individual performances and rehearsals, does not display the fallibility of individual instrumentalists that was often only too evident in the theatre. In recent years, on the contrary, there has been a tendency for orchestras to sound just too comfortable and easy with Wagner’s scoring; the sense of sheer danger and vitality that was clearly regarded as an essential element of his sound by the composer can go missing, as was apparent in Barenboim’s otherwise superbly controlled series of performances in the Proms this year. Ironically Barenboim was Fisch’s first mentor and champion. It needs a conductor of real energy and vigour to inject the passion into a performance, and that is an attribute Fisch has in spades. One is surprised to see that in the period of nearly ten years since these recordings were made, his career has not developed exponentially.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
See also review by Göran Forsling

Masterwork Index: The ring cycle

CD 1
Das Rheingold (1869)
Prelude [5.27]; Wohl sicher sind wir [4.58];Heda! Heda! Hedo! [10.49]
John Brocheler (baritone) - Wotan; John Wegner (baritone) - Alberich; Elizabeth Campbell (mezzo) - Fricka; Christopher Doig (tenor) - Loge; Timothy DuFore (baritone) - Donner; Andrew Brunsdon (tenor) - Froh; Natalie Jones (soprano) - Woglinde; Donna-Maree Dunlop (soprano) - Wellgunde; Zan McKendree-Wright (mezzo) - Flosshilde 
Die Walküre (1870)
Act One Prelude [4.23];Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnenmond [14.38];Act Two Prelude [2.20];So sah ich Siegvater nie [13.21];Hojotoho! [6.04];Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! [15.54]
John Brocheler (baritone) - Wotan; Lisa Gasteen (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Stuart Skelton (tenor) - Siegmund; Deborah Riedel (soprano) - Sieglinde; Kate Ladner (soprano) - Helmwige; Donna-Maree Dunlop (soprano) - Rossweise; Zan McKendree-Wright (mezzo) - Schwertleite; Liane Keegan (contralto) - Waltraute; Gaye McFarlane (mezzo) - Siegrune; Elizabeth Stannard (soprano) - Gerhilde; Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano) - Ortlinde; Jennifer Barnes (contralto) - Grimgerde
CD 2
Siegfried (1876)
Notung! Notung! [14.43]; Ewig war ich [12.35]
Gary Ridout (tenor) - Siegfried; Lisa Gasteen (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Richard Greager (tenor) - Mime 
Götterdämmerung (1876)
Dawn duet and Siegfried’s Rhine journey [21.16];Funeral march [7.35];Starke Scheite [20.21]
Lisa Gasteen (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Timothy Mussard (tenor) - Siegfried; Duccio dal Monte (bass) - Hagen