As Erda would say, “All that is will end”, and Marek Janowski’s toweringly ambitious Wagner project ends, appropriately, with the Twilight of the Gods themselves. Janowski’s cycle has been both fulfilling and infuriating by turns, and his Götterdämmerung proves likewise. However, there is much to enjoy and a lot to write home about.
Throughout this project, the three things that have impressed me most consistently are the quality of Pentatone’s recorded sound, the stunning playing of the Berlin Radio orchestra and the committed work of the Berlin Radio chorus; and those things remain the finest features of this performance too. The sound of the orchestra really gleams throughout. The brass sound fantastic at the big climaxes, such as the dawn scene in the Prologue or the Funeral March, and the strings can both shimmer and terrify as they need to. There is subtlety aplenty, too, such as the delicate darkness of Hagen’s Watch, or the lovely moment after Waltraute’s departure when Brünnhilde’s flames flicker up with the onset of evening. The chorus are fantastic in the second act, too. The Vassals arrive on the scene spitting fire - their articulation of their consonants is brilliant - and their acclamation of Gunther is thrilling, but they are every bit as careful in their more subtle whisperings during the hunting scene. The Pentatone engineers pick it all up with thrilling clarity. A couple of times their placing of singers is a little unusual - the Norn scene feels as though a dark pall has been cast over it, and the Rhinemaidens sound unusually distant to me - though this may be my perception rather than anything else. In every other case the quality of the sound is a triumph, and I was listening only in stereo, so I can only imagine how it must come to life in SACD surround.
Janowski, who has been the lynchpin of this entire project, does a pretty good, though ultimately inconsistent job. Throughout the project he has shown his preference for quick tempi and that comes through in Götterdämmerung too, but he mixes the quick with the measured in a way that, for me at least, jumped about and broke up the flow of the line. The dawn scene in the Prologue, for example, moves at a fair lick, as does the entire scene through the duet and the Rhine Journey. The same is true of the Funeral March and, while some may enjoy the sense of momentum he generates, to me it robbed the music of much of its titanic power, seeming to hustle quickly from one episode to the next. It’s inconsistent (though not unwelcome), therefore, that he takes the other great transition, Hagen’s Watch, at a steady tempo that is fairly orthodox. It’s also more successful, to my ears, picking out every element of Wagner’s ever so subtle orchestration in a way that lets it breathe and even glower in the gathering darkness. Other episodes are similarly inconsistent. The outer episodes of Waltraute’s scene are, for me, too fast, but the all-important central section centring on Erlöst wär’ Gott und Welt rocks slowly and gently. Likewise, the great trio at the end of Act 2 feels rather busy and businesslike. There’s a great extent to which these preferences are personal, but I found a lot of them alienating.
The singing is a fairly mixed bag too, unfortunately. Starting with the Gibichungs, Markus Brück is a slightly anonymous Gunther, though that could be his choice of characterisation and it’s not an invalid one. Edith Haller, on the other hand is a characterful and sweet-voiced Gutrune. Finer even, however, is Matti Salminen’s black-as-night Hagen. He is the only survivor from Janowski’s earlier Dresden cycle, and in the same role, to boot. Comparisons between the two are very interesting. Inevitably, the voice has a lot less juice in 2013 than it had in 1983, but his characterisation of the role is, in fact, even more exciting, refined by three decades of singing the role in the theatre. His acting leaps out of the speakers and there are umpteen examples of him bringing the character to wicked life: listen, for one example, to the moment in the first act where he takes Grane off to the stable. His baleful call to the Vassals could wake the dead, and those Hoihos threaten to depart from tonality as we understand it, but in this case that’s a good thing. Jochen Schmeckenbecher is deliciously malevolent in his brief scene, and it makes you wish there was an excuse to hear more of him. Norns and Rhinemaidens all perform their duties very capably, and Marina Prudenskaya is a perfectly solid Waltraute, if a touch too stressed in the part for my taste.
The biggest problems, however, come with the hero and heroine. Unlike Jim Pritchard, I had serious reservations about Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde in Walküre, and they were confirmed here. Her natural style of singing the role is to work, almost to haul herself up to the note so that nearly every phrase sounds like hard work. Never does she sound as though she is attacking the note from a position of strength, nor that she is sitting on it comfortably rather than climbing towards it. This effortful singing quickly becomes wearing, and it robs her interpretation of the required nobility, despite her not unpleasant vocal colour. She can be thrilling in Wagner - just listen to her Kundry or Ortrud, for example - but I just don’t think this is her role. Lance Ryan has similar problems, but with him it is more about vocal colour and energy. He sounds tired and frequently racked with effort; not quite worn out yet, but not that far away. There is a gravelly, abrasive quality to the voice that, again, is not in the least bit heroic, and things get worse as the opera progresses. The oath on the spear and the exhortation to the wedding feast are, to say the least, a trial to listen to, though he rallies for the death scene in the final act.
All of this means that, in spite of its many virtues, you can’t accept this Götterdämmerung as a front runner on its own terms. However, perhaps we should see it in the context of the project as a whole, because there can surely be little doubt that Janowski’s Wagner cycle is one of the most extraordinary (and, dare I say it, unexpected) achievements to have emerged from classical recording in recent years. Few conductors get to record the Ring twice, but no other on record has been able to conduct all of Wagner’s mature music dramas in a planned cycle with the same orchestra, chorus and recording team. The only approximation is Solti’s direction of the same ten operas with the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca, but that emerged piecemeal and in an unplanned manner over nearly three decades, whereas Janowski’s was carefully planned and coordinated. Remarkably, only 26 months separate the first instalment (Holländer in November 2010) from the last one (this Götterdämmerung). Regardless of what you might think of individual quibbles, you have got to take your hat off to everyone involved for the sheer ambition and undaunted achievement of the whole thing.
I’ve heard all and reviewed most of the cycle, and the highlights for me are Tannhäuser and Parsifal. Both these operas benefit from outstanding casting and musical commitment that is above the ordinary, and these are the two that I’ll come back to most quickly. Lohengrin and Meistersinger are perfectly fine, and considerably more than that in places, but I found Tristan infuriating, mostly because of Janowski’s conducting. Ringwise, his earlier Dresden cycle is more consistent and, on the whole, more enjoyable - if you can put up with Theo Adam’s desiccated Wotan and the hardworking but affecting Brünnhilde of Jeanine Altmeyer - but I enjoyed lots of elements of this Ring too, especially Rheingold and Siegfried, and Tomasz Konieczny is an enormously interesting Wotan. Walküre, though, was notable for a great pair of Wälsung twins, which brings me to Robert Dean Smith who wins my award for finest overall contribution to the project. Be it as Erik, Tannhäuser, Siegmund or Walther, I always loved whatever he brought to each role and I will listen to each one again just for him. As for the conducting: well, yes, it has been inconsistent, and quibblers might dream of what could have happened if the cycle had been conducted by someone else - say, Thielemann or Bychkov - but that would perhaps be to miss the point. Janowski is one of the few conductors who would be able to perform the task - not least because he has now stopped conducting opera in the theatre, something he talks about here - and he is the only one who had the vision to carry it through. Despite its many flaws, this cycle wins a special award of affection for its scale, vision and purpose which is, in every sense, Wagnerian.
Previous review: Jim Pritchard
Masterwork Index: Götterdämmerung