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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Rheingold (1854)
Michael Volle (baritone) - Wotan; Christian van Horn (bass-baritone) - Donner; Benjamin Bruns (tenor) - Froh; Burkhard Ulrich (tenor) - Loge; Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo) - Fricka; Annette Dasch (soprano) - Freia; Janina Baechle (mezzo) - Erda; Tomasz Konieczny (bass-baritone) - Alberich; Herwig Pecoraro (tenor) - Mime; Peter Rose (bass) - Fasolt; Eric Halfvarson (bass) - Fafner; Mirella Hagen (soprano) - Woglinde; Stefanie Irányi (mezzo) - Wellgunde; Eva Vogel (mezzo) - Flosshilde
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 24-25 April 2015, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900133 [71:12 + 71:36]

This issue prompts an intriguing question: is this the beginning of a Rattle Ring cycle on disc? We don’t yet know, but I do hope that it is, as this would certainly be an auspicious start. For this recording, made at a concert in Munich’s Herkulessaal, Sir Simon has chosen his cast with great care. Most of the singers are quite young, so that instead of the heavy, cavernous voices we often hear in Wagner, we have clarity and incisiveness. Particularly interesting is his choice of Michael Volle for Wotan; Volle’s vocal quality is certainly on the light side of what we are accustomed to in this role. He is better known both as a lieder singer and for parts such as Sachs in Meistersinger but he is, for me, a revelation, as he sings so musically. He avoids hectoring and exaggeration and projects his words with imagination and colour.

The orchestral playing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is superb, and has been captured with the utmost clarity by producer Pauline Heister and her team. The most striking feature of this recording is Rattle’s pacing of the whole piece. He is careful to avoid the dangerous propensity for enormous ‘flat-spots’ in the drama, where nothing much seems to be happening for ages, until the next ‘big moment’ comes along. That shortcoming often affects, for example, the famous Solti Ring, although that cycle does get better and better in this respect as it goes along.

Rattle’s young singers convey successfully the sense of the long inter-god conversations that take place, and pay careful attention to Wagner’s rhythmic notation. The result is much greater clarity and flow, the feeling of the story continually unfolding, not bumping from one place to another. Equally important is Rattle’s way with the numerous orchestral episodes, which, in addition to securing such fine playing, he characterises powerfully. Take one example, the descent into the underworld of Nibelheim by Loge and Wotan. The interlude between scenes 2 and 3 (CD1 trs 18–19) describes their downward journey, the various fateful musical motifs woven in a great crescendo, at the peak of which comes the deafening racket of the dwarves’ hammers as they work away in their sweat-shop breaks out. It's thrilling, even if the hammers are more musically tuned than we are used to.

All the singers are excellent; but for me the most outstanding is bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny in the part of Alberich. He exudes evil at all times, whether in his mocking laughter when stealing the gold from the Rhinemaidens (CD1 tr 6), or in his merciless cruelty to Mime (CD1 tr 19), which brings a little comic relief, albeit of a sadistic nature. His great monologue in scene 3 (CD2 tr 2) beginning ‘Hieher! Dorthin!’ (‘Here! There!’) is stunning, all the strange twisted intervals of the vocal writing nailed with chilling precision.

What of the female roles? Wagner doesn’t grant them the kind of opportunities the men get. The Rhinemaidens, however, are a fine trio, and sing well together rather trying to out-blast each other, as can happen. Annette Dasch and Elisabeth Kulman as Freia and Fricka sing with expressive intelligence but the greatest impact, in one of the key moments of the work, comes from the rich tones of Janina Baechle as Erda, who rises from the earth to deliver dire warnings to Wotan (CD2 tr 17).

Are there any disappointments? Well, one or two; Donner’s great solo as he strikes his hammer on a rock, ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’ (CD2 tr 21) lacks the visceral thrill I’d hoped for, and seemed a little tame. Shortly afterwards, as the orchestra, complete with six harps, evokes the rainbow bridge to the newly-built Valhalla, Michael Volle and his conductor have a momentary disagreement or misunderstanding about the tempo. That sorts itself out in a trice, however, and the build-up to the conclusion – The Gods’ Entry into Valhalla – proceeds with magnificence, interrupted only by the lamenting Rhinemaidens down in the Rhine. However, Rattle manages to convey a certain provisional quality to the affirmation of this ending – there’s plenty still to come.

This recording certainly comes with a high recommendation; the way Rattle preserves the forward movement of both music and drama makes it, in my view, superior to fine recent versions by Janowski (on Pentatone), Levine (on Deutsche Grammophon), and Gergiev (on Mariinsky). More please.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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