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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1869)
Stuart Skelton, tenor – Siegmund, Eva Maria Westbroek, soprano – Sieglinde, Iréne Theorin, soprano – Brünnhilde, James Rutherford, baritone – Wotan, Eric Halfvarson, bass – Hunding, Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo-soprano – Fricka, Alwyn Mellor, soprano – Gerhilde, Anna Gabler, soprano – Ortlinde, Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano – Waltraute, Claudia Huckle, mezzo-soprano – Schwertleite, Katherine Broderick, soprano – Helmwige, Eva Vogel, mezzo-soprano – Siegrune, Anna Lapkovskaja, mezzo-soprano – Grimgerde, Simone Schröder, mezzo-soprano – Rossweisse
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 29 January and 10 February 2019, Herkulessaal der Rezidenz, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900177 [4 CDs: 217:50]

Only recently I was extolling the virtues of the Covent Garden cast of Die Walküre under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano issued on Blu-ray (review), and commenting that “singers of the present day can equal if not surpass their legendary predecessors” from the past. As if to prove the point, this CD recording assembled from two live concert performances from Bavarian Radio conducted by Sir Simon Rattle features three of the same singers as in Pappano’s version, but the casting is similarly of a standard which can stand comparison with the best of the past.

In my review of Pappano’s performance, I commented that Stuart Skelton’s was one of the best assumptions of the role of Siegmund that I had ever encountered either live or on disc. I went on to say that “I was impressed with his Tristan last year, but even the excellence of his performance there had not prepared me for his rendering of the lower tessitura of Siegmund’s music. His held high notes on his cries of “Wälse” are predictably fine (although one should not take their splendour for granted) but even more impressive is his dramatic involvement with the part, and in particular his willingness to sing with dangerously soft but always vividly projected tone.” Where Pappano had sped fleetly through his Spring Song with delicate grace, Rattle allows him greater time to breathe in the air of romance [CD1, track 16], which I actually prefer but some may find less urgently involving. Elsewhere his command of the role remains unequalled. Similarly, in Act One Eva Maria Westbroek proves an ideal foil as his rediscovered sister, and she also excels both in her despair during Act Two and her final radiant triumphal outburst in Act Three. Eric Halfvarson as her bully of a husband is not ideally steady of pitch, but he nevertheless produces a distinct character and his black voice is ideally suited to the role; he is certainly superior to some past exponents of the role (such as the gritty Josef Greindl, who appears to have been a Bayreuth fixture during the supposed golden era of the 1950s and 1960s).

James Rutherford had also impressed me in the past, most noticeably in a recital of Wagnerian music drama (including Wotan’s Farewell) issued on BIS back in 2014. At that time, I had remarked on a lack of “sheer heroic weight” but five years later there is now plenty of power to be discovered in his delivery. He may not display the close involvement with the text that we find with such exponents of the role as Hans Hotter or Bryn Terfel, but his steady tone and tireless stamina are welcome assets and his delivery of his Farewell in Act Three shows not the least sign of tiredness after his violent raging earlier in the scene. Nor is his delivery devoid of feeling; he conveys, for example, a real sense of bitterness in his ironic blessing to the newly conceived Hagen, without in any way perverting the vocal line or resorting to vagueness of pitch. Similarly, Elisabeth Kulman produces steady tone as his despised and rejected wife, rising to her denunciations of immorality and her expressions of injured innocence with an implacable firmness of purpose.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde is of course an expected tower of strength, once she has safely passed the temptation to rush her fences during her stupendously difficult opening solo. The low tessitura of the part in the Annunciation of Death scene holds no terrors for her either, and she rises magnificently to her confrontation with Wotan in the final scene. Before that point is reached, she receives sterling support from her sisters in the Valkyrie brood, where two of the singers – Alwyn Mellor and Claudia Huckle – also featured in Pappano’s stage production on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sir Simon, as I have indicated earlier, is generally slightly slower and more considered than Sir Antonio – some might say, less dramatically involved – but this is purely a matter of interpretation in a work that can bear considerable variety of approaches. Rattle certainly gives the music more forward propulsion than (to take another example from the ranks of English knights) Sir Reginald Goodall, let alone Otto Klemperer in his recording of Act One, and the recorded sound is superb, registering the exceptional playing of the orchestra with clarity and ideal balance. It might have been possible to cram the recording onto three CDs, but the decision was taken sensibly to spread it over four with a single break in Act Two at the best possible point immediately before the Annunciation of Death where Wagner’s music falls away to a series of silent pauses. The booklet contains the complete text and an English translation by Lionel Salter complete with comprehensive stage directions. The audience is conspicuous by its silence – no evidence of winter chills or coughs in Munich – which makes a refreshing change from the regular hacking pneumatics of Bayreuth audiences in high summer.

This recording, the second instalment in Rattle’s Bavarian Radio cycle of the Ring, has been rather a long time in coming – Das Rheingold was released some four years ago – but presumably the conductor will now proceed with concert performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in due course. If he has similar luck with his casting in these later music dramas – something that of course cannot be inevitably assumed – then I look forward to later instalments with eager anticipation. In the meantime, prospective purchasers of this Walküre can proceed safely.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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