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Monday, August 19, 2013

Recordings Review: Meet the New Gods

Marek Janowski records his second Das Rheingold.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alberich (left) chases the Rhine-daughters in the opening scene of Wagner's Das Rheingold.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham.
Any recording of Das Rheingold, the "preliminary evening" to Wagner's mighty tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen must, in the course of review be compared to the classic Deccarecording made in 1958 with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. So let's do that first. No, this new recording from Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra  (released a few months ago on the PentaTone label) doesn't quite measure up. However, as a document capturing some interesting young artists and a snapshot of the current state of international Wagner singing, it certainly has value.

This is the first installment in a complete Ring cycle and the seventh entry in Mr. Janowski's series of the ten major Wagner operas on PentaTone. (If you're keeping score at home, this is also Mr. Janowski's second commercial recording of the Ring following the digital stereo set that first came out on EuroDisc with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1982.) Like the earlier entries in the PentaTone series, this was recorded with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra at two live concerts in the Berlin Philharmonie. It boasts a broad stereo picture and sparkling, state-of-the-art sound, and the excellent playing of this lesser-known Berlin band.

The reason to buy an SACD recording of the Ring is the wide stereo sound picture. Here, it is very impressive. In the first bars of the Prelude, the buzzy vibration of the bass strings oozes out of the speakers, joined by the contrabass tuba playing pedal tone and the the smooth, rich entry of the eight horns. Sound effects (something that gets overdone in many recordings of Rheingold are kept to a minimum, but the two entries of anvil-players (banging rhythmically on metal bars to imitate the hammering of Nibelung dwarves) are a complete success.

Mr. Janowski takes a brisk, efficient approach to this score, keeping one foot on the accelerator and driving the orchestra forward with tireless energy. He always supports the singers, shading the orchestra for quiet passages and summoning frightening power for the Curse in Scene Four. Without any stage machinery to worry about, the performance moves along under full sail. There is a crisp edge to big moments like the revalation of the Rhine gold and the entry of the Giants. Tempi are consistently fast throughout (as with most of the other sets in this series) and the narrative scenes never meander or drag.

The singers are consistently interesting: a strong group of rising Wagner artists. Start with the delicious but nasty Alberich of Jochen Schmeckenbecher, whose rapid transformation from would-be-Lothario to would-be-world-beater happens with terrifying speed. The Act III narrative where (in true Bond-villain form, he lays out his plans for world conquest) is thrilling, with the orchestra emitting rising columns of dark sound to illustrate the dwarf's evil pland. Mr. Schmeckenbecher is even better in his last scene, when he makes Alberich into a towering figure in the spat, snarled curse on the Ring.

Tomasz Koyechuni's Wotan has all the energy of a bustling, ambitious god out to conquer a world he already rules. Iris Vermillion is the senior member of this cast (much as Kirstin Flagstad was in the Solti Ring.) She presents a rich, plummy Fricka, more the eternally beset companion than the nagging wife. Tenor Christian Elsner is a compelling Loge, pulling the listener down the rabbit-holes of his long narrative passage in the second scene and engaging in sharp-edged comic banter with Mr. Schmeckenbecher. The lesser gods are fine, with standous including the young tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Froh and Antonio Yang's burly Donner.

One of the advantages of making a concert recording of Das Rheingold is that the singers (presumably clad in concert attire before the live audience) do not need to dress up as giants, mermaids or Nibelungs. The supporting cast gives some very fine performances. Andreas Conrad is a memorable, sniveling Mime--hopefully he'll resume the part when Mr. Janowski records Siegfried. Gunther Groissbock and Timo Riihonen are compelling as the giants Fasolt and Fafner (respectively) with the former delivering a lovely little solo as he describes Freia's (Ricarda Merbeth) womanly assets. Finally, this set is blessed with a strong trio of Rhinemaidens, all important as they get the first and last word in this opera.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.