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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Recordings Review: The World's Strongest Man

Marek Janowski's second take on Siegfried.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What mutters most: Stephen Gould in Siegfried.
Photo by Michael Pöhl © Vienna State Opera.
Starting in 1958, the Decca engineer John Culshaw and his team of technicians took six years to record all four parts of Wagner's Ring cycle in a converted ball room in Vienna. By contrast the conductor Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra moved on to Siegfried, the third part of the cycle with astonishing speed. This recording was made in March of 2013, just five months after the same forces made their Die Walküre. Its release as the penultimate chapter in both the Ring and the conductor's survey of the ten Wagner operas is a marvel of efficiency, as is the label's decision to lower costs by squeezing the opera onto three discs. As before, Mr. Janowski made a live recording (on March 1, 2013) in the Berlin Philharmonie, the storied and pentagonal hall that is home to the Berlin Philharmonic.

It is only the sturdiest, most faithful Wagnerite who names Siegfried as their favorite part of the Ring. (For the record, your humble scribe falls into that category.) It is a long opera with no female singing parts in the first act no proper arias no choruses and a grueling total roll which Wagner may have written for a tenor that does not actually exist. Every performance of Siegfried requires some form of compromise both from conductor tenor and audience. The poor guy has to be on stage singing for three and a half-odd hours of the opera's four hour length . Performances require heldentenors to learn how to bang anvils in strict time with the conductor, slay dragons in their sleep and most difficult of all sing a 30 minute duet with a fresh dramatic soprano whose character has been asleep for much of the opera.

Here, that lot falls to the American tenor Stephen Gould who does his doughty best. (This is his third commercial recording of the opera, with a 2009 set from Bayreuth and another from Vienna, both conducted by Christian Thielemann to his credit.) His voice has a dark timbre to it, capable of childlike innocence and ringing fortissimo notes. The singer also benefits from the controlled conditions of the PentaTone recording setup, working with a live orchestra in front of an audience at the Berlin Philharmonie. This means he doesn't have to do anything except wear a tux and sing--an ideal state of affairs. It also meas that great passages like the Forging Song do not have the same sheer physical strain required in the opera house, thus making for an ideal home listening experience.

Christian Eisner, who sang Loge earlier in this cycle makes a strong impression as Mime, the depraved Nibelung dwarf responsible for being Siegfried's teacher, foster parent, and less attractively, would-be murderer. Indeed, he and Mr. Gould are at times very close in timbre, their voices slashing and cutting each other through the endless Act I arguments over the state of Siegfried's broken sword. (It should be noted that this is a common problem among teenagers.) Mr. Eisner is characterful and pointed, without the grinning, mugging and dwarfish sound effects that so many Mimes indulge in onstage. He finds the musical line, no matter how jagged it is, excelling in the scene where Mime (futilely) tries to teach Siegfried what "fear" is, and in the remarkable scene where the (unarmed) dwarf dies at the hands of the young strongman.

Tomasz Konieczny's brief scenes as the Wanderer are a treat--partially because the lower writing that Wagner gave this incarnation of the god Wotan suits his voice admirably. He sings with great gravitas in the Act I riddle scene (where Wagner anticipates Tolkien by having the Wanderer and Mime engage in three rounds of very deadly "jeopardy") and adds weight to his scene in Act II with Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher, again excellent.) The god's final bow in Act III is magnificently sung, and only marred by an extraneous percussion effect (which may or may not be in the score, I need to look it up) at his exit. Matti Salminen is his unmistakably forceful presence as Fafner, still roaring convincingly but now producing the notes with more effort so they sometimes sound shouted.

As Brunnhilde, Violeta Urmana uses her powerful, laser-like soprano to good effect from her Awakening all the way through the long scene with Mr. Gould. These two singers have some experience of each other and it shows as they fall into the easy rhythms of "Ewig war ich" before charging up the musical mountaintop to its summit. Anna Larsson is a compelling Erda, making her scene with the Wanderer make dramatic sense--no easy feat in this opera. The last woman in the cast is Sophie Klussman--her entry as the Forest Bird in Act II lifts much of the opera's gloom and brings the story toward its happy fairy-tale ending.

In his second recording of the opera (the first was for a complete Dresden Cycle released in 1982) Mr. Janowski continues to find success in mining the beautiful passages of this score. He pulls the listener in through the dark Prelude to Act I in which Mime dwells on his fears of both Siegfried and the dragon Fafner. Other glories include the delicately accompanied "Staarenlied" (a real spotlight for Mr. Eisner) and the build-up to the forging of the sword. He conjures the darkness outside Fafner's cave and the transition to the delicately played Forest Murmurs scene. The prelude to Act III is where he really brings the thunder, navigating Wagner's shift in musical style (the third act of this opera was written twelve years after the second) and bringing the listener along on the new and denser path of the composer's late style. Finally, the ending is radiant: Siegfried is the only Ring opera with a happy ending (of sorts) and Mr. Janowski does his best to make it jubilant.

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