Fanfare-Magazine, 21. Dezember 2007
Fanfare Magazine, 21.12.2007
The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors
Wagnerians, get out your credit cards; this is a Ring you cannot be without.
I reviewed the DVD account of Hartmut Haenchen’s Ring cycle, directed for The Netherlands Opera by Pierre Audi, in Fanfare issues 30:1, 30:2, and 30:5 and refer you to those write-ups for a sense of the production’s musico-dramatic spirit. (The best reason, perhaps, for actually subscribing to this magazine, rather than purchasing occasional copies at a bookstore—or, heaven forbid, borrowing them from someone else—is access to the Fanfare archives. You could have the four reviews in a matter of seconds.) Those videos date from 1999. The current sets of SACDs were recorded live in 2004 and 2005 and though the casts are different, the spectacular orchestral playing is courtesy of just one ensemble, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, whereas the 1999 recording split the duties among three groups—the NPO, the Residentie Orchestra, and the Rotterdam PO. By rights, I should be writing a five or six page review here, as these performances have not been covered in Fanfare. But I won’t, because the essence of what makes this Ring so special is the conductor and, especially, the very significant reexamination of the music itself.
Haenchen’s cycle is based on the Neue Richard-Wagner-Gesamtausgabe, but the conductor and his collaborators at The Netherlands Opera went well beyond that, making a serious effort to get at the nature of the first performances, and even at Wagner’s unrealized intentions. Extensive notes taken by the composer’s Bayreuth assistants in 1876—especially Heinrich Porges, but also Felix Mottl, Hermann Levi, and Julius Kniese—were scrutinized to inform these performances. Wagner made changes to pitches, rhythms, and texts at rehearsals and gave copious instructions regarding tempo, inflection, and other interpretative matters. It’s on the issue of tempo that Haenchen’s leadership most immediately registers as something different. In an essay appearing in Rheingold ’s liner notes, Haenchen, who reveals himself to be enormously knowledgeable about Wagner performance history, lays the “blame” for the slow tempos that have become the norm at the feet of the Bayreuth-approved conductors Toscanini and Furtwängler. But evidently, Wagner was having a hard time in this regard even when he was around to supervise at the Festspielhaus. “If you were not all such tedious fellows,” he said in 1876, “ Das Rheingold would be finished within two hours.” An overstatement, perhaps, but Haenchen clearly got the message.
These performances move along with a sense of inevitability and dramatic thrust, yet never feel rushed. Rheingold is edge-of-your-seat theater: I resented the interruption imposed by the single disc change required. A good example of the value of Haenchen’s pacing comes in Götterdämmerung. Even the most devoted Wagnerians can find themselves growing a little impatient when the Waltraute/Brünnhilde scene comes around. We have been sitting for well over an hour by this point and there’s still plenty to go before one can get some coffee and hit the restroom. Haenchen fits this scene into the dramatic arch of the Prologue/act I in a way that makes it feel utterly necessary: we’re hanging on Waltraute’s every word as she expansively recounts the grim scene back at Valhalla to an unmoved Brünnhilde. Likewise, Wotan’s act II monologue in Walküre won’t have you looking at your watch. Siegfried’ s first act is truly a scherzo, relentlessly moving forward.
The casts on these sets are actually an improvement over the not inconsiderable ones from 1999. Albert Dohmen is every bit as authoritative a Wotan/Wanderer as John Bröcheler was for the DVDs. Raging at the Valkyries in Walküre ’s final act, his voice has focus and muscle, though he’s capable of tender singing too, as when saying goodbye to his errant daughter. Linda Watson does an excellent job tracking the transformation of her character from warrior to wife to world redeemer. Stig Andersen, this cycle’s Siegfried, is the biggest improvement over the Opus Arte videos, where Heinz Kruse took on the part. Günther von Kannan is a darkly intelligent Alberich for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Werner Van Mechelen serves well in Das Rheingold ) and Graham Clark is simply the best Mime there is these days—maybe ever. The other important roles, and the subsidiary ones, are all covered more than adequately, so that the dramatic points of this realization come through loud and clear.
The sound is quite good. If you can do multichannel, that option is a vast improvement over what we get on the Opus Arte DVDs, a choice of Dolby Digital or DTS. Here, of course, we get high-resolution DSD-mastered sonics in five channels. Voices are beautifully characterized and orchestral textures are transparently defined so we can savor the progress Wagner made in his treatment of the orchestra as the tetralogy progressed. The booklets hold fascinating essays on the musical scholarship involved in creating these performances.