A Magnificent End to Janowski’s Berlin Wagner Odyssey

 GermanyGermany Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski (conductor) Philharmonie Berlin, 15.3.2013. (JPr)

Petra Lang (Brünnhilde)
Lance Ryan (Siegfried)
Matti Salminen (Hagen)
Markus Brück (Gunther)
Edith Haller (Gutrune)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich)
Marina Prudenskaja (Waltraute)
Julia Borchert (Woglinde)
Katharina Kammerloher (Wellgunde)
Kismara Pessatti (Flosshilde)
Susanne Resmark (First Norn)
Christa Mayer (Second Norn)
Jacquelyn Wagner (Third Norn)

Photo courtesy of RSB/Kai Bienert - Marek Janowski, Lance Ryan, Petra Lang and Matti Salminen.
Photo courtesy of RSB/Kai Bienert – Marek Janowski, Lance Ryan, Petra Lang and Matti Salminen.

For the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra the Wagner cycle began at the Philharmonie in November 2010 with Der fliegende Holländer and now, after giving concert performances of all the composer’s 10 mature operas, it is finally over. Petra Lang in an elegant black evening gown stands still with her arms to her sides having taken charge of events during the ‘Immolation Scene’ – both as her character, Brünnhilde, and as a singer relatively new to her role. The evening ended a few minutes before midnight with a standing ovation for the singers, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra but most especially, for their conductor and artistic director Marek Janowski. I heard Die Walküre in November (review) and returned for the final opera of the Ring. All ten evenings have been recorded by the PentaTone label and Deutschlandradio Kultur for subsequent broadcast and release on Super Audio CDs, concluding before the end of this Wagner bicentenary year.

Marek Janowski is a celebrated Wagner conductor and made the first digital recording of the Ring cycle between 1980 and 1983 for RCA, with the Staatskapelle Dresden. His Hagen then was Matti Salminen and the veteran bass returned some 30 years later to sing it for him again. Janowski wants the music of the Ring to take precedence over any distractions a director might bring to it with his Konzept. He has been aided in this by the exceptional acoustics of Berlin’s Philharmonie. This famous hall ‘belongs’ to the Berlin Philharmonic and because each concert needed a fixed rehearsal period this has meant that the RSB was limited in its options for available dates and also resulted in some cast changes, including two Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds.

The orchestra obviously likes their conductor, and with good reason. He clearly loves these scores and fulfils the composer’s need for music-drama by letting them tell-the-tale straightforwardly, without undue reverence or unnecessary re-interpretation. Even though his approach does seem swifter than some current Ring conductors, it is entirely appropriate because of his strict control of tempo and rhythm. However, with regards to sheer volume some moments are truly indulged: perhaps it was where I was sitting, slightly higher than previously in the stalls, but Hagen’s call to the vassals in Act II did test both Matti Salminen and the Eberhard Friedrich-trained Berlin Radio Chorus to the full – and Siegfried’s Funeral Music nearly had me jumping out of my seat because the timpani were so loud.

Unfortunately, the horns both on stage and off did not have the best of nights and I am sure this will be corrected with the recording as well as any balance issues because at times the waves of glorious sound reaching me threatened to swamp individual singers. Nevertheless when Valhalla had finally been set ablaze and the last bars faded away, the audience remained spellbound. There was complete silence before Janowski lowered his hands and a voice from on high – summing it all up for those who would acclaim the Polish maestro, his singers and musicians – cried out ‘Danke!’ I suspect he had been at all ten evenings and gave thanks for this wonderful project to record live all of the ‘accepted’ Wagner operas having reached this outstanding conclusion.

Of course it is not all about the music, and Götterdämmerung brings many challenges for its roster of singers. I don’t know whether it was their placing on the platform – or their unfamiliarity with their roles – but there were rather uneven trios of both Norns and Rhine daughters. I look forward to hearing more of Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s fine Alberich. Markus Brück and Edith Haller were well paired as Gunther and Gutrune. However, like Marina Prudenskaja who brought pathos and dark hues to Waltraute, Ms Haller’s higher registers could be rather shrill.

That leaves the important triumvirate for any Götterdämmerung – that of Hagen, Siegfried and Brünnhilde. I am sure Matti Salminen would have sounded fresher in his earlier recording for Janowski … how could he not? However, sometimes gravitas is more important than smoothness of vocal projection. Matti Salminen’s impressive Hagen is grizzled and careworn in the same way John Tomlinson’s now is and it remains just as engrossing an assumption of this pivotal role. Lance Ryan seems to be everywhere these days as Siegfried, including the new Bayreuth Ring this summer. On the one hand, I commend him for his lyrical approach as this is very much my style of Wagner Heldentenor singing. (One of his early teachers was Gianni Raimondi who I heard in Vienna near the end of his career but who remains one of the finest tenors I have ever heard.) But – and it is a big ‘but’ – for Siegfried’s big moments Lance Ryan’s voice is not nearly Helden (heroic) enough for me and he sounds like a pumped-up Loge.

Petra Lang is relatively new to the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde and anyway has yet to sing it on stage in a production (she will do so for the first time in Paris in May). This celebrated mezzo sang with all the wonderful qualities for which she is famed; she has an even, dark sound across all the lower registers but she has added to that some laser-bright top notes and she already is the equal of any of the current crop of Brünnhildes. She is pre-eminent in roles requiring spite or vengeance (Ortrud for example) and there is plenty of this for her in Götterdämmerung. Petra Lang was at her imperious best in Act II when seeking revenge as well as in those incandescent final moments. I repeat what I wrote before that her contribution alone would make the forthcoming CD release an important addition to anyone’s library – but I would also recommend it just as much for Maestro Janowski’s gimmick-free Wagner.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the RSB’s Wagner series recordings on SA-CD visit http://www.rsb-online.de/content/e67/e27371/e39443/index_ger.html.