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Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Iris Vermillion (Fricka), Robert Dean Smith (Siegmund), Melanie Diener (Sieglinde), Timo Riihonen (Hunding), Petra Lang (Brünnhilde), Anja Fidelia Ulrich (Gerhilde), Fionnuala McCarthy (Ortlinde), Heike Wessels (Waltraute), Kismara Pessatti (Schwertleite), Carola Höhn (Helmwige), Wilke te Brummelstroete (Siegrune), Nicole Piccolomini (Grimgerde) Renate Spingler (Rossweisse), Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski (conductor)
Recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie (November 24, 2012) – 216’29
Pentatone PTC 5186 407 – Hybrid Super Audio CDs with essays in German, French, and English – Texts and translations in German and English

Of my operatic firsts, Richard Wagner's masterpiece, Die Walküre, may be the most vividly distinguished memory. My first Wagner opera, period, it completely bowled over whatever preconceived notions I had about Wagner, and struck a sympathetic chord with that impressionable, mid-pubescent listener. Many years later, this opera still manages to coerce some of my most visceral reactions while listening. In this Wagner bicentenary, we are spoiled to find not one, but two new, high profile recordings of Wagner's work on Super Audio CD. This one, as part of Marek Janowski's rapidly concluding Wagner cycle, is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

Unsurprisingly, Janowski’s orchestral forces are as outstanding as they have been throughout the cycle. Captured in immediate surround sound, the strings are biting, the brass punchy but noble. The players perform with endurance and dramatic adroitness. As with the rest of this series, the sound is a joy.

Somewhat surprisingly, this may be Janowski’s best effort to date. There is an immediacy to his reading of this score that, in many ways, is a welcome antidote to Valery Gergiev’s recent sedated interpretation. For those that prefer their Walküre in the mold of Erich Leinsdorf (perhaps my desert island recording), Janowski’s is in many ways the same mold. The opening storm scene is violent and fast. Throughout the act, he builds tension with quick, but thoughtful, transitions to a rawly sensual conclusion. That’s not to say the reading ever feels hurried. Far from it. The build to the finish of the second act is packed with tense anticipation, colored by the fierce sonorities of the Berlin Radio Symphony.

Janowski’s “Ride of the Valkyries” begins surprisingly tame, but the strength of his singers helps turn in a powerful salvo. In fact, the singers are uniformly excellent on this recording. Sure, the names don’t carry the weight that Gergiev’s star-studded cast does, but there is some wonderful singing here, beginning primarily with tenor Robert Dean Smith as Siegmund. A highly underrated singer, Smith is really coming into his own. His recent Tannhäuser with Janowski was quite well-received, and he appears to have grown even more since then. A bright, heroic sound, Smith’s is a voice that is thrilling yet capable of complex shadings. His “Winterstürme” is lyrical and expansive. As his sister Sieglinde, Melanie Diener sings with imposing character. Her broad voice can tend to be unwieldy above the staff, and her pitch slightly suspect, but on the whole, it is a convincing performance, her emotive farewell, impactful.

Petra Lang, as the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, starts slightly under-powered (what a foreboding entrance!) but manages to turn up the heat as the opera wears on. Her dramatic 2nd act scene with Wotan is potent. Her youthful, soaring voice may not be as robust as some are used to for the heroine, but Lang manages to turn in a powerful performance. She puts Brünnhilde’s youth and insolence at the heart of the story as her compassion for the Wälsungs is a powerful force for the turning point of the entire tetralogy.

The real start of this recording though is Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan. Possessing a powerful, burnished bass voice, Konieczny sings with daunting authority and tragic vulnerability. His dramatic command in the second act confrontation with Fricka is inspired and masterful. His stamina through the end of Act III is impressive. Combined with a keen sense of timing, Konieczny’s vocal performance is a force to be reckoned with and one that is on a historic level of Wotans—a direct voice, fine actor, and special performance.

Secondary roles were satisfying, beginning with Iris Vermillion as Fricka. Cold and stern, formidably sung, Vermillion is a brilliant foil to Konieczny’s despondent Wotan. Timo Riihonen as Hunding is a bit snarly but his shallow portrayal appropriate. The Valkyries are led by Anja Fidelia Ulrich as Gerhilde who sings with a robust, majestic tone.

While the singers here (or virtually anywhere these days) could hardly measure up to the likes of Nilsson and Hotter, this is a splendid recording of Walküre with some exceptional singing. For those who like their Walküre hot and heavy, Janowski delivers.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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