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Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold [1] – Die Walküre [2] – Siegfried [3] – Götterdämmerung [4]
Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan, Wanderer), Petra Lang (Brünnhilde [2, 4]), Violeta Urmana (Brünnhilde [3]), Steven Gould (Siegfried [3]), Lance Ryan (Siegfried [4]), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich), Andreas Conrad (Mime [1]), Christian Elsner (Mime [3], Loge), Robert Dean Smith (Siegmund), Melanie Diener (Sieglinde), Timo Riihonen (Hunding, Fafner), Matti Salminen (Hagen), Iris Vermillion (Fricka), Günther Groissböck (Fasolt), Maria Radner (Erda [1]), Anna Larsson (Erda [3]), Kismara Pissati (Schwerleite, Flosshilde), Heike Wessels (Waltraute [2]), Marina Prudenskaya (Waltraute [4]), Markus Brück (Gunther), Ricarda Merbeth (Freia), Edith Haller (Gutrune), Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Froh), Julia Borchert (Woglinde), Sophie Klussmann (Waldvogel), Katharine Kammerloher (Wellgunde), Renate Spingler (Rossweisse), Fionnuala McCarthy (Ortlinde), Carola Höhn (Helmwige), Wilke te Brummelstroet (Siegrune), Anja Fidelia Ulrich (Gerhilde), Nicole Piccolomini (Grimgerde), Susanna Resmark (First Norn), Christa Mayer (Second Norn), Jacquelyn Wagner (Third Norn), Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester and Runfunkchor Berlin, Marek Janowski (Conductor)
Live performance: Berlin Philharmonie (November 22 [1] & 24 [2], 2012; March 1 [3] & 15 [4], 2013) – 140’27 [1], 216’29 [2], 227’30 [3] and 243’42 [4] (13 discs – SACD 96kHz Bit PCM Recording)
Pentatone # PTC 5186581 (Distributed by Naxos of America)

The overall sweep and richness of these recordings easily outweigh any flaws - and what production or recording of The Ring, with its numerous demanding roles, is deemed “perfect”? This impressive package features 36 solo singers; it is amazing how many of them are fully up to the mark. While most of the cast sings their roles in the various operas, there are two Brünnhildes, two Siegfrieds, two Erdas. Some singers take on two roles.

This set of recordings marks the culmination of an ambitious project to record all 10 of the “mature” Wagner operas in live performances at the Berlin Philharmonie by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Marek Janowski, beginning with Der fliegende Holländer in November, 2010, and concluding with Götterdämmerung in March, 2013, the Wagner bicentennial year. Pentatone has released the four Ring works in a 13-CD package in a special slipcase that hearkens back to the glory days of the LP. Included is a massive book with complete libretti (in German and English), biographies and essays. The book weighs 3.5 pounds (1.6 kilos); four separate booklets would have been easier to handle (this is a very minor drawback).

Marek Janowski is one of the few conductors who vouchsafed a studio recording of The Ring. His was released in 1983, using the Staatskapelle Dresden. This recording is ranked highly still. One singer from that set also appears on this one: Matti Salminen, taking on two roles, Fafner in Siegfried and Hagen in Götterdämmerung; he is stellar in both.

While the discs (Super Audio CDs) are made for a system with surround sound, the results are superb on a regular stereo system, with depth, clarity and sensuousness. Pentatone aims to be an audiophile's label and they have certainly succeeded here.

A description or analysis of every singer would make for a tedious read. What follows is a selected sampling of what one hears.

The prime feature of the recordings is the conductor’s thoroughly thought-out expressiveness, especially in the orchestral passages. One example: the opening scene of Die Walküre When Sieglinde (Melanie Diener) and Siegmund (Robert Dean Smith) have a halting conversation. The orchestral stretches between the sung passages reveal as much, if not more, than the unfolding verbal drama. A different kind of eloquence comes at the finale of Das Rheingold and the entry of the gods into Valhalla. The music is as grand as called for, but there is an edge to it: here Wotan is commanding us to be awed.

A prime example of vocal expressiveness lies in the brief role of Fasolt, as sung by Günther Groissböck; his yearning for Freia is innocently heartfelt. Also in Das Rheingold Maria Radner is outstanding as Erda, a role that always gives me goosebumps. Her performance is a fine tribute to a singer who died so brutally in 2015. Anna Larsson, the Erda in Siegfried, is equally compelling.

An unexpected surprise is the casting of Christian Elsner in the role of Loge and then Mime in Siegfried. He has more of a “leading tenor” sound as opposed to “character tenor”, the type of voice one usually hears in these roles. (Elsner does have a leading role in another of the series, namely the title role in Parsifal.)

The one major disappointment is Lance Ryan’s Götterdämmerung Siegfried. His pinched, nasal tone would be more suitable for the role of Mime, but even then his wavering intonation would rule him out. There are other less-than-ideal stretches such as at the finale of Siegfried when Siegfried (Stephen Gould) and Brünnhilde (Violeta Urmana) proclaim their love. I have often found this to be a chancy passage as typically the tenor has already had a dauntingly long role to sing while the soprano is fresh but perhaps not properly warmed up. Violeta Urmana evinces a lack of comfort while the stalwart Gould sails along securely. The Brünnhilde in the other two operas, Petra Lang, shows fully just why she deserves to be in high demand today, as does the Wotan/Wanderer Tomasz Konieczny.

There is never the slightest hint that these are live recordings. There is no trace of audience noise. I wouldn't have minded hearing some applause as I am sure there was a lot.

Wagner’s Ring is always a rich, immersive experience, this one particularly so.

Michael Johnson




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