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WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen

CD Button Lang, Urmana, Diener, Vermillion, Prudenskaya, Larsson; Gould, Ryan, R. D. Smith, Elsner, Konieczny, Schmeckenbecher, Riihonen, Salminen; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Janowski. Pentatone PTC 5186581 (13)

Recordings Janowski Ring des Nibelungen hdl 1016
Conductor Becoming: Janowski at work
© Lebrecht Music & Arts
Recordings Janowski Ring cover 1016

MAREK JANOWSKI'S  Pentatone Ring, the first Ring on Super Audio CD, issued previously in four parts, is here integrated in a box of twelve-by-twelve-by-one-and-a-half inches—and 5.6 pounds. Most of the weight is that of a similarly dimensioned 256-page book with easily legible libretto in German and English; three essays by Kevin Painting on Wagner’s life, music and Bayreuth; nineteen by Steffen Georgi on parts and aspects of the Ring; artist bios, track information and instrumentation and musician lists.

The thirteen discs are Hybrid SACDs: for surround sound, you’ll need a player with SACD capacity and perhaps a receiver with HDMI ports, but the discs will also play in two-channel stereo on most conventional CD, DVD and Blu-ray players. I listened at home in excellent surround sound and in the car in basic stereo. (The Ring is just the thing for a long road trip.)

The recording was made in Berlin’s Philharmonie, where Janowski conducted just one concert performance of each of the Ring’s four parts, on November 22 and 24, 2012, and March 1 and 15, 2013. Rehearsals may have been recorded for backup; Ring audiences can be rapt and quiet, but it still amazes me that over almost fourteen hours, there’s not a cough, or a clap, or a titter at “Das ist kein Mann!” A sonic image of singers lined up left to right can be discerned at times, but Ring characters sometimes sing from a distance, and if singers didn’t slip to the rear at the concerts, the engineers have done some distancing—discreetly, it must be stressed. In Das Rheingold, for instance, the teasing Rhinemaidens stay put and are not heard swimming circles around Alberich, but they’re distanced at the end when they bewail their lost gold from the valley depths. In Act II of Siegfried, Fafner gets a somewhat cavernous acoustic, not overdone, and the Forest Bird sings at a slight distance from Siegfried.

Janowski’s Ring is less individual than those of Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Karajan, Boulez and Barenboim, but it can be characterized—brisk (a 13:48:08 aggregate) and only occasionally perfunctory, and even then not in the big orchestral passages, which are dramatic and lyric highlights. The storm launches Die Walküre with real ferocity, and Siegmund draws the sword from the tree in a gleaming climax. In Act II, Wotan unburdens himself to Brünnhilde quickly, but she spaciously announces Siegmund’s death. In Siegfried’s Forest Murmurs, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin spreads an idyllic carpet of beauty. When dawn breaks in Götterdämmerung’s Act II, the ear can distinguish the individual horns.

Rheingold’s fluid, burgeoning beginning is interrupted by a squally Woglinde and Wellgunde. Jochen Schmeckenbecher, a genial Alberich, is one of several in the cast who point words with great specificity; in Rheingold, so do Iris Vermillion, an insistent Fricka, and Andreas Conrad, a vivid Mime. This Ring’s dominant voice is that of Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan, but listeners raised on such noble Wotans as Schorr and Hotter may struggle with his black, nasal timbre and boiling anger; he can sound like the Ring’s arch-villain. Günther Groissböck’s Fasolt is well-sung and sympathetic, Timo Riihonen’s Fafner rather ordinary—as are the Freia, Froh and Donner. Christian Elsner, who has sung Parsifal under Janowski, is a winningly lyrical Loge. Maria Radner, who died in the 2015 Germanwings plane crash in the French Alps, sings Erda’s dire warning with lovely, youthful tone. 

In Walküre, Robert Dean Smith’s heroic and lyrical Siegmund is so consistently excellent that one would have to invoke such unique talents as Melchior and Vickers to find him wanting. Melanie Diener’s Sieglinde begins with soft attacks, a timid abuse victim of Riihonen’s dull Hunding, but she soon gains confidence, strength and beauty. Vermillion and Konieczny are evenly matched in the Fricka–Wotan spat—each formidable, neither sympathetic. In a Ring in which so much is sonically crystal-clear, Petra Lang’s Brünnhilde is curiously cloudy, her tone unfocused, her enunciation indistinct, as if she were singing through a veil. Her Valkyrie sisters are well balanced. Konieczny unblackens his timbre and achieves some nobility in Wotan’s farewell.

Elsner returns in Siegfried as an aggressively character-tenor Mime, remarkably different from his Loge but just as successful. Stephen Gould’s baritonal heldentenor sounds mature for young Siegfried, but his heroic singing is satisfying and his lyric singing is superb. When Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich meets Konieczny’s Wanderer, the latter still sounds like the bad guy. Matti Salminen—a veteran of Janowski’s 1980–83 Ring recording and video Rings under Boulez, Levine and Mehta—remains an effective Fafner. Sophie Klussmann pipes purely as the Forest Bird. Anna Larsson’s womanly Erda, like Radner’s young goddess, makes it easy to hear why Wotan impregnated her and not his wife. Konieczny again softens to suggest that Wotan has mellowed as the Wanderer. Violeta Urmana—like Lang a former mezzo, but with a far more commanding, if steely, top—triumphs as the high-lying Siegfried Brünnhilde. Siegfried is the strongest part of Janowski’s cycle.

Götterdämmerung is the weakest. Two ordinary Norns are topped by Jacquelyn Wagner’s luminous Third Norn. Back as Brünnhilde, Lang caps the dawn duet with a C released with an added yelp. She again sounds cloudy beside her clarion Siegfried, unsubtle Lance Ryan, whose tone has coarsened since his outstanding video Siegfrieds under Mehta at Valencia in 2008 and 2009. Salminen’s Hagen is iconic, and the delivery and phrasing are as of yore, but the voice itself is not what it was. With the three leads compromised, the next rung provides most of the best singing—Markus Brück as a mellifluous Gunther, Edith Haller as a lovely Gutrune, Marina Prudenskaya as a rich-voiced Waltraute, Schmeckenbecher as an ever-genial Alberich. Lang, who expresses rage well, is at her best in Act II. The Rhinedaughters are easier on the ear this time. Siegfried’s dying farewell to Brünnhilde fails to move the listener. In the sections of the immolation scene addressed to Wotan’s ravens and to Grane, Lang lunges at high notes. Fortunately, Janowski and his fine orchestra have the last word.  —Mark Mandel 


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