Recordings of December 1994: Wagner: Siegfried & Götterdämmerung

WAGNER: Siegfried
Teldec 4509-94193-2 (4 CDs only). TT: 4:00:09
WAGNER: Götterdämmerung
Teldec 4509-94194-2 (4 CDs only). TT: 4:27:03
Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegfried; Anne Evans, Brünnhilde; John Tomlinson, Wanderer; Günter von Kannen, Alberich; Graham Clark, Mime; Philip Kang, Fafner, Hagen; Bodo Brinkmann, Gunther; Waltraud Meier, Waltraute; Birgitta Svendén, Erda, First Norn; Eva-Maria Bundschuh, Gutrune; Hilde Leidland, Forest Bird, Woglinde; others; 1991 Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, Daniel Barenboim
Both: John Mordler, prod.; Gernot R. Westhäuser, eng. DDD.

With this Ring, his astonishing Parsifal of a few years back, and his Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, Daniel Barenboim must now be reckoned one of the great Wagner conductors. He shares with Wilhelm Furtwängler a relentless dramatic momentum, but without the latter's mushy beat. He melds the orchestral clarity and transparency of a Boulez with the balletically balanced weight and luminosity of a Böhm. All Barenboim's own is a command of this immense score's quieter sections that consistently plumbs the profound. His tendency to slightly ritard descending phrases on unaccompanied strings is, in every case, the right choice—these moments seem to sink into the very souls of music and listener alike.

The Rhine Journey, Funeral March, Gathering of the Vassals, Immolation Scene, and most of Siegfried III all are about as good as I've ever heard them. Like Barenboim's Bayreuth Rheingold and Walküre (reviewed last March), this Siegfried and Götterdämmerung evince an irresistible freshness; listening to all four operas in one Wagner-packed weekend was an effortless delight.

Criticized in his early Bayreuth seasons for erratic tempi, Barenboim seems to have since steadied his rhythmic choices: they sound simply "right." He calls attention to himself only in the prelude—slower than Goodall's—to Siegfried II. Otherwise, Barenboim's tempi and playing times approximate Solti's.

Siegfried Jerusalem has grown into his namesake role, here sounding considerably younger and more focused than he did on the Levine/Met laserdiscs of about the same time, and considerably less cynical than for Haitink/EMI the same year (1991). The voice—bright, clear, ringing—is an absolute pleasure to listen to, and that of a true heldentenor. Still, he begins to force in the latter half of Götterdämmerung II (these are live recordings), and, by the end of III, there's little voice left. His acting never falters—this is a Siegfried anyone would trust implicitly.

John Tomlinson's Wanderer strains a bit, but he's relaxed and informal without losing emotional focus in his scenes with Mime and Alberich. The voice is immense and powerful, à la Hotter—the Siegfried/Wanderer confrontation in Siegfried III is a stunner.

Following her perfectly proportioned but miniature Walküre Brünnhilde, Anne Evans here sings almost everyone under the table. The sound is not as big, broad, or incisive as that of a Varnay, Flagstadt, or Nilsson, but Evans is a first-rate actress. Her voice is under complete control, nothing's wrong with its top or middle. (She loses all power at the bottom, however.)

Günter von Kannen's Alberich is in the Gustav Neidlinger, or topnotch, class: twisted, driven nobility wedded to seemingly limitless vocal reserves and stiletto-like accuracy of dramatic intent. As Mime, Graham Clark wheezes and pants, as full of stage business as a Dickens caricature. When he actually bothers to sing the notes, Clark is excellent, but otherwise his interpretation is far too much of a good thing.

Bodo Brinkmann's Gunther seems to be in a constant state of dismay; I miss the emotional complexity Fischer-Dieskau brought to this role (for Solti). As Gutrune, Eva-Maria Bundschuh makes more of her tiny solo scene following the Funeral March in Götterdämmerung III than I've heard anyone else do, but is otherwise unmemorable.

Philip Kang tears into Hagen with far greater ferocity than he brings to Fafner (his Hunding was better). Kang may lack the subtlety and sheer power of a Gottlob Frick (Solti), but this is a fine Hagen by any other standard.

Waltraud Meier sings Waltraute with surprisingly erratic vocal control but appropriate angst. Birgitta Svendén is a youthful, clear-voiced Erda and a stately First Norn, and Hilde Leidland (who also sings Woglinde) is probably the best Forest Bird on record, her voice high, light, and full of avian agility. The Bayreuth Festival Chorus, directed by Norbert Balatsch, is its usual immaculately disciplined self, and the Festival Orchestra's ensemble playing is the now-expected perennial miracle.

These sets, the best representations yet of the Festspielhaus's unique acoustic, should satisfy those who love it as well as those who think it lacking in orchestral heft. The orchestral choirs are perfectly blended and discrete, as unlikely as that sounds, and the dynamic range is startlingly lifelike. The only problem is director Harry Kupfer's hyperactive blocking: stage noise is almost constant.

I usually recommend the Solti/London Ring as a first choice. I still do. But what Barenboim's Ring lacks in absolute top-flight voices it more than makes up for in substance, inspired conducting, and unparalleled sound. One of the great Rings.—Richard Lehnert