Monday, May 26, 2014

Barenboim's La Scala Götterdämmerung on Blu Ray

Richard Wagner, Die Götterdämmerung

Siegfried - Lance Ryan
Gunther - Gerd Grochowski
Alberich - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Hagen - Mikhail Petrenko
Brünnhilde - Iréne Theorin
Gutrune / Die dritte Norn - Anna Samuil
Waltraute / Die zweite Norn - Waltraud Meier
Die erste Norn - Margarita Nekrasova
Woglinde - Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde - Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde - Anna Lapkovskaja

Milan La Scala Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Bruno Casoni)
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Guy Cassiers, stage director and set designer
Enrico Bagnoli, set and lighting designer
Tim van Steenbergen, costume designer
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, choreographer

Recorded live at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, June 2013

Arthaus Musik           Blu Ray (108 0930) or DVD (101 696)


This release brings to an end the La Scala Ring Cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and produced by Guy Cassiers. I reviewed the Die Walküre very positively when it came out. This performance is significantly less successful to my mind, largely due to the weak singing of Lance Ryan, but it is very fine nonetheless. I will stick with my earlier judgment that Barenboim’s 1992 Bayreuth Ring Cycle remains his best effort (but for a different view see the reviews by Rob Cummings on this site), but the conducting, production, and most of the singing here is first rate.

One very striking feature of Guy Cassier’s production is the skillful use of light and video – superbly captured on the Blu Ray disc. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more evocative portrayal of Brunnhilde’s rock. But the most distinctive feature of the production is its use of visual leitmotifs that reappear throughout all four dramas. Chief among these is the frieze Les passions humaines commissioned from the Antwerp sculptor Jef Lambeaux by King Leopold II of Belgium. The freize depicts a contorted mass of human bodies – rather appropriate for the Ring. There is a striking evocation of the frieze in the Gibichung palace where pieces of the furniture look rather like Damien Hirst-style limbs in formaldehyde. The leitmotif continues with the depiction of the Tarnhelm as a human sculpture, which works rather effectively when Siegrfried arrives at Brunnhilde’s rock (and somewhat less so when Siegfried first arrives surrounded by ballet dancers at the Gibichung palace). 

As with the earlier dramas in the cycle, Barenboim’s conducting is superlative. Die Götterdämmerung has some of Wagner’s classic set-pieces, including Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March and these come across extremely well, as one might expect. Barenboim’s real strength, though, is his sense of structure – both musical and dramatic . A nice illustration comes in Act II, where he builds unerringly to the dramatic high point of Siegfried’s oath.  This is a part of the drama that is crucial, but can sag in the wrong hands.

As indicated earlier, the real problem with this production is Lance Ryan’s Siegfried. Ryan does not have the contolled power of a true heldentenor and he sounds forced and all-too-often wobbly when he tries to project. He is very much at the “shouty” end of the spectrum and it just doesn’t work for me at all (although the audience at La Scala seemed happy enough). The rest of the cast unfortunately shows up his weaknesses. 

Waltraud Meier is outstanding as the 2nd Norn and then as Waltraute. The duet between Brunnhilde and Waltraute at the end of Act I is sung with simultaneous strength and delicacy. Nina Stemme was the Brunnhilde in Die Walküre and Siegfried, and sang outstandingly well in both dramas. Here she is replaced by Iréne Theorin, who does not quite have Stemme’s dramatic power, but who gives a very creditable performance. Theorin is a wonderfully furious Brunnhilde in Act II, but by the time of the immolation she is a little lacking in dramatic contrast. Hagen is well sung by Mikhail Petrenko, despite some unfortunate portamento in the early stages of the role. Johannes Martin Kränzle continues his strong run as Alberich (with the Alberich-Hagen duet another high superbly conducted high point of the performance). The principals are rounded out by  Gerd Grochowski as Gunther and Anna Samuil as Gutrune. Both do their roles justice.

The audiovisual quality of the Blu Ray disc is outstanding and the performance is recommended for the production, the conducting, and much of the singing. There are enough great moments for this to be compulsory viewing for dedicated Wagnerians

Giulini's Bruckner 9 on DVD

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor: Rehearsal and Concert

Carlo Maria Guilini

Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Arthaus Musik DVD 102 188

The 9th is the Bruckner symphony most closely associated with Carlo Maria Giulini. John Berky’s discography identifies 9 different recordings. The concert on this DVD was recorded for television on 20 September 1996 and has been released on CD at least twice before. This is the first release on DVD and has the very considerable benefit of nearly 60 minutes of rehearsal time (usefully dubbed from the German).

Having the rehearsal footage gives an incredible insight into the nuances of Bruckner interpretation and the level of attention to individual voices within the complex whole of the symphony. It is also a wonderful portrait of the 83 year old conductor – clearly deeply affected by the music and greatly respected and loved by the orchestra. Completely the opposite of imperious, Giulini’s style is very gentle and understated. 

The performance is very fine indeed. The first movement is measured. Tension is built successively through the peaks of the movement and then dissolved in the coda. It is clear that Giulini has a firm architectural grip on the symphony and he seems transfixed by the music. The second movement has great drive and vigor and the rehearsal reveals one of the techniques used, as Giulini instructs the strings in the main scherzo theme that the long notes are to be played marcato, with only the dotted notes played staccato. The “before and after” shots in the rehearsal show how this device builds momentum. For Giulini the third movement is the finale – he takes the traditional approach. And he manages to incorporate a chamber-like balance between the instrumental voices into the monumentality of Bruckner’s symphonic conception. The rehearsal shows how much work went into getting the balance right between wind and horns.

I do have one reservation. Watching the rehearsal gives great insight into details of the interpretation, but it doesn’t help much with understanding the overall structure of his approach. The organization is very disjointed, cutting without warning or explanation from one section of the movement to another. I think that there could have been more editorial guidance besides simply identifying which movement is under discussion. Either that – or reproduce an entire rehearsal.

But even as it is this is a highly recommended DVD. The performance is very much worth the price of admission and the rehearsal certainly deepens appreciation.