Thursday, January 7, 2016

A tale of two Rheingolds - Rattle and van Zweden

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold

Michael Volle, baritone (Wotan),
Christian van Horn, bass baritone (Donner)
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Froh)
Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Loge)
Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo soprano (Fricka)
Annette Dasch, soprano (Freia)
Janina Baechle, mezzo soprano (Erda)

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Conducted by Simon Rattle

BR Klassik 900133 (2 CDs)

Richard Wagner, Das Rheingold

Matthias Goerne, baritone (Wotan)
Oleksandr Pushniak, bass baritone (Donner)
Charles Reid, tenor (Froh)
Kim Begley, tenor (Loge)
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo soprano (Fricka)
Anna Samuil, soprano (Freia)
Deborah Humble, soprano (Erda)

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Jaap van Zweden

Naxos Blu-Ray Audio NBD 0049 (also available in CD)

These performances of the opening drama of Wagner’s Ring both originate in concert performances. The Rattle production was recorded over two days at the Hwerkulessaal in Munich (April 24-25, 2014), while van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic were recorded at the Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall (January 22 and 24, 2015). The van Zweden Rheingold is the beginning of a complete Ring for Naxos, but I am not aware of similar plans from BR Klassik for Simon Rattle and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

Concert performances have some, but by no means all, of the immediacy and power of a live recording. At the same time, though, they provide a more controlled environment for acoustic fine-tuning and post-production editing, particularly important for the Naxos issue, which is (to the best of my knowledge) the first Wagner music drama to be recorded in Blu-Ray audio. Both recordings have excellent sound quality – although the Blu-Ray disc version of van Zweden’s performance seems to have been recorded at rather a low volume.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic is not known as a Wagner orchestra, but it clearly has aspirations in that direction. The current Ring project is the first cycle undertaken by a Chinese orchestra. Jaap van Zweden, who is simultaneously music director at the Hong Kong Philharmonic and at the Dallas Symphony, is a good choice for the podium. He is an excellent Bruckner conductor and his concert performance of Parsifal with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (on Challenge Classics) was well received, and deservedly so. The Symphonieorchester des Baterischen Rundfunks operates of course at a different level of visibility, particularly  with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. Wagner, however, is relatively under-represented in Rattle’s repertoire and discography, with his first Ring conducted at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence from 2007 – 2009 (and subsequently released on Blu-Ray).

Of the two conductors Rattle has much more fluidity, particularly with the strings. Van Zweden is flatter and communicates less energy and momentum. The contrast is particularly clear in the closing minutes of the Prelude, which Van Zweden conducts like the prelude to Das Rheingold, whereas Rattle shapes it as the prelude to the entire Ring cycle. Throughout the performance Rattle is more effective at foregrounding the forward-looking references in the score.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic is most effective in the more intimate, chamber-like sections, but falls somewhat short when drama is called for – such as, for example, the journeys to and from Nibelheim – not helped by occasional disjointedness in, e.g., the scene with the giants. Rattle, in contrast, is at the monumental end of the spectrum. I think that this works well for him in Das Rheingold, which is not easy to bring off (as a single uninterrupted block of music of well over two hours, without any of the cycle’s signature episodes). Interestingly, van Zweden is 10 minutes or so longer than Rattle.

Of the two casts the finest single vocal performance comes from Matthias Goerne as Wotan. As a highly experienced lieder singer his enunciation and articulation are of course excellent, and he has the vocal presence to sing Wotan successfully. We will have to wait until Die Walküre to see how Goerne copes with the real depths of the character, but all the indications are very promising. Michael Volle’s Wotan for Simon Rattle is definitely lighter and overall less impressive, but still dramatically satisfying.

In fact, there are no real weak links in the chain in either performance. Highlights from van Zweden’s cast include Kim Begley’s Loge and Michelle de Young’s Fricka. The first is sung without the tendency to caricature that some singers feel necessary in Loge, while Fricka is less petulant than she often appears. Burkhard Ulrich and Elisabeth Kulman sing the same roles well for Rattle. Peter Sidhom’s Alberich (in the Hong Kong cast) has fine moments, but the performance is marred by exaggeration at crucial moments (e.g. both of Alberich’s curses). I found Rattle’s Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) more balanced. Rattle’s Erda (Janina Baechle) has a fine tone, but sounds a little too light for the weight of her message. The various giants and gods are all well sung, with Kwangchul Youn’s Fasolt (for van Zweden) particularly standing out.

Both of these sets have their merits. There is some very fine singing from van Zweden’s cast, particularly Matthias Goerne, while Rattle and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks take the orchestral honors. The Hong Kong performance has the advantage of being recorded on Blu-Ray audio and offers a surround sound option (DTS-HD 5.1). I don’t think that either will force its way to the front of a very large field, but each is certainly worth listening to, and I look forward to the next installments of van Zweden’s cycle with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.