Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Der Ring des Nibelungen
PERFORMER: Albert Dohmen, Ralf Lukas, Clemens Bieber, Arnold Bezuyen, Andrew Shore, Endrik Wottrich, Kwangchul Youn, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Stephen Gould, Christa Mayer, Ralf Lukas, Hans-Peter König, Linda Watson; Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: CD 9000B D (14 discs)

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 In the (literally) thunderous atmosphere of Bayreuth every new Ring staging courts controversy. This latest, by playwright Tankred Dorst attracted limited enthusiasm for its hodgepodge modernism. The musical side, however, was another matter – one reason this reaches us on CD. For many, Christian Thielemann is the heir to the grandiloquent old German tradition exemplified by Knappertsbuch and Klemperer, and he goes some way to justifying that here.

This is a big performance, often expansively paced. Great set-pieces like the Walküre love duet and the Rhine Journey have a fine soaring grandeur, even if some – the desperate Siegfried Act III prelude, the Funeral March – seem oddly detached and unemotional. Occasionally Thielemann resorts to sudden tempo gearshifts; his massive galumphing rallentando suggests a couple of the Valkyries are riding draft horses, and the Forging Song’s bellows suddenly relax. He maintains dramatic tension in crucial areas like Walküre Act II, but seems to slacken off in mid-Götterdämmerung. Nevertheless Thielemann held me at least as well as my benchmark for modern Bayreuth, Barenboim – and with his energy and translucent textures, sometimes better.

His singers, too, stood up surprisingly well. Linda Watson is a warm Brünnhilde and, despite a pronounced vibrato in her voice, is more powerful and secure than Barenboim’s Anne Evans. In Siegfried Stephen Gould delivers ringing, youthful tone powerfully enough to make strangulated top notes and short breath forgivable; in Götterdämmerung he sounds rougher. As Wotan, Albert Dohmen’s splendidly heroic delivery, commanding but tender, enhances his middleweight voice, happiest in Walküre’s higher tessitura. His doomladen narrative is compelling but its concluding fury unimpressive, the Farewell moving but often strained; he lacks the bass resonances for the Wanderer. 

Alberich is our superb character baritone Andrew Shore, unusually light-toned but fiercely incisive and nuanced. It’s lent the appropriate opposite by Arnold Bezuyen’s lyrically nasty Loge and Gerhard Siegel’s mercifully un-cute Mime. Hans-Peter König’s big, black-voiced Hagen and Fafner are more impressive than Kwangchul Youn’s stolid Fasolt and Hunding – though in an otherwise superb Walküre Act I, Endrik Wottrich’s keen Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek, a bright slightly tremulous Sieglinde, eclipse Barenboim’s Volsung twins.

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Michelle Breedt’s Fricka is excellent, as are the lesser gods. Christa Mayer impresses as Erda and Waltraute, Edith Haller as Freia, Gutrune, Norn and Valkyrie – like the Rhinemaidens, notably fresh-voiced ensembles, with many singers in common. The chorus, unusually for Bayreuth, sounds unexciting, and not only because of the recording. This is open and vivid, preserving much of the Bayreuth acoustic, yet more detailed than its predecessors.Keilberth’s recording, though a finer performance, is much more ‘historic’. Thielemann and Barenboim, both of whose cycles are a clear cut above Boulez’s, must now share Bayreuth’s modern laurels; and newcomers may prefer Thielemann’s airier grandeur. Michael Scott Rohan