lietofinelondon

Gergiev’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Review – Die Walküre (Act 1)

Siegmund – Jonas Kaufmann
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Valery Gergiev. In all honesty I can say that he never disappoints in surprising me. When I listen to his recordings or attend a performance of his I am never quite sure what I am getting.

Take his Elektra for example with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role alongside Angela Denoke, Dame Felicity Palmer, Matthias Goerne and the LSO. Say what you will about Charbonnet’s performance but personally I was completely taken by her total immersion in the character. And Gergiev marshalled his forces with absolute authority, extracting committed performances from each member of the cast and drawing playing from the orchestra that veered – exactly as Strauss wanted – from sheer brutality to wondrous luminosity under his baton.

On the other hand, his Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Edinburgh International Festival was, for me, a fiasco not only in terms of both the production and the quality and level of the musicianship across the board. Not only were the singers, drawn from the Mariinsky Opera, all ill suited to their roles, but Gergiev’s own sense of commitment was lacklustre and distracted.

So when I read that Gergiev was embarking on his first recording of the Ring cycle with Die Walküre, I was initially filled with trepidation.

But let’s face it, if there was an equivalent of a Fantasy Football League for opera – and especially Wagner – lovers, then this cast would the dream team. All credit to Gergiev or the people who work behind the scenes that the assembled cast includeS Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, Mikhail Petrenko and Ekaterina Gubanova.

I have been lucky enough to see both Kaufmann and Stemme perform their roles live either on stage or via live broadcast. Kaufmann in his debut as Siegmund at the Met, and Stemme live in San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle and via broadcast in Krigenberg’s Götterdämmerung.

So to say that my expectations were high is an understatement and on this occasion Gergiev has not only surprised but also surpassed my expectations.

This review has been a long time coming because I have listened to the recording all the way through as well as act-by-act countless times. And – unusually for me – it is act by act that I plan to approach this review.

This is not a recording to be skimmed over and overall, repeated listening has convinced me that it not only stands comparison with some of the most memorable recordings but also in reality, surpasses some of them.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Gergiev has delivered a traditional performance in the best sense. No gimmicks. No fanciful notions or radical re-interpretations. He conducts what’s on the page.

And it is music making of almost the highest standard.

It opens with some beautifully paced and articulate playing in the strings, with just the right hint of menace in brass and winds. And Gergiev handles the dynamics building into the first timpani roll and the subsequent decrescendo masterfully without once dropping the momentum.

And the detail and attention in the phrases leading to Kaufmann’s first entry – you can almost feel his exhaustion in the way Gergiev directs the orchestra – is telling of the whole recording. Each phrase is not only articulate but due care has been given to how they play in the overall fabric of the music.

I don’t intend to go through the recording phrase by phrase or indeed bar by bar but there are some telling moments when it is clear not only that a great deal of love and attention has been lavished on this performance but that Gergiev gives Wagner’s music time to breath.

For example, take the very first exchanges between Siegmund and Sieglinde – not only in the careful and very deliberate molding of Kaufmann and Kampe’s vocal lines but also the carefully judged and beautifully played cello solo.

Or when Siegmund relates his tale of woe to Hunding, Gergiev maintains the taut momentum and doesn’t allow the brass to become too intrusive but generates a real sense of menace through their clear and rhythmically articulated playing.

Siegfried’s subsequent monologue is beautifully delivered. More so that on Kaufmann’s recent recital disc in that Gergiev takes the vocal line beyond the cries of Wälse. They aren’t the more normal ‘final destination’ in the monologue but the momentum generated carries the music through to the next section where singer and conductor balance the lyricism of the vocal line without sacrificing the rhythmic muscularity in the orchestra.

Indeed Gergiev draws some finely attuned playing from the Mariinsky Orchestra, particularly from the reappearance of Sieglinde and into their subsequent ‘love’ scene.

Here there is a sensuality that can often be missing from both from recordings and performances. Sieglinde’s rapture is almost tangible and the singers work together seamlessly in terms of both dramatic impetus and emotional tension.

Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond is most tenderly sung without any loss of focus and as it literally melted into Du bist der Lenz it struck me at how slowly Gergiev seemed to be taking the entire section – giving the music and the words time to breath and fold out.

Kampe, Kaufmann and Gergiev continue to spin the music out, ratcheting up the tension in the both singers and the orchestra almost note by note as first Siegfried’s name is revealed and then Northung itself and then its an almost sexual rush to the closing bars.

Needless to say the three singers – Kampe, Kaufmann and the Hunding of Mikhail Petrenko are magnificent. Vocally there are all on top form and I would be incredibly surprised if this recording was literally a case of them turning up without some time having been spent on rehearsal and coaching. There is an attention to detail, not only in the delivery of the words but, as I have mentioned, also in nuancing of phrasing that makes this recording stand out.

There is a depth and maturity to Kaufmann’s performance as Siegmund that I did not hear at the Met. Of course a lot of this will be to do with this being a studio recording but it is also in no small part to the attention to detail and surely working with Gergiev himself. And there is no hint of strain that seemed to occasionally surface in his recent recital disc. Similarly Petrenko is no mere cipher. His dark, brooding base is full of menace without ever snatching at the notes being sung. And Kampe, who can admittedly sometimes be a little hit and miss, evolves from the downtrodden wife to exultant lover with such vocal and dramatic authority and her soprano is sonorous and even throughout its range.

Indeed so outstanding is this first act in fact, that it’s almost a shame to move on to the Act Two.

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