The Berlin Philharmonic has its name inscribed in the discography of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Although the Austrian conductor was usually associated with large orchestral sound built around a thick string section, he took the world by surprise with what his detractors called “chamber music” sonorities for his tetralogy in Salzburg (and in the studio). The casting of a “Mozartian” Sieglinde was also unexpected. In any case, the results were distinctive enough – some people cannot live without Karajan’s Die Walküre, in which the most “intimate” opera in the cycle is performed “in human scale”.
I have become used to Barenboim’s “force of nature”-approach to the Introduction to act I and Rattle’s subdued take on it puzzled me a bit. When his “Mozartian” Siegmund began to sing surrounded by the gentlest version of the Berliner Philharmonic sound, graced by Rattle’s often admirable sense of detail and tonal colouring, one could think of Karajan’s recording. But then the evening’s Sieglinde had a far more substantial voice – and one couldn’t help noticing that when she was singing, the Karajanesque smoother sounds would develop into something more traditionally “Wagnerian”. This incongruousness would rob the whole act of a backbone – there were moments, many of them effective, but they vied with each other for a concept. The orchestra proved to be impressively Protean under these circumstances – clear and flexible either in capital or small-letter. Act II had no such ambiguities – it had the appearance, but only intermittently the spirit of a traditional Wagner performance, while act III was probably started with a caricature of a “traditional” Wagner performance in a very brassy and unsubtle Walkürenritt. Towards the closing scene, the performance would regain purpose – in spite of the increasing blunders in the brass section – in a wide-ranging account of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde – the first orchestral “interlude” a breathtaking example of gradual crescendo, the second expressively hushed and unhurried. My “in a nutshell” would be “a wonderful torso”. I have the impression that the last performance, which is going to be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall (this evening’s could be heard live in the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) will be more consistent.
Although our good friend Jerold doesn’t buy the idea that good singers are in constant development, I am happy to report that the invaluable Evelyn Herlitzius seems to be proving my point. Compared to her performance in the Deutsche Oper’s Ring two years ago, this evening’s Brünnhilde was a complete improvement and consistent to her last Straussian performances both in the Berlin Staatsoper and in the Salzburg Festival. Although one can see that singing at full powers is still her strong feature, she is now readier and more comfortable with holding back and producing legato and shaded dynamics when necessary – with no loss of security and sheer power in her acuti (as her daredevil ho-jo-to-ho’s showed) Sometimes she even ventured out of her comfort zone in trying softer singing in some very tricky spots. This, allied to her customary rhythmic accuracy, clear diction and complete emotional involvement, made her act III really vivid and gripping (even if one will recall other singers who have offered something more touching).
I had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde only once, in a very atypical day. This evening, in healthy voice, she showed herself rich-toned and even through the whole range, especially in unforced, big high notes that blossomed from the heart of the orchestra. Her experience in this role shows in her thorough understanding of dramatic situations and keen verbal pointing. One can see that she knows where a bit more tonal variety would make some difference, but her attempts in mezza voce were often colorless. I am not sure what to say about Lilli Paasikivi – her middle-size mezzo achieves its goal in Wagner by means of a metallic edge (especially in its almost spoken low register) that makes it sounds curiously shrewish. As a result, her Fricka was particularly waspish.
Then there is Christian Elsner. Has there been any other Siegmund in the last decades with a discography as a Lieder singer? I am not saying that there is not a Siegmund somewhere in Christian Elsner – one can take a glimpse of it in his rich, natural low notes – but what one hears could be described as if the mind of Christoph Prégardien has been transplanted into the body of Johan Botha. When the line is lyrical and undemanding, Elsner’s voice has a boyish, reedy quality reminiscent of Siegfried Jerusalem’s in his old studio recording of Die Walküre with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Janowski, with an extra Schubertian poise. However, when things become really Wagnerian, he basically lacks the technical resources – his high register wants slancio and sounds bottled up, legato evaporates, a nasal quality creeps in and he is often covered by the orchestra.
Although Terje Stensvold is by now a veteran singer (he is 68), his voice sounds as a man’s half his age. I had never seen him before and I wonder why he isn’t more of a household name. At least among Wagnerians – he is the kind of Heldenbariton more comfortable in the baritone than in the bass end of his voice, but his sound is so focused, big and bright that you can always hear him, even in his lower range, which sometimes acquires a yawny mature-Hotter sound. He is not very specific in his declamation (what can be a problem in act II), but has very clear diction and phrasing. All in all, an impressively reliable performance in a very difficult role. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding is becoming a bit mannered, but it is still a dark, big voice that works very well in the Philharmonie. Although Rattle drawned his valkyries in brass, one could still catch some interesting voices there, particularly Andrea Baker and Susan Foster.