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As part of the New Japan Philharmonic’s celebration of the Wagner jubilee, conductor in residence Ingo Metzmacher programmed a concert performance of Die Walküre’s Act 1, with soloists from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, preceded by R. Strauss’s tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Metzmacher is famous for his fondness for bold, think orchestral playing (as I could hear in his concerts during his tenure at the DSO in Berlin) and, under his baton, the NJP displayed a large – properly late-Romantic – sound, rich in warm strings. In moments where the texture becomes more complex, such as the Der Genesende episode, the sound picture could get a bit slacker, especially when one has in mind Karl Böhm’s 1958 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker, but clarity was almost always there. At the Tanzlied episode, the German conductor proved to be a bit heavy-footed, making for a rather clumsy waltz. At this point, his musicians seemed to have lost some steam too.

For the Walküre, the orchestra showed an entirely different sound, brighter and lighter. Looking at the list of soloists, one would have a deceptive first impression of a Karajanesque performance. Rather than Karajan’s flexible, luxuriant beat, Metzmacher offered a surprisingly a tempo approach, very economic with lingering breathing pauses, highlighting the Hauptstimme, which shifted from singers to orchestra in a commendably natural and consequent manner. The violins kept a cantabile quality throughout, even in fast passagework, which made me often think of Hans Tietjen’s 1938 Bayreuth recording. Later on, Metzmacher would prove to be suppler than I imagined, offering Sieglinde a Du bist der Lenz slower and more lyrical than usual and a truly climactic accelerando in the closing bars of the act. Although the approach paid off in its unusual structural coherence, musical soundness and chamber-music-like sonorities, the effect was unfortunately short in drama and excitement.

In 1938, Tietjen too chose light voices – in Maria Müller and Franz Völker – for his Wälsungen, but those were legendary singers of exceptional resources and technical finish. That was not the case this evening – and I have the impression that soloists who could have indeed pierced through the orchestral would have allowed the conductor more leeway to infuse energy in his otherwise musically persuasive approach. In the case of his Sieglinde, the final balance was surprisingly positive. Although Michaela Kaune’s high register is unfocused and colorless, she sang with unfailing theatrical instincts, a golden-toned medium register and very efficient low notes, exemplary diction, imagination and – in the more jugendlich than dramatisch moments – an elegant, almost Mozartian purity of line. She is not a Sieglinde by nature (act III would probably be very dangerous to her vocal health), but she “sold” me her version of Sieglinde this afternoon. On the other hand, Will Hartmann had to work hard for his money. The tone does have a young-Siegfried-Jerusalem quality, but the slancio, the resistance and the breath are not truly there. The result was often underpowered and wooden (the Wälse! sustained high g flat and high g particularly problematic). He started off with a refreshing lyricism, but when he got to Winterstürme, he was obviously too tired to make something of it. Last but not least, Liang Li was an efficient dark-toned Hunding.

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