To the hilt
Marek Janowski’s second recorded Ring cycle began on an off note, with a Rheingold that was fleet and lucid but failed to impress in the important musical moments. The veteran maestro’s penchant for directness yields far more impressive results in his new Die Walküre, an involving and highly expressive performance that mines the wonders of the score and features what could prove to be career-defining outings by Tomasz Konieczny and Petra Lang.
The profusion of Rings being trotted out live and on recordings for Wagner’s bicentennial can make one take the greatness of this opera just a bit for granted. The Act 2 battle of wills between Wotan and Fricka is one of Wagner’s most penetrating scenes, and the farewell to Brunnhilde arguably his most poignant bit of psychological portraiture. Janowski is the kind of old pro who’s never lost his sense of awe for this charged yet extremely controlled score, and seems content to let it stand on its strengths.
The live recording from November 2012 is the eighth installment of the conductor’s survey of mature Wagner operas with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on PentaTone Classics. Once again, the engineers have captured color and detail in the sometimes tricky environs of Berlin’s Philharmonie. What’s different this time around are the more spacious inner tempi Janowski employs, which allow leitmotifs to gently unfurl and add an extra dollop of dramatic splendor at key junctures, such as when Brunnhilde delivers the message of death to Siegmund.
That is not to say the conductor has detoured into some timeless sphere. The action uncoils like a spring with a bracing account of the Act 1 storm music and remains propulsive all the way to the surging tones of the fire music that ends the opera. There are readings with more raw power and provocative quirks, but relatively few that have such a natural sense of flow, involvement and concentration. Compared to this performance, Valery Gergiev’s recent star-studded Walkure with the Mariinsky Orchestra, taken from multiple live performances, sounds patched together and unfocused.
Konieczny’s served notice in Janowski’s Rheingold that he’s a formidable Wotan, with a voice that’s even through the registers and that carries convincingly during the mightiest climaxes. In this installment, he plays the god as something of a dithering, even vacuous outsider whose confidence completely evaporates on yielding to Fricka’s will. Gruffness and exasperation give way to quiet resignation and a serene focus as he bids farewell to Brunnhilde in the deeply moving concluding scene. It will be interesting to hear this rising talent carry on as the older, less red-blooded Wanderer in Siegfried.
Lang, a celebrated Ortrud and Kundry, quickly dispels any doubts about her mezzo’s suitability for Brünnhilde, issuing ringing battle cries at the outset of Act 2. Though her tone occasionally loosens and the voice displays some strain, the blemishes somehow make the character’s journey from defiant warrior to tenderhearted woman more convincing. Her Act 2 encounter with Siegmund and Zen-like acceptance of Wotan’s judgment in Act 3 bind the epic music with human experience and are highlights of the performance.
Robert Dean Smith demonstrated in Janowski’s Tannhauser how he’s capable of mining the lyricism of a Wagner part and still convincingly sound like a heroic tenor. He’s completely at home here as Siegmund, delivering a honeyed, Italianate “Winterstürme” and, later, an exquisitely phrased Todesverkundigung. Though the reading isn’t quite as burnished or noble-sounding as Jonas Kaufmann’s on the Gergiev release, there’s plenty of intelligence and taste, coupled with strong narrative skills.
His Sieglinde, Melanie Diener, starts off somewhat subdued but heats up in the Act 2 narratives, with an appealing soprano that has the right timbre for this very feminine role and only sounds pushed at the very top. Rounding out the cast, Timo Riihonen is a powerful and menacing Hunding, whose youthful sound and concern for the word-meaning is only marred by a few intonation problems. Iris Vermillion is a much more vocally focused Fricka than in Janowski’s Rheingold, sounding appropriately haughty as she wrings her hands over violations of domestic tranquiqlity and and sings “Deiner ew’gen Gattin heilige Ehre.”
The ever-responsive Berlin orchestra again provides a sure-handed but sympathetic accompaniment, and Janowski’s more airy pacing helps underline many lovely instrumental voicings that tend to get glossed over in thicker-textured accounts. Admirers of the conductor’s underrated Ring cycle from the early 1980s will recognize the keen dramatic sensibilities and straightforward approach. Those who have been following his bicentennial project may find this release as satisfying as his Tristan and a contender for top honors.