Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Symphonic excerpts (CD review)

Nina Stemme, soprano; Philippe Jordan, Orchestre de l’Opera National de Paris. Erato 50999 9341422 7 (2-disc set).

Described by Opera News as “one of opera’s most exciting Wagnerian Sopranos,” the Swedish dramatic-opera star Nina Stemme here gives us a taste of what all the fuss is about in excerpts from all four of Richard Wagner’s Nibelungen operas. It’s just too bad we get to hear so little of her on this two-disc album. She sings Brunnhilde in the immolation scene that concludes the set, and that’s about it. Otherwise, Maestro Philippe Jordan and the Paris National Opera Orchestra give us the usual orchestral extracts we’ve all got on probably multiple discs in our music libraries. Not that Jordan’s execution of Wagner isn’t good; it’s just a little redundant.

Anyway, what we have on two discs of excerpts isn’t quite as much as we might expect, either. The first disc contains only forty-four minutes of music, and the second disc but thirty-eight minutes. Since that’s only a few minutes more than a single standard CD can hold, Erato could almost have squeezed everything onto a single disc.  But I’m probably complaining unnecessarily since they have priced the two-disc set quite reasonably.

Anyway, things begin, of course, with Das Rheingold: the Prelude, Interludes, and Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. After those items, from Die Walkure we get the seemingly omnipresent Ride of the Valkyries, followed by the Magic Fire Music. Disc one concludes with Forest Murmurs from Siegfried, arranged by Wouter Hutschenruyter. Then, Maestro Jordan turns disc two over to Gotterdammerung, with Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March, and Brunnhilde’s immolation. The latter selection finally lets us hear what people are talking about, Ms. Stemme’s way with Wagner. Certainly, it is a highlight of the program.

Maestro Jordan's approach to Wagner appears less dramatic than that of some of his illustrious predecessors in this material--Solti, Klemperer, Szell, Karajan, Leinsdorf, Stokowski, Boult, and the like. Instead, Jordan seems to emphasize the music's more poetic elements. We see this best defined by the conductor’s development of the opening Prelude, the waters of the Rhine ebbing, flowing, rising up, and practically engulfing us. Not that one can ever call Wagner subtle, but Jordan's manner is gentle enough that the nuances of Wagner's tone pictures come through with an expressive clarity and not just as great bleeding chunks of orchestral bravura.

In fact, Jordan is at his best in the opening opera, with its singing hammers, simple characters, and inspiring melodies. Although the music he has chosen to present may be purely instrumental, it conveys the songlike qualities of the rest of the work and offers up a most-refined interpretation of the subject.

Having little room for anything else from Die Walkure, we get only the two big numbers I mentioned above. It seems a shame to condense an entire opera to about twelve minutes of music, but at least Jordan gives people what they probably most want. The trouble here is that so many other conductors have already given us excellent versions of the Valkyries and Magic Fire Music; Jordan's renderings seem a little anticlimactic.

If Die Walkure gets short shrift, Siegfried gets even shorter, the entire opera represented by only Forest Murmurs. Fortunately, Jordan's reading of the music is delicate, graceful, and elegant, while still powerful enough to give us a pretty good glimpse into Siegfried's maturation process.

Disc two concludes the set with three tracks that convey the stormy passion, fear, and dark foreboding of Gotterdammerung. Jordan provides a Rhine Journey and a Funeral March filled with plenty of atmosphere, the pictorial qualities ever in the forefront, yet with enough emotional force to have a strong visceral effect on the listener as well.

And then, at long last, we have Ms. Stemme doing Brunnhilde's final scene. She does, indeed, have a fine voice, powerful enough for a heroine like Brunnhilde yet flexible enough to give her character some color.

Maestro Jordan did this album after spending three years with a complete Wagner cycle in Paris. He calls these excerpts on the album "orchestral souvenirs of the Ring," and I suppose that's how we should view them. They are little reminders of a much bigger, more massive vision, postcards from a favorite vacation. They're fun to enjoy but no substitute for the real thing. Unless you just really hate Wagner, in which case such excerpts may be just what you need.

Produced, engineered, edited, and mixed by Jean-Martial Golaz for Opera de Paris Productions and licensed exclusively to Erato/Warner Classics, the album derives from recording sessions at the Salle Liebermann, Opera Bastille, Paris in June 2013. The sound is one of the best parts of the show. The orchestra displays genuine depth and breadth, with a realistic hall ambience to set it off. While not the most transparent of sounds, the music is nevertheless quite natural, with huge dynamic contrasts, solid impact, deep bass, and extended highs. It comes flooding over us in great sweeps and flurries, perfect for Wagner. Note, however, that there are times in big crescendos that the tone can turn a bit strident; still, it is never too bright or forward as to cause much concern.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa