Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 18 February 2013

Wagner Die Walküre Gergiev Mariinsky

Wagner: Die Walküre
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), René Pape (Wotan), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding), Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka), Zhanna Dombrovskaya (Gerhilde), Irina Vasilieva (Ortlinde), Natalia Evstafieva (Waltraute), Lyudmila Kanunnikova (Schwertleite), Tatiana Kravtsova (Helmwige), Ekaterina Sergeeva (Siegrune), Anna Kiknadze (Grimgerde), Elena Vitman (Rossweisse)
Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev looks set to silence many of his critics with this new Walküre, the first instalment of a Ring cycle with the Mariinsky. He is credited with singlehandedly instigating a tradition of Wagner performance in Russia, but so far the results haven’t been all that impressive. His recent Parsifal recording with the Mariinsky, while finely played, sung and recorded, was marred by stiff and unidiomatic conducting, while the small-scale Ring cycle that the company has toured around the world has attracted little praise at any of its stops.
All of which means that the exceptionally high standard of this Walküre comes as an unexpected surprise. In this Wagner year, and indeed in the run up to it last year when this recording was made, top flight soloists must be difficult to secure – demand far outstrips supply at the best of times. But Gergiev has the clout, and presumably the financial backing, to assemble what must be the closest thing to a perfect Wagner ensemble since Keilberth. His orchestra is on absolutely top form, the recording itself is a textbook demonstration of the capabilities of SACD audio, bringing depth, precision and presence to orchestra and singers alike. And, most significantly of all, Gergiev gives an interpretation that’s fully accordant with the spirit of the music, drawing on plenty of his trademark dynamism, but also giving the music (and the soloists) space to breathe. The result is a dramatic and expansive reading that’s unlikely to be bettered by of the competition this year.
That expansive quality is apparent from the very first bars. Where Gergiev might be expected to drive through the opening storm sequence at breakneck speed, instead he takes a moderate pace, but expresses the drama by accentuating every detail of the orchestration. This approach relies on both the exceptional ensemble from the orchestra and recording quality that is able to pick out every note, which is exactly what it gets. The opening of Act 3 is similar, and The Ride of the Valkyries becomes a completely new musical experience when you can hear every single demisemiquaver of the rising string figures. The audio benefits from the fine acoustic of the Mariinsky’s new concert hall, which here sounds warm but not overly resonant, with no significant decay to mar the silences between phrases. The bass in the mix is rich and resonant, while always sounding completely natural, or at least expertly maintaining that allusion. The score of Walküre is characterised by bass clarinet solos, obbligatos from the solo cello and thumping pizzicatos from the basses, all of which have an almost visceral presence in the mix. The middle of the texture is also well represented, and the timbral separation between the strings and winds is exemplary. A photograph in the liner of one of the concerts from which the recordings were taken (each act was given in a separate programme and all were repeated) shows the singers standing behind the orchestra stage left, where you would normally expect to see the trombones. That’s exactly where they appear in the stereo mix, just a little to the left of the right speaker. But all have ideal clarity and presence and there is never any danger of the singing being swamped by the orchestra.
The cast is led from the top by Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. This is her first Brünnhilde recording in any of the Ring operas (although she’s almost certain to appear on Janowski’s version later in the year) and in that respect it’s a stunning debut. As with her Isolde, which she’s recorded at least twice, her Brünnhilde is rich and varied in tone. She clearly always has more power in store, but also has the control to always keep her projection at an ideal level. Her sound is as attractive and warm in the upper reaches as it is in the mid-register, making her probably the only singer active today who can sing the Hojotohos accurately and still make them sound pleasant.
René Pape is rapidly become a stalwart of Gergiev’s Wagner, and his Gurnemanz was easily the most impressive aspect of the Mariinsky’s previous Parsifal recording. His Wotan here is relatively light, not as light as Terfel’s but just as nimble. He too has power in reserve though, and can sound truly terrifying when he gives it his all in the lower register. Jonas Kaufmann is similar in spirit and tone to Klaus Florian Vogt as Siegmund, not quite as light but similarly expressive and dramatic. The evenness of Kaufmann’s tone across his range is particularly impressive, and, like Stemme, he is able to skilfully integrate the high notes into the texture through his sheer technical proficiency at the top. The Act 2 dialogue between Brünnhilde and Sieglinde is particularly effective thanks to the similar but not identical tone of Stemme and Anja Kampe in the latter role. Kampe has a heavy, penetrating vibrato that sometimes sounds forced, but it is also very carefully controlled and impressively even. She also has a tendency to slide between notes. The clarity of her line is not affected, but the effect stands out in a cast otherwise characterised by crisp and unsentimental diction.
The Russian contingent in the cast consists of the Valkyries, who are able to dominate the opening of Act 3, even with the orchestra going at full pelt, Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding and  Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka. You’d be hard-pressed to tell that either Petrenko or Gubanova are Russian from their diction or style of singing here, such is the skill with which they fit into the otherwise Western cast. A little more weight from Petrenko may have helped the characterisation of Hunding, but his diction and vocal support are excellent.
The placement of the singers together to one side at the back of the stage demonstrates that little effort is made here to replicate the sound of a staged performance. That suits Gergiev’s approach, as his interpretation is more symphonic than dramatic in the theatrical sense. He gives the impression occasionally that he is treating scenes as symphonic movements, sometimes leading to awkward tempo decisions in the transitions between them. The prologue to Act 3, scene 3, for example, is surprisingly stiff, with the music’s deep emotions little reflected in the rigid, although not rushed, bass clarinet solo. Wotan’s invocation of Loge at the end is also curiously paced. Gergiev seems to be hanging onto each of the silences here and waiting until the last possible moment to unleash the fire. That’s a risky strategy, and for a moment it seems that the music has ground to a halt. Andrew Clements ( has criticised Gergiev’s pacing in Act 2, saying that the focus comes and goes. I’d say that’s true of Act 3 as well, and that in both cases it’s a consequence of Gergiev trying to structure and pace the music in symphonic rather than dramatic terms. He’s relying on the set pieces to hold the recitative-like sections together, another risky strategy, but not one that’s automatically doomed to failure.
But better to take these risks than to turn in yet another by-the-numbers reading with no character or individuality. And, whatever else might be said about this Walküre it is certainly a distinctive and original interpretation. We’re still only just over a month into Wagner’s anniversary year, and plenty more recordings are likely to appear to mark the event. Unfortunately for them, Gergiev has now raised the bar very high indeed, and if we hear any more Wagner recordings of even a similar quality this year we’ll be very lucky indeed.


  1. The Guardian reviewer is Andrew Clements not Tim Ashley

  2. Fine review. Just noticed Ekaterina Gubanova [Fricka] is missing from the cast list, at the top of this page.