Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 9 March 2018

WAGNER Götterdämmerung Andersson-Palme Cristofoli Aarhus Opera

WAGNER Götterdämmerung Francesco Cristofoli, cond; Laila Andersson-Palme (Brünnhilde); Elliot Palay (Siegfried); Aage Haugland (Hagen); Lars Waage (Gunther); Eva Johansson (Gutrune); Margrethe Danielsen (Waltraute); Danish Natl Op Ch; Aarhus SO STERLING 1813-1816 (4 CDs: 248:06) Live: Aarhus 9/6/1987

A very serviceable Götterdämmerung, and from an unlikely source. This recording captures a staged performance of the work from Aarhus in Denmark on September 6, 1987. It’s not going to compete with the best, of course, but it offers a convincing musical interpretation and a cast that ranges from good to excellent. Mediocre recorded sound and some shaky orchestral playing stand against it, but there is much to enjoy here.
The font sizes on the cover make clear the reason for this release: soprano Laila Andersson-Palme in the role of Brünnhilde. She is not a household name outside of Denmark, but she seems to have pursued a long and successful career there, taking lead roles in everything from Handel to Berg at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm and making a specialty of Wagner. Her performance here fully justifies the attention. Her tone is clear and strong, and well balanced across all registers. Diction is good, and she imparts a dramatic urgency to every line. But most impressive is her power and support, seemingly effortless, especially in the top register. A finely controlled vibrato completes the package—a stunning voice, and she is clearly captured here at the height of her powers.
Although Andersson-Palme leads from the top, there are no really weak links in the cast. American tenor Elliot Palay brings a deep, baritonal quality to the role of Siegfried, his sound a little hollow at times, but always on pitch and always dramatically engaging. Aage Haugland is little less secure as Hagen, but the sheer weight of his voice makes him a valuable asset, especially with his memorable “Hoi-ho!”s. As Gunther, Lars Waage is a bit wobbly and Italianate, though it suits the role. The Gutrune of Eva Johansson is underpowered, or sounds so in this weighty cast, but her tone is solid and focused, as is the mezzo of Margrethe Danielsen as Waltraute, although her matronly delivery hardly suits a valkyrie.
The orchestra gets off to a shaky start, but soon find their form. A more solid string tone could have brought the orchestral contribution up to the standard of the singing, although the lower brass are suitably menacing and dark. Though his name might suggest otherwise, Francesco Cristofoli (1932–2004) was apparently a Danish conductor and Wagner specialist, and also Intendant of the Aarhus Opera at the time of this recording. The liner tells us that a full Ring cycle from him was released on VHS in 1995, though that seems to have disappeared without trace, and he is otherwise remembered for a 1960 recording of HMS Pinafore from Copenhagen. His conducting here is engaged and dramatic, and particularly impressive for his keen communication with the singers. He sometimes lets the temperature drop, and some of the orchestral interludes lack drive, but the big climaxes are always exhilarating. Cristofoli brings a sense of breadth to the music that can make it seem slow, but at 248 minutes (I didn’t spot any cuts), he’s on a par with Boulez and faster than most others.
No excuses, then, for the bizarre disc breaks, with every act divided between two discs. Disc 2 begins at act I scene 3, disc 3 at “Einen Ring sah ich an deiner Hand” in act II scene 4, and disc 4 at Siegfried’s Funeral Music. There not too generous with the cuts either, just 26 tracks across the four discs. But otherwise the production values are good. The liner notes focus on Andersson-Palme, who spends much of the included interview complaining about Regietheater—not that it is a concern in this apparently traditional staging from director Klaus Hoffmeyer. There is also a libretto included, though it is curiously herniated from the packaging, too large to fit in the box, so attached just by the shrink wrap.
This seems to have been an in-house recording, and the audio isn’t too bad. We get a wide stereo array for the voices onstage, though they are sometimes distant—as is the back of the pit, especially the timpani. There is also some stage noise, but the audience is quiet. But the audio is never so bad as to be off-putting. An interesting release, then, and an unexpected addition to the Wagner discography. Primarily worth hearing for Laila Andersson-Palme—clearly a Wagnerian of some stature.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:6

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