Mark Elder, cond; Gerhard Siegel (Mime); Simon O’Neill (Siegfried); Iain Paterson (Wanderer); Martin Winkler (Alberich); Clive Bayley (Fafner); Malin Christensson (Woodbird); Anna Larsson (Erda); Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde); Hallé Orchestra
HALLÉ 7551 (4 CDs: 261:47) Live: Manchester 6/2–3/2018
Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra here conclude an impressive and unlikely Ring cycle. When the project began, with a similar concert performance of Götterdämmerung in 2009, Elder played down the idea of a complete cycle. Back then, the focus of his press interviews was the sheer magnitude of the task of just one installment, the logistics, the expense, and, most significantly of all, the musical demands made on the orchestra. But success led to success, and 10 years down the line, we now have a complete Ring. Bar Rheingold, each opera was presented over multiple nights, with this Siegfried presented over a weekend in June 2018, acts I and II on the Saturday, act III on the Sunday. The benefit for the CD listener is fresh voices and a fresh-sounding orchestra for the final act, and standards are certainly maintained across this four-CD set, the close as thrilling and atmospheric as the start.
Though well-known in the UK as an established Wagnerian, Elder has been poorly served on record for his Wagner interpretations. He stood in at late notice for a Lohengrin with the Concertgebouw, who went ahead nevertheless with an own-label recording (RCO Live 17002), but for some reason the pieces didn’t fall into place. Similarly, a Parsifal with the Hallé (Hallé 7539) received mixed notices, an aging John Tomlinson the weak link there. So, for complete operas, this Ring cycle would seem to be Elder’s only Wagnerian legacy on record—so far at least. Fortunately, the whole project has been executed to a consistently high standard, and the quality and distinctiveness of the results are largely thanks to Elder’s personal contribution.
The Ring operas were all presented in semi-staged performances, meaning concert performances in the Hallé’s Bridgewater Hall, but with the singers coming and going, and interacting with each other. I notice from a press photo that Iain Paterson, as the Wanderer, wore a hat and eye patch, but that was the extent of the costumes and props. Elder makes a virtue of the concert presentation; freed from the constraints of the opera house, he can pace the music on its own terms, and tell the story purely through the score. Throughout this cycle, his tempos have been steady, but this isn’t grand or imperious Wagner, it is more about teasing out the details of the score, and about giving all of the musicians, and particularly the orchestral soloists, the space to inhabit the music. The dramatic flow is never threatened, with Elder demonstrating an intuitive grasp of the structure and pace of each act: The music-making always feels urgent, but never hurried.
One reasonable criticism of this cycle, to which the Siegfried is not exempt, is the feeling that the orchestra always comes first. The Hallé sounds fabulous here, with excellent ensemble from the strings, palpable weight from the lower brass, and characterful solos from the woodwinds. The orchestra also includes a cameo appearance by horn player Ben Goldscheider, a recent finalist in BBC Young Musician, for Siegfried’s Horn Call. He brings plenty of character to it, and, again, Elder gives him plenty of space. The players are well recorded too, the sound clear, vibrant, and involving. The singers are well recorded, but they certainly don’t take precedence over the orchestra, and it is easy to get the feeling that our attention is being drawn to the latter. The packaging bears that out, with the orchestra’s name given first on the cover, and the otherwise skimpy documentation including a full orchestra list.
This isn’t star-driven Wagner then, so it is fortunate that an impressive cast has been gathered nonetheless. There are no international superstars here, but, with one glaring exception, all give convincing and satisfying readings, fully commensurate with Elder’s dramatic but carefully paced approach. In act I, we meet the menacing and dark-toned Mime of Gerhard Siegel, a dominating presence whenever he sings. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson is still in his mid-40s, so is young for the role of the Wanderer. That comes through in a lightness of tone, which may perhaps darken in the years ahead. Dramatically, though, he is ideal, bringing all the necessary shades to this complex role. Act II is well served by the light-toned Malin Christensson as the Woodbird and by Clive Bayley’s eloquent, if not overly bassy, Fafner. The best voice in act III, and probably in the whole opera, is that of Anna Larsson as Erda. Hers is a deep alto, warm and round of tone. She is perfect for the role, and this recording catches her in her prime. Rachel Nicholls doesn’t shine quite as brightly as Brünnhilde, but she too is well cast, with a bright and well-supported tone. She has a heavily pronounced vibrato, but it feels right for the role.
If you haven’t guessed, the big hole in this cast is Simon O’Neill in the title role. He is just wrong for the part, his tone narrow and nasal and all his lines rendered comical by his posh English accent (yes, I know he is from New Zealand). In fairness to him, these are issues of style more than technique, and technically, he is fine, consistently well supported and with excellent intonation and articulation. And others clearly feel differently about him than I do: He has been the Wagner and Verdi tenor of choice (at least when Kaufmann et al have not been available) at Covent Garden, the LSO, and many other British institutions for decades. So, if on the off-chance you do happen to be following his career, this is the first time he has sung this opera, and, for better or worse, it is consistent with all his previous Wagner outings.
The Hallé own-label makes a policy of spending money on the sound recording and economizing on the peripherals. So, true to form, this box set comes with a very brief liner, printed on unlaminated paper, and just giving a track listing, synopsis (without cue points), and orchestra list. The benefit is a budget price tag that belies the quality of the recording itself. Recommended, then, especially for Mark Elder’s insightful conducting and the vibrant playing of the Hallé, but with a serious proviso attached about the Heldentenor.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:1.