CD reviews: Two ways of looking at ‘Die Walküre’

An impressive new take on Wagner, and an even more impressive old one.

Wagner: “Die Walkure.” Lang, Melton, DeYoung, Skelton, Goerne; Hong Kong Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden. Naxos.

Wagner: “Die Walküre.” Flagstad, Melchior; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor. Pristine Audio.

The new Naxos recording of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” marks tenor Stuart Skelton’s fourth commercial recording of the role of Siegmund, and easily his most impressive one. Only Jonas Kaufmann, among the Wagner-tenor elite, could arguably best Skelton’s handsomely sung, dramatically nuanced performance, and even Kaufmann can’t quite match the baritonal heft so thrillingly in evidence through much of Skelton’s singing.

Happily, Naxos has populated the rest of the cast with fine singing actors, as well. Matthias Goerne — an artist best known for his intimate, word-sensitive recitals of art song — is unexpectedly larger than life as Valhalla’s chief god, Wotan. His customarily lithe bass-baritone skews here toward an inky, glowering darkness, and his interpretation throughout is freighted with tragic import. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung partners Goerne well as a regally assured Fricka. Soprano Heidi Melton, as Sieglinde, compensates for an upper register that hardens under pressure by throwing herself fervently into the heroine’s downward-spiraling arc. And if Falk Struckmann’s baritone sounds a shade light in the menacing bass role of Hunding, his years of experience singing the part of Wotan have transferred intriguingly into an uncommonly noble-sounding take on this very different role.

With the linchpin character of Brunnhilde, we’re on somewhat shakier ground. Former mezzo Petra Lang has made this daunting soprano part something of a calling card of late. But, here, as in her appearance in the same role in Marek Janowski’s recent recording of this opera, her Martha Modl-like patchwork of gleaming high notes, hollow chest tones, sensitive phrasing and ungainly gearshifts between registers can be counted, at best, an idiosyncratic success.

This “Walküre” is part of an ongoing “Ring” cycle from the Hong Kong Philharmonic under its music director, Jaap van Zweden (recently appointed to the same post at the New York Philharmonic). Van Zweden conducts a structurally rock-solid account that builds effectively to the big moments but scores even more eloquently in beautifully molded, introspective treatments of the opera’s many quieter passages, supported by gorgeous work from the Hong Kong wind section. What a shame, then, that the exaggeratedly voice-forward recording balance dampens and distances much of Van Zweden’s excellent work with the orchestra. Better engineering could have made this “Walkure” a choice contender among recent recordings.

Wagner lovers will need no urging to give these new Naxos discs a spin. But I would be remiss if I didn’t steer listeners to what is probably the most significant recording to come along since the recent Wagner bicentennial. Andrew Rose, that miracle worker among audio-restoration engineers, at his company Pristine Audio, has recently unearthed a 1940 Met recording of “Die Walküre,” featuring a high-octane performance under Erich Leinsdorf, with a golden-age cast: Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Marjorie Lawrence, Emanuel List, Karin Branzell and a barely remembered bass-baritone, Julius Huehn, whose mahogany-voiced, vividly dramatic Wotan deserves a place with the very finest.

Available on mail-order CDs or as an audio download from Pristine Classical’s website, this archival recording features remastering that has to be heard to be believed. There are certain tracks on these CDs, drawn from especially worn portions of the Met source material, where Rose has been able to restore the sound to a remarkable level of vividness and warmth. But most of the opera goes well beyond that mere excellence to audio quality that is simply jaw-dropping in its clarity, depth, range and sheer sense of presence. It would be no exaggeration to state that much of the recording sounds like a Met broadcast from last week, rather than 75 years ago. And to hear Melchior and Flagstad in close to their peak vocal primes, with this kind of three-dimensional fidelity, is a gift no Wagnerian should be without.

— Joe Banno

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