Monday, March 24, 2008

Two Wagner Recordings in search of Drama

Götterdämmerung, Decca Records (1965)
Sir Georg Solti, Conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wiener Philharmoniker

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Warner Classics (1991)
Daniel Barenboim
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele

“Music, which does not depict Ideas inherent in the phenomena of the world, but is itself a comprehensive Idea of the world, includes the drama within itself, since the drama, in turn, expresses the only Idea of the world adequate to music … We would then not be mistaken if we saw in music the a priori qualification for shaping a drama.”

Thus spoke Richard Wagner in an essay entitled Beethoven dated 1870, around the time when he was fiendishly churning out music for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final instalment of Der Ring des Nibelungen (or simply, The Ring Cycle to avid Anglo-Saxon Wagnerites). Wagner, who had written radically about the revolutionary potential of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the future) since 1849 after a brief but inspiring encounter with anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, had already developed his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work) by 1851 in Oper und Drama. Another life-changing encounter, this time with the Romantic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, altered the fate of the characters in Götterdämmerung. In short, Wagner revised his earlier 1948 draft of Siegfrieds Tod, centering the Ring Cycle around Wotan (the chief of the Gods) instead of Siegfried, and decided to condemn all his main characters to a dramatic, fiery doom.

Indeed drama was of the essence to Wagner, who enjoyed the admiration of Ludwig II, Fredrich Nietzche, and a hefty proportion of the Third Reich. A relatively late bloomer in his career, Wagner’s attention to drama in his epic operas seemed inevitable, given his early predilections for Greek epics and dramas during his schoolboy days at the Leipzig Thomasschule. In 1849, Wagner proclaimed that his “revolutionary” ideal for music of the future was “to compel the public to focus its attention upon the dramatic action so closely that it is never for a moment lost sight of”. If so, then any contemporary interpreter of Wagner’s hugely complex operas must grapple with the problem of crafting clear dramatic action without being overpowered by the immense scale at which Wagner composed.

Scale is precisely what the hugely popular annual Bayreuth Wagner festival represents in importance and in profit margin: one can almost speak of a Bayreuth industry equal (if not larger) in magnitude accompanying the festival itself. And scale is precisely what Warner Classics’ release of a 1991 Bayreuth Festival live recording of The Ring Cycle seems to promise, under the assured baton of celebrated conductor Daniel Barenboim. As in any live recording, dramatic ‘liveliness’ is at its most palpable, and this recording is no exception.

There are many reasons to love the 14 CD Box Set, complete with (surprise!) a bonus DVD that includes rare clips of the actual 1991 performances. Compact and sleek, the set is stylishly designed and ergonomically packed to take up the space of about 6 stacked CD cases. Each of the 14 CDs are individually sleeved and labelled, accompanied with 4 booklets, choked with Leitmotifs strategically arranged alongside the libretto for easy reference. From the opening blare of the horns proclaiming the iconic Erwachens-Motiv (an Eb minor chord that transforms into a Cb major chord), the electricity of live-performance sparkles in the air. There is nothing quite like the actual acoustic magic of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (built to Wagner’s own specific directions), bewitching the orchestra into Wotan’s highly potent spear of god-like enchantment. Throughout the recording, the strings seem conspicuously thicker and meatier, while the woodwinds enjoy a warm resonance, at the same time according to the brasses a bright, rough-edged quality that cuts through Wagner’s dense tonal palettes as knife through butter.

However, the dramatic “liveliness” of a “live” space is not necessarily advantageous to an orchestra, and Barenboim’s somewhat heavy-handed approach to the orchestral interludes exposes the delicate balance between dramatic musical declamation and the potential of an acoustic space to muddle. This is especially so during Siegfried’s descent to the Rhine (CD 1 track 10), where the strings pick up a light folk-like motif that quickly segues into a pattern of chromatic descending fifths. Barenboim’s strings sound consistently weighty, giving the impression of furniture tumbling down a staircase rather than light frolic – with the pieces of furniture becoming increasingly bulkier. On the other hand, when the score calls for maximal orchestral participation, Barenboim milks volume for all it is worth, packing a theatrical punch of sonic surprise most notably in the brasses during Siegfried’s funeral procession (CD 4 track 14). Responding to the mourn-like chromatic movement in the lower strings, the brasses interrupt the uncertain timpani roll of foreboding with a C minor triadic blare of raw power and devastating finality, enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

Elsewhere, this “liveliness” of live-recording proves to be downright annoying. The sensitive mics tend to pick up everything, including popping, crackling, the brushing of clothes, and most of all, the plodding of feet on ground. This misgiving is at its worst during Siegfried’s heart-wrenching death aria to an imaginary Brünnhilde, where the lyrical beauty of Siegfried’s delicate solo competes with thundering soles – and loses. Otherwise, Siegfried Jerusalem makes a terrific Siegfried for all the right reasons (including the uncanny name resemblance), forgiving, of course sporadic moments whereby passion drives the voice off-key. Sans the foot-thumping, Jerusalem’s death aria is despairingly gut-twisting and a genuine tear-jerker, while his opening duet with Brünnhilde reveals both a lovesick fool and naive idiot that would have been worthy of Robert Hall’s “anti-intellectual hero” . As Brünnhilde, Anne Evans brings a mature quality to the role, depicting certain mellow thoughtfulness. In the end, however, it is the villains who steal the show. Philip Kang’s Hagen combines raw aggressive vocal power with dramatic sturdiness, while Bodo Brinkmann as Gunther demonstrates a brooding criminal mastermind with a rich, resonant baritone ring.

Decca Records’ 1965 release of Götterdämmerung by the Vienna Philharmonic led by maestro Sir Georg Solti promises a different sort of dramatic experience. Writing in the recording’s preface, producer John Culshaw admits that Wagner’s vision of total artistic-dramatic unity is “by its nature almost impossible to achieve”. However, Culshaw quickly goes on to make an audacious claim: that by the use of modern technical wizardry, the recording will set out to enhance the musical dramatic aspect by digital means otherwise unachievable in a real ‘live’ performance. For example, the acoustical setting for the orchestra is altered subtly over the course of the recording to invoke different timbral landscapes, while Siegfried’s voice is digitally tinkered to sound deeper when he assumes the physical form of Gunther. Surprisingly enough, the master-stroke of this recording is not its trifling in sonic legerdemain – with alterations so unperceivable as to be subliminal – but lies instead with the musical craftsmanship of Sir Georg Solti.

Although the Vienna Philharmonic may lack the Thor hammer-swinging impact of Barenboim’s Festival Orchestra, what the Vienna Philharmonic achieves in its lack more than overcompensates its inability to nail the decibels. To be fair, the orchestra does come across with a transparent quality of clearness that often feels un-blended, dis-unified and digitally superimposed. The strings lack the pendulous solemnity of Barenboim’s orchestra and sound shrill at times, whereas the woodwinds have an uncanny aura of intimacy, the clicks of instruments being glaringly audible. Musically however, Solti whips up an astounding performance from the Vienna Philharmonic that far outshines the fire-and-brimstone bludgeon of Barenboim’s. Solti chooses a more nuanced approach in dynamics, and the orchestra overall feels lighter, sprightlier and nimble, leaving just enough room for the earth-shattering crescendos. Just listen to Siegfried’s descent (CD 1 Track 4) and immediately one is struck with a breath of fresh orchestral air, the strings dancing with great rhythmic precision and tone contrast, cheerfully sounding Siegfried’s jovial heroic endeavours.

Solti delivers several sublime moments of orchestral surprise, including a breathtaking rendition of Siegfried’s funeral procession (CD 4 Track 8), achieving a balance between grave misfortune and the celebration of a heroic life. Solti has a knack for sustaining musical intensity through long build-ups; by the time the orchestra honks its horns on the prolonged dominant sevenths, it feels earned rather than contrived, awesome rather than awkward, subduing almost immediately to a minor transposition of the key ‘love’ leitmotiv. Under Solti’s direction, the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra is less an accompanist than a vehicle driving and participating in the unfolding of theatrical action. Take for example the jubilant instrumental excesses that nearly drown the “heil!” section of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening love duet, crowning the love-satiated lovers with such innocent ecstasy that one could even forgive the cheesiness of their sweet-talk. Solti also achieves a chilling ‘Batman-theme-moment’ with the re-emergence of the Siegfried-Motiv in the final bars before the opera’s conclusion, before giving way into the sweet lyrical melody helmed by the strings. Here, Solti dives in for dramatic ambivalence more than decisive denouement, vacillating sharply between extreme timbral qualities as if Wagner had momentarily attained a Brechtian sheen.

As Brünnhilde, Birgit Nilsson a remarkable standout of this album, bringing a light soprano carefree to her character with just the right semblance of worldly inexperience to seem naïve in passing, and yet enough dramatic resolve that chills the blood when she finally decides to blaze the gods to the ground. Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried is also highly laudable, straddling the divide between youth and maturity. Despite the rave musical accomplishment of this recording, there are small details that you wished were rectified. For starters, the sound-effects chosen for the recording sound, well, amateurish, and grate jarringly on the carefully crafted orchestral soundscape. The individual tracks also run a tad too long, and one wished that Decca would have assigned track numbers more liberally as in the Warner recording. Still, on the whole, Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic deliver a power-packed dramatic surrogate of a disturbingly absent stage performance (as all recordings portend to do), that spans the spectrum between heightened emotional investment and Platnoic detachment that is truly a remarkable listening experience. This time, the marvels of recorded technology rule out the instantaneous charm of live-recording.

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