ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
Richard Wagner - Die Walküre RICHARD WAGNER - Die Walküre - Philharmoniker Hamburg - Simone Young (Conductor) - OEHMS CLASSICS OC926 (4CD)

Ringing in the Changes: The seemingly endless parade of Ring cycles on DVD will continue in 2010 with a new Spanish production conducted by Zubin Mehta (on the C Major label). Opera lovers have increasingly rallied to the audio-visual medium. In 2008, conductor Semyon Bychkov literally stood the whole trend on its ear with a magnificent recording of Lohengrin (Hänssler Profil). Bychkov and his Cologne forces conveyed the full impact of Wagner’s drama solely by means of the aural dimension. Indeed, without the distraction of imagery, it can be argued that the penetrating power of the orchestra and voices is intensified. A bonus of long term exposure to DVD versions is that we are now well-drilled in the meaning of the libretto and various interpretations of the stage action. Better prepared in all aspects, the listener can imagine some ideal staging or receive the voices as disembodied spirits relating a timeless tale. One simply has to sit back, listen and be transfixed. Simone Young’s Die Walküre is just as remarkable an achievement as the Bychkov Lohengrin. This second installment in the cycle is of surpassing quality. When complete, Young’s Ring des Nibelungen might well deserve the level of renown accorded to the great recorded cycles of the past: Solti (Decca), Böhm (Philips) and Barenboim (Warner).

More than a Maestra: Simone Young has been General Manager of the Hamburg State Opera and Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic since 2005. She runs the house from top to bottom with staff and musicians in battalion strength. She was born in Australia and went to Europe on a scholarship to study at the Cologne Opera. From 1993 to 1995 Young was first Kapellmeister under Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera. Based on the evidence of her recordings of Das Rheingold (Oehms 925) and this Die Walküre, recorded in performance October 2008 at the Staatsoper Hamburg, there is ample reason to expect that one day she will inherit Barenboim’s mantle as the most prominent Wagnerian of an era.

A Performance of Extraordinary Power: This production benefits immensely from the casting of the vocal soloists. The ubiquitous Falk Stuckmann as Wotan and Deborah Polaski (Brünnhilde) surpass their previously recorded collaboration in these roles (Opus Arte DVD – Barcelona 2003). The odd blind spot in the microphone coverage of Stuckmann which afflicted the Das Rheingold recording has been corrected. Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is superb as Siegmund. Let us hope that Skelton will be resurrected for Siegfried. The chorus of Valkyries: Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Hellen Kwon, Gabriele Rossmanith, Maria-Cristina Damian, Katja Pieweck, Renate Singer, Ann-Beth Solvang and Deborah Humble may be the best on record. What really sets this performance apart is the expert conducting of Simone Young. She goes beyond accompaniment to transform the orchestral score into another major protagonist in the drama. And yes, you get closer to the music in a purely audio recording than the film experience. There are no lapses in the flow as Young keeps the music moving in a manner which would surely win the approval of the composer. The famous Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music are unforgettable. Would Richard Wagner have had any problem with a female conductor for this mighty epic? Not at all; he would simply have anointed Simone Young to be the tenth Valkyrie.

More Young: Also for Oehms, Simone Young has recorded Hindemith’s opera, Mathis der Maler. A cycle of the Bruckner symphonies in their original versions has reached the mid-point and a Brahms cycle is also planned.

More Wagner: A complete audio Ring cycle has been released by the British DVD label Opus Arte. Christian Thielemann conducts in Bayreuth.

Stephen Habington