San Fancisco Classical Voice, April 5, 2013
By Jason Victor Serinus
Gergiev’s Starry Die Walküre
For his second complete Wagner opera recording on high-resolution hybrid SACD, Valery Gergiev has assembled an outstanding cast. Of modern-day Die Walküres, only the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Blu-ray video release from 2012, conducted by James Levine, rivals the star power of Gergiev’s Anja Kampe (as Sieglinde), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), René Pape (Wotan), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), and, in smaller roles Ekaterina Gubanova (Fricka) and Mikhail Petrenko (Hunding).
Many of these artists deliver in spades. If Kaufmann carries well over a large Wagner orchestra, he is truly today’s answer to last century’s Lauritz Melchior. His instrument glistens like Siegmund’s sword, and his voice conveys a range of emotions made all the more believable by his (here unseen) handsome countenance and convincing theatrics. Listen to his moving dialogue with Stemme’s Brünnhilde in Act 2, Scene 4, where he magnificently switches between tenderness for his beloved and heroic defiance. If only Gergiev had let Kaufmann hold “Wälse! Wälse!” half as long as on his recent Wagner recital. Then again, few conductors let Melchior get away with the trick. Toscanini surely didn’t.

Although Stemme sounds far more mature than the teenager she supposedly is (as does virtually every Brünnhilde on record), she sings wonderfully. Astrid Varnay (live with Keilberth) may invest her dialogue with more nuance, but Stemme has the more beautiful voice. Her first “Hojotoho!” entrance stands out for its extra whoops of youthful delight as she spurs on her horse, Gräne, from peak to peak. Would that the recording, good as it is, had been able to capture the incandescence she brought to the role in San Francisco just a few years back! (Perhaps it wasn’t there.) Nonetheless, she sounds glorious in her final plea to her father, the god Wotan.

Pape, one of today’s great basses, sings with impressive weight and gravity. His Wotan may not be the expressive equal of Bryn Terfel (with Levine) or Hans Hotter’s (with multiple conductors, best in the ’50s), though his steadiness, beauty of voice, and heartfelt sincerity go a long way. Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde is especially touching.

Kampe gets steadier and more confident as the opera progresses. Yet for some reason the music always seems to slow down when she sings. Approaching her challenges with care, she only gets going at the very end of Act 1’s rapture. Despite many fine passages, she comes off as a distinct second-best to the great Lotte Lehmann, whose thrilling 1935 recording of Act 1 with Melchior and Emanuel List, conducted by Bruno Walter, is admired by Stemme and a host of other greats. (Then again, who doesn’t sound second best compared to Lehmann?)

As Wotan’s wife, Gubanova is quite impressive. The beauty and strength of her top do much to convince that she knows that she’s got Wotan under her thumb from the get-go. Petrenko sings beautifully, but that’s the problem: Hunding should not sound beautiful. Listen to List, the quintessential thug, to hear a genuine Hunding through and through.

Gergiev offers his share of fireworks, and more than his fair share of sing-along grunts, but he occasionally disappoints. His Act 3 “Ride of the Walkyries” is a bit slow and sluggish, and he misses a golden opportunity to conjure up luminosity in Act 1 when the door flies open and the glow of springtime fills the stage. Even in Wagner, you need to smile and smell the flowers before you take yourself for a wild ride.

Music lovers looking for a well-recorded alternative to the classic Wagner recordings of 1935–1961 — Sony releases its remastered, 25-CD set of nine live Met Wagner broadcasts later this month, including a 1940 Walküre with Flagstad and Melchior — will find ample rewards in this set.

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