Wagner: Die Walk¸re, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

But, a lack of complexity doesn’t imply that Rattle is uninteresting as a
conductor – although in some repertoire he never quite catches fire. His
Wagner is where these two conditions often meet – and have done for decades
– and this most recent recording of Die Walk¸re is as divisive as
any of his finest recordings of recent years.

And, I think this is generally a very fine performance; but it is also one,
which in parts, really makes one ask why Rattle made the choices he did.
Two reviews from February 2019, only serve to illustrate the divergent
views on this very same concert performance from the Herkluessaal: for
Opernmagazin its perfection was something which could only be heard outside
Bayreuth at the Bavarian State Opera. For Abendzeitung, however, the
Bavarian State Opera was again analogous but not in the same way – Kirill
Petrenko (its music director) could develop this opera into an event;
Rattle spent his time stumbling through it – “Die Impulse dazu gehen
wohlgemerkt nicht vom Diregenten aus.” (“The impulses do not come from the
conductor”). I think I fall somewhere in the middle of these two views,
although depart significantly from Michael Bastian Weifl in Abendzeitung who
thought the Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks were shaky and
imprecise, with a light tone and unimpressive brass. The superb engineering
on this recording probably helps – and listening to it in Hi-Res almost
certainly does – but the orchestral sound is the complete antithesis of how
Weifl describes it.

I assume what Weifl means by Rattle’s “stumbling” into scenes – especially
into Act’s I and III – though he barely has the space to expand on this, is
this conductor’s propensity for shaping the music by sudden, and often
dramatic, tempo changes. This works in some composers where Rattle does
this – Stravinsky, for example – but it is less convincing in Wagner. What
might also be true is that Rattle doesn’t always seem to care about
unifying both the orchestral and vocal lines and this is why one gets a
disparity between the tension generated. The prelude to Act I, for example,
is simply stunning – quite possibly one of the most exciting on record. But
as soon as you listen to it one realises that no conductor – least of all
Rattle – is going to be able to sustain that level of energy through the
act (though perhaps you wouldn’t want that). On the other hand, the
beginning of Act III Scene 1, even before the entry of the Valkyries, is
just lugubrious. But contradictions abound: why would chords have such
razor shape precision from the orchestra, and yet the climax of Act’s I and
II be the opposite? Leonard Bernstein, in his concert recording of Tristan und Isolde, with this same orchestra, brought such huge
power and incisiveness to the ending of acts, but Rattle elides them into
closure? It’s these paradoxes which suggest not so much a lack of
interpretation but an indifference to how it is done.

The singing and the orchestra do raise this performance above the ordinary.
James Rutherford’s Wotan – a short notice replacement for Michael Volle –
amply demonstrates that there is no shortage of fine British Wagnerian
bass-baritones (although given the intelligence, clarity and shine he
brings to his singing perhaps these descriptors should be reversed). But
this is not a light-voiced Wotan – there is considerable heft to the tone,
and he is perhaps rather better than some more noteworthy singers in
conveying the discord of the shattered world of the Gods. He is domineering
but seems oddly vulnerable – the power behind Rutherford’s vocal command
perhaps revealing that no matter how towering this figure maybe his
isolation is like an island cast into an ocean.

The Australian Stuart Skelton also gives a standout performance as
Siegmund. Here is another singer who has the gift of clarity – what is it
about English speaking Wagnerian tenors and bass-baritones which makes
their diction so clear? The voice is almost ideal for Siegmund – powerful,
in full range of the part, and most importantly has the breadth and depth.
I suppose Heldentenors in Die Walk¸re are for better or worse
almost defined by the great ‘W‰lse! Wo ist dein Schwert!’. Rattle’s entry
into it is spacious, and if Skelton’s voice is almost identical in timbre
to James King’s it is probably unsurprising that they approach ‘W‰lse…’ in
almost identical ways. It is one of the most thrilling moments on this

As his sister, Sieglinde, Eva Maria Westbroek is never less than involving.
That Westbroek and Skelton are able to scale heights of such intensity –
especially given this is a concert performance – is quite an achievement.
Their casting is like looking at the relief on a Grecian frieze: two voices
that are beautifully matched in their velvety tone, a balance of heaviness
and lightness to both which works like the symmetrical movement of scales
but neither is there a lack of underlying sexual tension between them, even
if this is never particularly replicated in Rattle’s conducting.

The problem I have with IrÈne Theorins as Br¸nnhilde is that the voice is
uneven in quality. At times I struggle to understand her German and there
is a disconcerting edge to her upper chest register which tends to grate on
the ear. But if she is uncomfortable at the top the delicacy which she
brings to less strained sections of the score shows the voice to be in
better shape. Eric Halfvarsung’s Hunding is a potent instrument – snarling
and gruff, granular yet with a roaring power which seems to overwhelm
Theorins’ Br¸nnhilde.

Rattle does get superlative playing from his Bavarian players. Perhaps what
is most striking is the depth of that orchestral sound – this is a very
string centred performance, and the terror of that sound is often very
thrilling to hear. Clarity is perhaps not as crystalline as one would wish
for – I think at times one barely notices woodwind at all in this
performance – but the sheer wash of paint that overwhelms this
interpretation of the score is beyond impressionistic. These heavy textures
may not appeal to everyone – especially those who prefer their Wagner to be
more lucid; this is a performance which utterly eschews lyricism. I think
Rattle gets a very different kind of playing from the Bavarian orchestra
than he usually got from the Berliner Philharmoniker – this is Wagner that
plays very much to this orchestra’s tonal strengths – I’m not sure the BPO
would ever have produced a string sound quite as sonically sepulchral or
saturnine as we hear in Act II Scene 2 during ‘Lass’ ich’s verlauten’. The
lack of definition Rattle doesn’t get in the score can be troubling – and
quite why this happens is equally perplexing. Petrenko and the Bavarian
State Opera, or even Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, give
significantly more revealing accounts of this score than Rattle manages –
although I don’t think either quite manage one quite as terrifying or

This is a recording which I particularly enjoyed for Rutherford’s Wotan and
Skelton’s Siegmund. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of Die Walk¸re
is, I think, a distinctively individualistic one – and not for everyone.
Who it is clearly for are Wagnerians who love hearing a great orchestra at
full tilt with a superb recorded sound to match.

Marc Bridle

image_description=BR Klassik 900177
product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Walk¸re
product_by= Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Eric Halfvarson (Hunding), James Rutherford (Wotan), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), IrÈne Theorin (Br¸nnhilde), Elisabeth Kulman (Fricka), Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Sir Simon Rattle
product_id=BR Klassik 900177 [4CDs]