Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo J‰rvi, RCA-Sony

Indeed, many aspects of it are jaw-dropping: ravishing detail, exquisite
artistry and, above all, an orchestra that just takes the breath away. It
feels like one of those Wagner recordings which defines the decade in which
it was made just as a very few Wagner recordings, from the 1960s onwards,
defined their own.

Paavo J‰rvi is not particularly noted as an interpreter of Wagner – I
believe this may be the first time he has turned his attention to this
composer – although the orchestra he conducts is certainly not unfamiliar
with him. Today, it is not just in Japan that Wagner’s “bleeding chunks of
butcher’s meat” – as Tovey luridly described it – are less played than they
once were; it seems to be a phenomenon you get from Tokyo via Berlin and
London. That was not the case in the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, the two
colossal recordings from each of those decades, the first from Otto
Klemperer, and the second from Herbert von Karajan, are the two which come
closest to this new recording. This is an orchestra, however, which during
those dominant Philharmonia and Berlin periods played Wagner under some of
the greatest of the composer’s conductors – the Bayreuth factory of Horst
Stein, Otmar Suitner and Wolfgang Sawallisch is but one school which has
found its way onto their CDs. But their Wagner also comes from conductors
such as Lovro von Mata?i?. In concerts, the reach has been even wider.

The NHK Symphony orchestra is particularly honed in this repertoire; but
also, too, in Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner. Theirs is the most
European sound of Japanese orchestras, especially in the warmth of their
strings. But, like many of that country’s orchestras in the 1960s, and for
ten or so years later, the brass could swamp everything else in
performances; many recordings are notable for exactly that imbalance.
Today, there is a profound luxury to this orchestra’s sound, a tempered
distribution of equilibrium in the horns and trumpets, a complexion to its
woodwind which is entirely driven by individual expressivity – and a string
sound of such depth it carries everything on its weighty shoulders. If
great orchestras are measured by whether you can identify their sound the
NHK Symphony Orchestra is one of those, and this Wagner disc is an example

If you’re looking for any particular sequential narrative to J‰rvi’s
journey through Wagner’s Ring you won’t find it on this disc. Siegfried
goes on his Rhine Journey after his funeral, and the Gods enter Valhalla
right at the end – though given the richness of the sound, and sheer drama
of the playing it’s a climax that is better placed to end a disc rather
than to begin one. It’s almost a unique approach, though not entirely –
Tennstedt does this, Solti begins this way then falls into line very
quickly, Ormandy places Das Rheingold after Siegfried. The arrangements stick to those by Humperdinck,
Hutschenruyter and Stasny though the sheer opulence and textures we get
from the orchestra – rather emphasised by the thrilling and very wide
dynamic range of the recording – can sometimes more than recall the rich
palette and doublings we get with Stokowski’s reworkings. J‰rvi has clearly
divided his violin desks antiphonally, much more common in Wagner than one
thinks. And although Wagner composes for larger orchestral forces (six
harps might be considered excessive for many), J‰rvi is a conductor who can
sometimes seem as if he has gone further than some composers want – his
recording of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen sounds uncommonly
rich, so much so one wonders if he has gone beyond the twenty-three strings
Strauss asks for.

Although the sound and weight J‰rvi gets from the NHKSO on this disc is
massive his fluid tempi – a very common trait of this conductor – more than
compensates for the beautiful clarity he gets from individual instruments
in the orchestra. It is precisely this which gives this purely orchestral
disc a sublime vocal quality. Take for example Siegfried’s ‘Trauermarsch’-
possibly the single finest track on this recording. The pulse of the
opening timpani (so light to the touch) is like a heartbeat, but the way
the pianissimo is done is just exquisite – a beat which falls entirely
imperceptibly. It is never a given in this music, either, that you will get
the solo oboe, clarinet, or English Horn to play at the marked ausdruscksvol, nor that the poco crescendo will quite be
distinctive – nor that the playing will quite have the sheer beauty of
phrasing we have here. What we also get are the two spaced harp glissandi
(marked ff) punching through like a mini chorus against the much
larger choral forces of the ff brass. What is, however, utterly
unique about this performance is how bleakly J‰rvi demands his orchestra
takes the closing bars. The weight he draws from the cellos is phenomenally
rich – and yet it is deeply unsettling. In a complete reversal, those
heartbeats, which were so light on the ear, and which opened this music,
are now like a final mark of death. Rarely will you hear double basses and
cellos play pianissimos with both the depth and power the NHKSO
bring to these closing bars and yet hear this music as it probably should

These are much the same qualities you hear at the opening of the
‘Morgendammerung’. It is darker than one is used to, but the sigh and
cantabile which you get from the expressive playing of this cello section
is exceptional. You hear harps beautifully emerging from within the
orchestra (any moment around 4’53), or a distant calling of the horn so
beautifully phrased, at first like an off-stage voice in the wings and then
appearing in the centre of it during Siegfried’s ‘Rhinefahrt’. The track of
Siegfried’s ‘Waldweben’ may be the one which most defines the dichotomy of
this recording. The bassoon playing is so lustrous, so velvety in tone –
with a gorgeous mezzoish colour to it – that you almost forget it is an
instrument which may be the one reason when listening to this music one
finds oneself becoming distracted from much else that is happening. Do you
miss those strings hovering beneath it? I think you do. It’s rather the
same with the eloquent phrasing of the cellos which tends to hide the solo
horn above them – it’s rather difficult to focus on this music as a whole.
In a rather characterless performance of this music this rarely matters,
but the range of the NHKSO’s expressivity creates that same diaphanous
opening of vocal colours you might hear in a Mozartian operatic quartet or

The track which sounds the least operatic on this disc is ironically the
one which should – ‘Walk¸renritt’. This is a considerably more energised
account than the Simon Rattle/BRSO performance from his complete Die Walk¸re. There is much fire and brimstone to the playing here
– and some well controlled brass playing – though other than that it is
neither more exceptional nor weaker than many other recordings of the

‘The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ is quite another matter, however.
This is such a tour de force of a performance it would have been
almost counterproductive to have begun the disc with it. Although it is the
end of a prelude to this vast operatic journey, it is in another way also
the beginning and end of this orchestra’s instrumental revelation. What we
hear are the summing up of careful balances – and this piece is especially
notable for its harp writing weaving through the orchestra, or the
undulating rhythms of the woodwind phrasing. But there is also a sweeping
drama to how the NHKSO play this particular music as if it is being taken
in one single vast ten-minute crescendo. Perhaps the volume of the
orchestra at full tilt does stretch the limits of the recording in the
final bars but in the end it is as meaningful an ending as any.

The qualities of this recording are very unusual. Even by the standards of
conductors like Klemperer and Karajan, J‰rvi has taken an approach to Der Ring des Niebelungen which is operatic rather than purely
symphonic. The NHKSO is not necessarily more unique than some of the great
European orchestras – but there is unquestionably a quality to this
particular recording which is simply in a class of its own. You will not
find a ‘Trauermarsch’ quite as black as this one – and none that even comes
close to matching the final five bars, let alone equalling them. I’m not
sure you listen to instruments playing in an orchestra and you think of
great Wagnerian singers – this recording stretches the imagination to think
like that simply because the solo phrasing from the orchestra is so
beautifully defined to make you think that way. Some might not get that
impression at all; others might entirely immerse themselves in that sound
world. What is without question, in my view, is that this is one of the
great Wagner recordings.

Marc Bridle

image_description=Sony G010004171085T
product_title=Orchestral Selections from Der Ring des Nibelungen
product_by=NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo J‰rvi (conductor)
product_id=Sony G010004171085T [Digital Download]