10 Apr 2020

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

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 Walküre 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 Weiß 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 Weiß describes it.

I assume what Weiß 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 Walküre are for better or worse almost defined by the great ‘Wälse! 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 ‘Wälse…’ in almost identical ways. It is one of the most thrilling moments on this recording.

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 Iréne Theorins as Brünnhilde 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’ Brünnhilde.

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 powerful.

This is a recording which I particularly enjoyed for Rutherford’s Wotan and Skelton’s Siegmund. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of Die Walküre 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