11 Apr 2020

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

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

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 Järvi 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 Matačić. 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 that.

If you’re looking for any particular sequential narrative to Järvi’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. Järvi 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), Järvi 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 Järvi 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 Järvi 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 sound.

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 sextet.

The track which sounds the least operatic on this disc is ironically the one which should - ‘Walkürenritt’. This is a considerably more energised account than the Simon Rattle/BRSO performance from his complete Die Walküre. 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 piece.

‘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, Järvi 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