* WAGNER: Das Rheingold (complete opera) – Tomasz Konyechuni (Wotan)/ Christian Elsner (Loge)/ Iris Vermillion (Fricka)/ Gunter Groissbock (Fasolt)/ Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Alberich)/ Andreas Conrad (Mime)/ Antonio Yang (Donner)/ Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Froh)/ Ricarda Merbeth (Freia)/ Maria Radner (Erda)/ Timo Riihonen (Fafner)/ Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Marek Janowski – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 406 (2 discs), 2:20:27 [Distr. by Naxos] (5/28/13) *****:
I can’t think of a better way for Janowski and company to inaugurate their new Ring cycle than with this fabulous account of Das Rheingold. I am very happy that they started from the beginning as too often companies like to release Walküre first in order to try and entice the listening audience. But this recording needs no prep work—it is, hands down, one of the most exciting readings of this piece I have ever heard, and the surround sound opted for this piece creatively shows Wagner’s orchestration in all its splendiferous glory. Just listen to the “forging” scene when some 17 anvils are chiming away as merrily as the seven dwarfs on the way to work—such extraordinarily vivid and palpable sounds have rarely been heard in any Rheingold performance. The opening beauties of the E-flat major chord for some 300 bars in the beginning are clear as a bell and as resonant as one could wish for. In fact, all through this work Janowski goes to extremes in order to bring each bar, each seemingly unimportant strand of the score to our attention in ways we have not heard it before. Soundwise, there is no better on silver disc.
The balances are excellent, which is much easier to achieve on a concert recording like this. The orchestra lives up to its previous standards in this Wagnerian series that Pentatone has so wisely embarked upon. Vocally standards are also very high, with no weak links at all in an opera that often suffers from them. Tomasz Konyechuni is developing into the Wotan of choice in a reading that portrays the tug of war between obsession and justification. While god-like in demeanor, supported by his rich and darkly-shaded voice, the chinks in the armor come through when his characterization turns greedy in the quest for gold. Wife Fricka, played by Iris Vermillion, is a little bossy perhaps, or overly-stuffy, but this is certainly within the bounds of the character, and her voice is excellent. Christian Elsner’s Loge is most impressive, showing his performance in Parsifal to be anything but a fluke. Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich is one of the best on record, and probably the best performance on this disc next to Konyechuni, his multifaceted loyalties torn between lust and greed—and the turn-on-a-dime vocal acting needed to bring this off—is simply wonderful, an ungracious role graciously rendered. The Rhine maidens sing and blend well as a group, aside from offering very individual tones to each character. And Fasolt and Fafner (Gunter Groissbock and Timo Riihonen) play the ill-fated duo cheated out of their due with appropriate severity, indignation, and ultimately, hidden fratricide.
Wagner wrote the Ring backwards of course, at least the libretto. So when he started Rheingold it was the freshest in his mind, without the interruptions he would experience in Siegfried, where Tristan and Meistersinger had to be completed before the good graces of King Ludwig allowed Wagner to take up the task again. Though a prequel, and some think an almost “add-on” to the cycle, it is in fact mandatory, and sets the stage for everything dramatic and musical that will follow. A bad Rheingold often presages a bad Ring, so we can certainly be grateful that Janowski is off to such a fine start. This could be one for the record books.