WAGNER: SIEGFRIED Soloists, Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester, Berlin, Marek Janowski PENTATONE PTC 5186 408 SACD This is the penultimate release in both PentaTone’s recorded cycle of ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ and their ambitious and remarkable project to issue on SACD Wagner’s ten mature operas before the end of the Wagner bi-centenary year. Though only requiring a cast of eight singers, ‘Siegfried’ is probably the most difficult of the four Ring operas to cast successfully mainly due to the immense vocal challenges to be faced by the work’s eponymous hero. In this respect Marek Janowski has a trump card in the figure of Stephen Gould, one of the finest Heldentenors of our time. Gould has sung the role of Siegfried in many of the world’s leading opera houses including Bayreuth, and in this recording of a concert performance given in the Philharmonie, Berlin on the 1st of March 2013 he does not disappoint. Gould seems to possess limitless reserves of vocal power and the necessary stamina to hold his own even in the long third act love duet with Brünnhilde who of course has not had to sing a note up to that point. His baritonal vocal quality is well suited to the long Act II soliloquy – the ‘Forest Murmurs’ scene – which he delivers with great tenderness and beauty of tone. Yet he convinces equally in the Forging Scene of Act I, where the high tessitura causes him few problems. In PentaTone’s ‘Die Walküre,’ Petra Lang sang the role of Brünnhilde – as she will again in their forthcoming ‘Götterdämmerung’. Here though the role is assigned to the Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana. Though a vastly experienced Wagner interpreter (Isolde, Venus, Sieglinde, Kundry) this recording represented a role début as Brünnhilde in ‘Siegfried’. Her vocal unsteadiness in opening of the final scene of Act III (Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht) is initially alarming, but she quickly settles down and her fiercely passionate and expressive singing are worth the price of some vocal unevenness. Christian Elsner is an excellent choice for Mime as he sings the part with an unfailing beauty of tone, care for the words and avoidance of any exaggerated caricature that can make this character be something of a trial. Within the first few minutes of the opera’s beginning he conveys through his voice both the wiliness of the hapless dwarf and his frustration at being unable to forge the sword Nothung. Elsner, who sang the title role in Janowski’s recording of Parsifal , is no mere ‘character tenor’ and such is his vocal strength that occasionally in Act I it was difficult to distinguish between his voice and that of Gould. The Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny – surely destined to become one of the finest singers of his generation – is a noble and untiring Wanderer. Whether, as here, in the exchange of questions with Mime, the summoning of Erda and subsequent final encounter with Siegfried, the combination of his dark firmly projected voice, excellent diction and interpretative intelligence have been constant pleasures throughout this cycle. Jochen Schmeckenbecher as the vengeful Alberich continues to impress with his committed singing as he did in Das Rheingold. His bitter exchanges with Tomasz Konieczny’s Wanderer in the first scene of Act II are especially potent. The veteran Finnish bass Matti Salminen is a good choice for the small part of the giant Fafner transformed into the dragon. Not surprisingly at 68 his voice no longer has quite the power and richness of yore, but it does retain its distinctive black timbre and he really does inhabit the part on this recording. Maybe we should remember that by the time we reach Siegfried the Fafner of ‘Das Rheingold’ has aged about two generations. Salminen’s voice is given a suitably cavernous acoustic by the engineers until the point at which he is slain by Siegfried. The cast is completed by Anna Larsson who gives her usual authoritative performance as Erda and Sophie Klussmann as a bright voiced forest bird placed at the rear of the platform but still clearly audible. Wagner’s brilliant use of his orchestra to create a purely aural stage picture is nowhere more highly developed than in Siegfried, and this plays into Janowski’s strengths as an interpreter. Excellent though the singer’s performances are, it is Janowski and his marvellous orchestra that make the strongest impression on this recording. The conductor’s generally propulsive tempi and masterly pacing of each Act allow the opera to fit neatly on three SACDs. ( Act I 76.20, Act II 72.20, Act III 78.50) – incidentally making the overall performance time about 10 minutes less than Solti version. All sections of the Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester, Berlin, play like angels under Janowski’s inspiring direction. The quality of their performance can be instantly judged by auditioning the Preludes to each of the three Acts, but especially in one of Wagner’s most memorable and pictorial passages in Act 3 (tr. 9) when Siegfried moves through the flames to awaken the sleeping Brünnhilde. The sound on these three SACDs is quite magnificent and matches the performance. As in the previous eight issues in this Wagner series,the engineers have achieved a natural balance – one that allows every detail of Wagner’s striking orchestration to be heard and yet the vocal lines are never obscured even in the loudest passages. The 5.0 surround mix definitely completes the illusion of ‘being there’. This dramatically thrilling recording of Siegfried must surely take its place as the finest to appear on disc for very many years.