If there is one thing tougher than performing Wagner’s Ring operas, it is recording them. The array of forces is so large, the distances between them so great and the relation of essential to secondary so crucial to a successful outcome that the recording team requires almost as much time on the rehearsal stage as the orchestra and singers. Easy, it ain’t.
In what may be the first Ring ever recorded in Russia, music director Valery Gergiev gathers the hottest cast on earth. Jonas Kaufmann, in his early 40s, is a stress-free Siegmund. Nina Stemme mitigates power with beauty as Brünnhilde, René Pape is a strident Wotan and Anja Kampe an affecting Siegelinde. The remainder of the cast is Russian, though you would hardly know it from the crispness of their German diction and the tightness of the ensemble.
Valery Gergiev gathers the hottest cast on earth
There is a distinct Wagner tradition in Russia – the Ring was first staged in St Petersburg in 1907 – but it hibernated during the Soviet decades. Gergiev here has pasted is a layer of international glitz over an indigenous orchestra that plays with an intermittent roughness – not inappropriate to the textures, but unsettling if Bayreuth and Vienna are your preferred norm. Over four hours, the faint orchestral rasp adds a brutal undertone to the godly negotiations, a husky reminder of life’s fragility and a Dostoyevskian twist to the tale.
Gergiev is magisterial in Wagner, a rampaging pagan among the gods. Ex-Decca producer James Mallinson rules the sound decks and the result in this, the first of four releases, is as gripping as any Wagner recording of recent times, a box to sit unblushing beside Solti’s everlasting benchmark.
Artists: Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, René Pape, Anja Kampe, Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Norman Lebrecht is a prolific commentator on music and cultural affairs and an award-winning novelist. See his blog Slipped Disc.