Barenboim conducts Wagner's 'Das Rheingold' from Bayreuth -
'... a beautiful, well-shaped, flowing performance.'
Any recording of the Ring cycle which comes from the Bayreuth Festival cannot help but have that extra little bit of magic; the acoustics of the Festival Theatre are so fabulous. So whatever you think of a particular cast or musical performance, it is easy to be seduced by the magic of the Bayreuth acoustic itself.
This was emphasised in the recently re-issued discs of Daniel Barenboim's 1991 Ring performances, because the recording benefits from a high degree of clarity and warmth in the recorded sound. From the outset, these discs convey a lovely, well-modulated, well shaped musical performance. These are live performances, recorded by Unitel at the same time as their video of Harry Kupfer's production, so that we get quite a bit of stage noise, but it is Barenboim and his fine cast who dominate.
This 1991 Bayreuth Ring was notable for its remarkable Anglophone cast; the singers involved included John Tomlinson, Anne Evans, Graham Clark and Linda Finnie. So, whether or not you would choose Barenboim's Ring as your first choice, it has its own distinctive place in history.
From the spine-tingling opening notes of Das Rheingold, Barenboim and his orchestra give a beautiful, well-shaped, flowing performance. It is this well-modulated orchestral sound which is one of the notable things about the whole cycle. Barenboim succeeds in making the performances never sound rushed whilst keeping the action moving.
It helps that he is adept at shaping the music in Wagner's long paragraphs; we have a sense of the music and the drama going somewhere rather than luxuriating in the moment. Time and again I noticed the well-formed structure, such as the beautifully maintained tension in the scene where Wotan and Loge trick Alberich out of the ring, or the later moment when Freia is gradually covered in gold until Fasolt and Fafner are satisfied. (This is not always the case, and there were places -- such as Act I of Die Walküre and parts of Act 2 of Götterdämmerung -- where his control of dramatic tension seemed less than perfect).
It helps, of course, that Barenboim has a fine cast at his disposal. None of the roles in Das Rheingold are badly cast and many are impressive. The Rhinemaidens (Hilde Leidland, Annette Küttenbaum and Jane Turner) are well blended, but their voices are rather more buxom than I am used to, giving them a slightly matronly air. I am, of course, talking about the purely aural experience, and the audience in the Festival Theatre may have taken a different view.
Copyright © 6 August 2005
Robert Hugill, Strasbourg, France