Crowning Glory of Van Zweden/Hong Kong Ring Cycle

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This is a grand finale to the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Ring Cycle. Both Walküre and Siegfried were marvelously conceived, excellent concert performances, each with a minor flaw or two: recording balances out of whack and unfocused mid-voice for Brünnhilde in Walküre; recording too recessed in Siegfried; lack of character delineation in the Wanderer/Mime scene in Act 1 of Siegfried. I was quite taken by the storytelling in both, finding beauty, sadness, and in the Siegfried finale, passion. This set, recorded at two concert performances (and, I suspect, a patch-up session or two–there is NO applause or audience reaction anywhere), is, in one word, majestic, which is a fitting end to the Cycle.

My one beef doesn’t last long. It concerns an early, pivotal scene: Morning on Brünnhilde’s rock. As a perfect follow-up to the exhilaration of the last 10 minutes of Siegfried one expects an almost manic ecstasy, but for some reason soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin sounds tentative and matter-of -fact. She impresses vocally–the voice is both beautiful and powerful–but she seems detached. It’s particularly surprising given how stupendous she is for the rest of the opera.

The last half hour of Act 1–Brünnhilde/Waltraute, Brünnhilde/Siegfried–so stunningly set up by van Zweden from the postlude to Hagen’s Watch through the silences, from the lovely, girlish Brünnhilde theme to Waltraute’s sad, then disturbing narrative, not only finds Barkmin in spectacular voice, but expressing sympathy, outrage, and grand imperiousness until she is laid low by the disguised Siegfried. The top notes blaze, the middle of the voice is rich and authoritative, the words are spat out defiantly. But mostly what you recall is the sadness in her voice as she is betrayed and as she mourns Siegfried, made all the more fascinating when it is contrasted with her blazing defiance. A wonderful performance.

Tenor Daniel Brenna tries very hard and succeeds, mostly, albeit with not quite the right voice. He’s got great energy and sounds young and excitable; later he seems genuinely stunned when Hagen stabs him. His farewell paean to Brünnhilde is sweetly, sadly sung, his diction and timing superb. I suspect he will always be a bit light for the part, but on a recording this is not much of an issue.

The darker men’s voices are all highly effective. Eric Halfvarson oozes cynicism and evil, even his laughter tinged with hatred. His “Watch”, taken at an effectively morbid pace by van Zweden, is chilling, and if his call to the Vassals lacks the monstrous power that, say, Gottlob Frick brought to the role, well, too bad. Chinese bass Shenyang turns the normally tedious Gunther into a more-than-willing co-conspirator of Hagen’s, his motives sober and familial rather than pure evil. Peter Kalman’s Alberich brings to mind Gustav Neidlinger, who owned the role in the ’60s and ’70s; Kalman’s sneering tone is just as expressive.

The two smaller women’s roles are taken by Michelle DeYoung as Waltraute and Amanda Majeski as Gutrune. There’s not much the latter role allows, but Majeski makes the most of it, and DeYoung emphasizes the darker side of her voice and turns Waltraute’s narrative into a tragic plea. The Norns are all darkness and regret; the Rhinemaidens a mellifluous, complex trio.

Van Zweden is, as noted in the earlier parts of the Ring, not a conductor who imposes himself on the music. He and the by now glorious HK Philharmonic know how to build to a climax–from Siegfried’s entrance in Act 2 through the confrontation between him and Brünnhilde and beyond is like controlled madness, with rage flying. And while I have heard Immolation Scenes of greater epic proportion, I can’t think of another conductor/soprano combo that sums up the Ring’s tragedy as effectively.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Böhm (Decca)

  • Daniel Brenna (tenor); Gun-Brit Barkmin, Amanda Majeski (soprano); Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano); Eric Halfvarson, Peter Kálmán, Shenyang (bass-baritone)
  • Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden

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