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 Recording of the Week  Matthias Goerne sings Wotan in Wagner's Die Walküre

I have to say eyebrows were raised chez Presto when we first heard that Naxos were embarking on a Ring Cycle – the budget label doesn’t usually take on projects on this sort of scale, but we were all pleasantly surprised by last year’s Rheingold and with Die Walküre (out today) the cycle really hits its stride. Right from the taut, suppressed energy of the stormy prelude, Jaap van Zweden draws playing of immense subtlety and detail from his Hong Kong forces, who are so consistently engaged with the drama I’d have sworn we were listening to a staged production rather than a concert performance.

Matthias Goerne
Matthias Goerne

Matthias Goerne, taking on the mammoth role of Wotan for the first time in this project, shows no sign of the respiratory infection which was reported during the live performances (whether this is down to ‘patching’ sessions or simple astute vocal management is anyone’s guess). I’d wondered if Goerne, still relatively new to Wagner in general, might sound over-parted here, but the voice sounds well-grounded at both ends and he has plenty left in the tank for his coruscating chastisement of Brünnhilde and subsequent expansive Farewell; I’d wager he’ll find more light and shade in the role if he chooses to keep it in his repertoire over the next decade or so, but his sensitivity to text and capacity for introspective brooding already pays real dividends in the great monologue in Act Two.

For me, though, it’s the Wälsung twins who pretty much steal the show: Stuart Skelton and Heidi Melton deliver a first act of exquisite radiance and tenderness, with the emphasis on the loneliness and vulnerability of the estranged siblings rather than explosive sexual chemistry. (They’re fully supported in this interpretation by van Zweden, who gives the love-music acres of space to blossom and brings the act to a transcendent rather than frenzied conclusion, in contrast to Valery Gergiev’s hell-for-leather eroticism on his 2013 Mariinsky recording). It’s above all a very human first act, eschewing the heroics and melodrama that are played up on other recordings: for instance, the pointed phrasing of the Wagner tubas announces Hunding as a man of quiet menace rather than a pantomime villain, and indeed he comes across as a fundamentally decent man (albeit not one to mess with) rather than a brutish bully in Falk Struckmann’s interpretation. And just as van Zweden has no truck with one-dimensional baddies, nor is he interested in vocal swashbuckling for its own sake: Siegmund’s extended cries of 'Wälse!' always make the Presto office collectively down tools (often with an eye on the stop-watch!) when a new recording’s receiving its first outing, and Skelton infuses them with more pathos and desperation than any singer I’ve heard on disc.

Melton’s bright, youthful-sounding soprano works beautifully with his oaky, now almost baritonal timbre (his voice seems to have developed more autumnal colours since the sensational performances of Peter Grimes in London a couple of years ago), and she’s particularly welcome on a recording where darker female voices dominate: Brünnhilde is sung here by former mezzo Petra Lang, and though she now focuses almost exclusively on dramatic soprano roles, her ‘warrior-maid’ still sounds almost contralto-ish in places (no bad thing in the low-lying passages of the role, such as her appearance to Siegmund before the battle and the opening of her great confrontation with her father in the final scene of Act Three) and not dissimilar to Michelle deYoung’s imperious and imposingly-sung Fricka.

Another asset is the well-differentiated team of Valkyries (you really hear each individual jolt of anxiety as they wait for their father to impose the most extreme ‘grounding’ ever dealt out to a rebellious daughter), with a stand-out contribution from British soprano Katherine Broderick, who will appear as Sieglinde opposite Melton’s first Brünnhilde later this year. One to watch, as is this cycle in general: roll on the next two instalments…

Wagner: Die Walküre

Matthias Goerne (Wotan), Petra Lang (Brünnhilde), Michelle DeYoung (Fricka), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Heidi Melton (Sieglinde), Falk Struckmann (Hunding), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC