Sir Mark Elder has been a favourite with British audiences for decades now, but it's really during the past ten years, while he's been Principal Conductor at the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra, that have seen him rise to the level of national treasure.
After a rocky period, during which artistic standards were compromised and finances were stretched beyond the limit, Elder came to the helm in 2000 and reinvigorated the orchestra on every level. A more equal male-female balance, many younger players, opportunities for outstanding students at the local conservatoire to shadow their professional counterparts, new visiting conductors and a vast expansion of the repertoire have given the ensemble a new lease of life. As someone who grew up in the area and have seen the orchestra's ups and downs, what delights me the most is the fact that the Hallé has genuinely risen to become an important part of the city of Manchester.
Something else Elder has given the orchestra is a new audience via its own record label. The initial setup was thwarted when the label's distributor went bust, but since relaunching with a splendid recording of The Dream of Gerontius with Bryn Terfel, the label is once more going from strength to strength – this time, with a complete recording of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, available as a cheap download or as physical product.
It derives from a concert performance that took place over two nights last year (9-10 May 20009), an event that marked a great landmark in the orchestra's history. To cast and rehearse a piece of this magnitude to the international standards that the orchestra always strives for was no mean feat, and the withdrawal of Ben Heppner from the cast late in the day was a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, the atmosphere on both nights was excellent, and the overall performance was impressive.
Listening to it again on this live recording, however, blemishes and problems that seemed unimportant at the time now become distracting. Orchestral standards are high and all the instrumental solos are of good quality, but the ideal Germanic sheen is missing. In spite of the expense of mounting the Ring, it is, of course, very well represented on CD now, and as fine as the Hallé truly is, they're not quite the Berlin or Vienna Phil. Also, as much as Elder's efforts with the orchestra are apparent throughout, there's inevitably not the kind of attention to detail one would get in a studio recording.
The cast, too, is uneven, if always spirited. I absolutely adored Katarina Dalayman's Brünnhilde in the concert hall, not least because of her visible emotion. She was a noble, interesting, vibrant protagonist. Her intelligence comes through in the recording, too, but it's a shame we can't see her performance, since she engaged with the audience quite wonderfully at the time. The other problem is that at the height of the biggest phrases of the part, such as in the Immolation Scene, her voice sounds strained and just outside her grasp; whereas this was forgivable in the concerts, it's a bit distracting on CD.
Lars Cleveman's Siegfried is also on the lightweight side, even though he's extremely nuanced, while Attila Jun's Hagen is too hollow and a little wordless for my taste. For insight, Peter Coleman-Wright's Gunther and Andrew Shore's Alberich are excellent, but the ideal combination of beauty of tone, musicality and characterisation is mainly to be found in Susan Bickley's Waltraute. Her contribution is a highlight.
The groups of Norns and Rhinemaidens come across strongly, and the combined forces of the Halle Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, LSO Chorus and ROH Chorus make for a rare treat in the vassals scene.
Superb and committed though the project is, however, the recording is probably more important as a document of a great event in the orchestra's history than as competition to the many other accounts of the opera on record.