Wagner: Die Walküre

Staatsoper Hamburg/Simone Young (Oehms Classics OC926)

18 March 2010 3.5 stars

WalkuereThis tautly dramatic performance of Die Walküre continues the leisurely release of Hamburg Opera's Ring on Oehms. Like Thielemann's complete cycle on Opus Arte, it is on CD only; unlike Thielemann's, the booklet is lavishly illustrated giving us a hint of an interesting looking production, albeit one, it seems, not without its fair share of Regie clichés (do we really still need children to be wheeled out in Act One to make clear the psychological background of the Wälsung twins?)

As with their earlier Rheingold, this recording captures what seems to have been a highly engaging evening in the theatre. At the helm is Simone Young, a conductor who is turning into a Wagnerian to be reckoned with. There's not much of Thielemann's grand sweep or refinement, but this is a direct, often visceral account of the score that misses none of its drama.

Things are helped, too, by recorded sound that captures the orchestra cleanly and closely with the brass particularly making an impression. It's welcome that we have a great deal of harp detail, particularly in the final scene, but it seems artificially highlighted. I found in Act One, too, that the voices – particularly the Sieglinde of Yvonne Naef – were balanced slightly back and seemed to be in a different, more reverberant acoustic, particularly noticeable at high volumes. Nevertheless, the sound is remarkably good for something captured live in the theatre, with minimal stage noise and rightly enthusiastic applause at the end of each act.

The cast is a mix of youth and experience, headed by Deborah Polaski's strong Brünnhilde. She might have the occasional moments of wayward intonation and the voice is a little short on beauty, but hers is a performance of great dramatic intensity. Wotan is Falk Struckmann, a singer whose appearances in the UK are all too rare (illness deprived the London audience of the chance to here his Telramund last season), and he exudes authority and humanity as the head of the gods. His individual brand of vocalism means there's not much in the way of legato, in 'Der Augen leuchtendes Paar' for example, but I found more to enjoy dramatically here than in Albert Dohmen's arguably better-sung, but somewhat anonymous portrayal for Thielemann.

As the twins, Naef and Stuart Skelton are highly respectable, but not ideally matched. Naef's voice sounds rather too close to Polaski's in timbre; this and tiredness therefore don't help the important exchanges between Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in Act Three. It's a soprano, too, that's not always ideally steady and is not captured well by the microphone, and she gets rather swallowed up by the acoustic in 'Der Männer Sippe'. No such problems with Skelton, who musters some thrillingly heroic tones as Siegmund, although I did wonder on occasion if he might have made more of Wagner's text. In Mikhail Petrenko, we have a Hunding who sings well, but whose voice lacks the true bass timbre the role requires. Jeanne Piland is an implacable and persuasive Fricka, and the Valkyries are a suitably spirited bunch.

Clearly this is a release that sets out to capture the thrill of performance in the theatre, delivered by a well-drilled cast that is fully involved in all the elements of the drama. There are some places where Young lets the tension slack a little – such as in the Act One duet – but, on the whole, this is an exciting and passionate reading of the score. The Philharmoniker Hamburg play extremely well, too, and have clearly got to know the score inside out. One small additional caveat regards Oehms' rather impractical indexing - some tracks are barely a minute long, while long scenes go by in single tracks - and the unecessary splitting of Act Three between discs.

By Hugo Shirley