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Marek Janowski already has one excellent recording of the Ring under his belt, a studio version from the early 1980s. It is very starrily cast, sometimes controversially so, not least for offering the Sieglinde of Jessye Norman at her considerable grandest, as well as the youthful Brünnhilde of Jeannine Altmeyer (better known as Sieglinde on stage). Even amidst the Valkyries and Rhinemaidens are names such as Cheryl Studer and Lucia Popp. Add the stunning playing of the Dresden Staatskapelle and Janowski’s pacey conducting and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

So why has the conductor released another version? Deciding that he wanted to give the orchestra the opportunity to shine onstage rather than in the pit, Janowski gave concerts of all of Wagner’s mature operas, concluding with the four Ring operas in 2012-2013, this time with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. So these CDs are live recordings, though there is no extraneous noise; the recorded sound is absolutely immaculate, both detailed and spacious.

Janowski is a great conductor of Wagner. His no-nonsense approach lays out the music clearly and concisely. The listener feels confident that they are on a musical journey led by someone who possesses total control. The conducting never wallows in self-indulgent effects or falls into the trap of automatically equating slow with good. Perhaps if one didn’t know who was conducting one would be tempted to hazard a guess that this was a young man’s interpretation. The orchestra responds in kind, with immaculate playing from all sections. The players seem energised and tireless – the brass is punchy, the strings smooth. If his previous recording was on the swift side, this is even more so: it totals just under 14 hours (by comparison, the famously slow Goodall cycle with ENO takes about three hours longer). I have to say that Das Rheingold felt slightly pushed at times, though generally Janowski doesn’t rush as much as get on with things. If you are looking for a particularly sumptuous Romantic reading, however, this probably isn’t for you.

The singers are more variable. Tomasz Konieczny has a burnished and smooth baritone, so he finds no terrors in Wotan/The Wanderer: the phrasing and top notes seemingly come easily to him. He reflects the conflicts of the character with detail, and rises magnificently to the big moments, but if you prefer a world-weary interpretation you won’t find it here. Iris Vermillion’s Fricka sounds quite aged next to him. Jochen Schmeckenbecher sings well as Alberich, avoiding the caricature and virtual Sprechgesang that tempt some in this role. Andreas Conrad is a good Mime, and Christian Elsner a clear-voiced Loge.

In Die Walküre, Robert Dean Smith’s tenor is smooth as Siegmund, opposite Melanie Diener’s Sieglinde, whose rich tone promises much until she gets to the top of the stave, where she starts to sing flat; otherwise, they make very attractive Wälsung twins. The Walküre and Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is Petra Lang, whose mezzo origins ensure a solid middle and bottom to the voice. The top is confident, but sometimes fails to thrill: having said which, by the last opera she is in full flood, though lacking the scything qualities of a Nilsson or Jones. She works hard at her interpretation, building her character with care. Nevertheless, her charisma, which can galvanise in staged performance, doesn’t leap from the speakers.

The highest praise for Brünnhilde, in Siegfried, goes to Violeta Urmana, who is certainly solid if lacking allure. She is matched with the Siegfried of Stephen Gould, who sings the role with much confidence but little charm, so it all sounds rather stern and serious. Their duet sounds more angry than ecstatic. The Götterdämmerung Siegfried, Lance Ryan, has the notes, alas married to unappealing tone, quite a trial in such a long role. Edith Haller is an elegant Gutrune, Markus Brück a solid Gunther. Basses throughout are interesting, with Günther Groissböck and Timo Riihonen smooth as Fasolt and Fafner (Riihonen also doubles as Hunding), while Matti Salminen booms imposingly if hollowly as Hagen. The late Maria Radner is sepulchural as Erda in her first appearance, Anna Larsson less so in her second, and Marina Prudenskaya is an exciting Waltraute.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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