Posts Tagged ‘Richard Wagner’

Favourites of 2017: Music

January 5, 2018

It seemed this year that I was treated to an avalanche of excellent music — much more than I could listen to with adequate attention. Of those recordings I devoted the most time to, I have selected for praise an even dozen. I proceed roughly chronologically.

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Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges imagines a writer who has become so immersed in the style and the world of Cervantes that he is able to reproduce, as an original work, a word-for-word replica of Don Quixote. This story has been brought irresistibly to mind as I’ve been listening to this truly wonderful and extraordinary recording from Ensemble Scholastica. What this all-female ensemble, based in Montreal, has done is perform newly composed elaborations of medieval plainchant in an impeccably medieval style. These elaborations include adding new monophonic material to the original, or adding additional voices, or instruments. Something like this past-meets-present concept has been done before, but usually the past and present are distinguishable to the ear as modern dissonances or cadences wander into the frame. What makes the music on Ars Elaboratio so intriguing is that there really is nothing modern to hear; for all we can tell, these could be original medieval compositions.

I can imagine someone wondering about the point of doing this. Just as with Menard and his Quixote, context matters, and a modern medieval composition has different resonances than a medieval original. Such an experiment might, for instance, be a way of poking the eye of the notion, current in music circles as elsewhere, that originality is rooted in self-expression; or, to deny the idea that history moves and we have to move with it; or, as a spiritual exercise in humility, wherein musicians enter fully into the imaginative and aesthetic world of another time and place; or, as a way of honouring the beauty and wisdom of the texts by creating music that would have pleased and delighted their medieval authors; or, simply as an expression of love for the beauty of medieval music. In the notes accompanying the recording, the ensemble states their purpose as follows:

“We wish to share with listeners the true beauty and intricacy of medieval music, in particular medieval liturgical traditions, the very roots of Western music. Our audiences thus have the chance to experience the remarkable joy and complexity of medieval spirituality and culture.”

I, for one, thank them for their efforts, which have greatly delighted me.

Here is a brief advertisement for the disc, in which one can hear excerpts:

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Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
Tetraktys
(Olive, 2016)

The number of people whose hearts go pitter-patter at the thought of a collection of music by Matteo da Perugia ought rightly to be legion, but is in fact probably somewhat closer to minuscule. This is just one of the numerous hardships which we must bear on behalf of our beleaguered times. I remember well the first time I heard one of his pieces, at a concert by the Huelgas Ensemble in Toronto; the music was so exquisite, so expressive and beguiling, that an audible gasp escaped the audience when the final note was sung, as though we’d all been holding our breath. Matteo was writing around the year 1400 and was a practitioner of what was then, and is still now, called the ars subtilior style — the subtle art — which is one of the most delightful of the medieval artistic byways awaiting discovery by listeners whose wanderlust leads them off well-beaten trails. His compositions belong to the courtly love tradition, being primarily settings of secular love poetry. Despite his name, he worked in and around the Duomo in Milan, and all of the music we have from him survives in a single manuscript.

His music pops up now and again on early music recordings, but this is, to my knowledge, just the third recording devoted entirely to him, the earlier two being by the Huelgas Ensemble and Mala Punica, both of them superb interpreters. But Tetraktys have nothing to fear from the comparison. They have chosen to perform these pieces as vocal solos with instrumental accompaniment — not a mandatory choice, if comparisons with the other recordings are anything to go on — and much of the appeal of this recording lies in the singing of Stefanie True, a Canadian soprano who is otherwise unknown to me, but who earns high praise for the beautiful purity of her voice. Instrumental accompaniment from a trio of musicians includes medieval fiddles, harp, and organetto. The result is one of the more alluring and gorgeous discs of early music I’ve heard in a long while.

Here is a brief excerpt of the ensemble during the recording process. It gives the flavour of what they are doing, but the sound on the CD is superior to what you hear here:

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Secret History: Josquin / Victoria
John Potter
(ECM New Series, 2017)

Years ago I drew up a list of my favourite music of the first decade of the 21st century, and near the top of the list I put a CD of music by Victoria, sung by Carlos Mena, in which the familiar intricate polyphony had been adapted for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment. I loved, and still love, everything about it — Mena’s creamy voice, the clarity of the musical texture, the limpid beauty of the vocal line. I’d never heard anything quite like it before — nor, for that matter, since.

But now this new disc from John Potter and friends revisits the same musical territory, with marvellous results once again. Potter tells us in his notes that it was a fairly common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries for sacred polyphony to be adapted into tablature for lutenists and vihuelists, and even that the music of some composers, including Josquin, survives mostly in these intabulated sources. He is here joined by three vihuelas and a viola da gamba, as well as by the soprano Anna Maria Friman (of Trio Medieval) in performances of these intabulated versions of Victoria’s Missa surge propera, a collection of motets by Josquin, a motet by Mouton and another by Victoria again, some Gregorian chant, and some preludes for vihuela by Jacob Heringman, one of the musicians.

It all sounds terrific. Once again, hearing the clarity of the vocal line pulled from what would normally be a dense polyphonic texture is a real delight, and there’s a wonderful intimacy about the whole affair, as though this sublime music were being re-imagined in one’s living room. For me, the recording as a whole doesn’t quite rise to the level of that earlier one by Carlos Mena, and this mainly because Potter, as good as he is (and, as a long-time member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he’s no slouch), simply doesn’t have the translucent voice that Mena does.

The recording was made at the famous monastery of St Gerold in Austria, long favoured by ECM’s engineers, and the sound is impeccable. It was recorded in 2011, so ECM sat on it for 6 years before releasing it. I can’t imagine why. This is my favourite recording of the year.

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Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
Odhecaton
(Arcana, 2017)

Of the making of records there is no end, and there can be few pieces of Renaissance polyphony that have been recorded more often than Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli. One naturally wonders if it’s worth bothering to record it again. But, lo and behold, here comes Odhecaton to make us hear it again anew. This ensemble, which is new to me, has a truly wonderful way with this music: the singing is very assured, pitched low if I’m not mistaken, and it has a splendid gravitas — in happier times I could have called it masculine, and been understood to be saying something intelligible. I have listened to it with some amazement, because I’ve never heard Palestrina sung like this, with such stately grace, which we expect, and earthy texture, which we don’t. The disc also includes a number of motets and Gregorian antiphons, and it actually opens with Sicut cervus, a motet that every mother’s son knows forward and backward; yet, again, not like this. [review]

Here is the whole of the Missa:

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Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Pifarescha, Giuseppe Maletto
(Glossa, 2017)

2017 was a Monteverdi anniversary year, marking his 450th birthday. My plans to devote time to him largely failed, but I was able to hear this glorious new recording of his Vespers. This is a piece for which my appreciation has gradually grown over the years; it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work that takes time to get to know, and as yet I feel that I’ve only begun to explore its many nooks and crannies. The musicians on this disc are an ace crew who will be recognized by early music aficionados. I must say that it is nice to have Italians performing the music of their countryman, and, quite in contradiction to the sometime-stereotype of period ensembles being rather dry and thin, they bring a stirring, full-bodied sound to their interpretation. The instruments, especially, are recorded with nice bloom, blending beautifully with the voices. I’ve long been fond of William Christie’s recording of this Vespers, with French forces, for its beauty and gentle tenderness, but this shows another side of this wonderful music.

This video takes us behind the scenes at the recording sessions:

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Bach: De Occulta Philosophia
Emma Kirkby, Carlos Mena, José Miguel Moreno
(Glossa, 1998)

Here is a disc that would appear to have been produced just for me: my favourite soprano, Emma Kirkby, and my favourite counter-tenor, Carlos Mena, joining together to sing chorales of J.S. Bach, my favourite composer, over a performance of the Chaconne, my favourite composition (or, at least, having a fair claim), in an arrangement for the lute, my favourite obsolete instrument in the guitar family! You might remember the recording the Hilliard Ensemble made some years ago, in which they, following a purported “discovery” by musicologist Helga Thoene, did the same experiment: singing chorale fragments over the Chaconne, which was, allegedly, subtextually quoting them. I confess I don’t put any great faith in these musicological claims, but it hardly matters: as musical experiments go, this one is a winner. I liked the Hilliard’s performance, but I like this one even more: the intimacy of the lute, and the purity of the two voices, is entrancing. The Chaconne, mind you, only lasts a quarter-hour. The rest of the disc is filled out with Bach’s Sonata (BWV 1001) and Partita (BWV 1004), played on the lute by José Miguel Moreno. It’s all good, but it’s the chorale-laden Chaconne that is sublime.

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Mozart: Don Giovanni
Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis
(Sony, 2016)

Like everyone else, I have long been wedded to Giulini’s 1959 recording of this, the greatest opera, so much so that I’ve never felt any real desire to acquire another. But nothing in this veil of tears is perfect in every respect, and there was always a possibility, however slim, that somebody might come along and do the thing well enough, and differently enough, to give us, not so much a rival, but an alternative reading. And then along came Teodor Currentzis and his mad cadre of musicians in a bid to do just that.

I say “mad” partly because of the conditions under which the recording took place: Currentzis had his singers and orchestra come to the Russian hinterland, where they stayed for weeks on end, living together, eating together, performing Don Giovanni hour after hour after hour, doing experiments, taking risks, going mad. The Guardian ran a nice feature that described the highly unusual working conditions.

And I say “mad” also because of the results. Currentzis plays this score with ferocious energy; the strings slash, the brass blares, the timpani thunders. There is nothing at all genteel about it. The sound engineering is impressively vivid. The singing is fine, but for me it is the orchestral playing that is the real draw. That might seem an odd position to take on an opera recording, but we are in the realm of the odd.

I understand the argument from those who say that this is an abuse of Mozart, who wrote at a time when elegance was prized and who could out-elegance anybody when we wanted to, but, on the other hand, this is Don Giovanni! If any opera can take this idiosyncratic, unrestrained treatment, it’s this one. An iconoclastic version could never replace Giulini, but considered as a compelling alternative view of this great music, this one is a success.

Here is a ten-minute featurette on the making of this recording:

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Mozart – Piano Concertos 20 & 27
Evgeny Kissin, Kremerata Baltica
(EMI, 2010)

I admit I’ve had a prejudice against Evgeny Kissin, whose status as a child prodigy led me to suspect that there was more of sentimentality behind his fame than solid musical achievement. But this disc was recommended to me in glowing terms, and I decided to listen mainly because of the orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, whom I have long admired. It’s a corker! These concerti are old chestnuts, and they are often played with grace and politeness, but Kissin and his band tackle them with thunderous excitement. The sound is big, the orchestra plays with sharp attacks and tight rhythms, and Kissin is terrific at the keyboard. The performance has verve and sparkle. I don’t know if this is typical of Kissin or not, but, if so, I stand corrected.

Here is Concerto No.20:

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Wagner: Arias and Duets
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig
(Testament, rec.1957/8)

Birgit Nilsson has a claim to being one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, and Hans Hotter can make a similar claim among bass-baritones. They were both in their prime for these recordings, made in 1957/58 in glowing sound that belies their age. Nilsson, especially, is majestic; her voice gleams, like a shaft of light penetrating the gloom. The sheer beauty of it is awe-inspiring. Hotter sings with tremendous gravitas as well, and he is a superb match for her in the long Act III duet from Die Walküre. The other selections are from Wagner’s earlier operas: Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, a long excerpt from Der Fliegende Holländer, and a soprano solo from Tannhäuser. This same music has been previously issued on EMI; probably this Testament release has been remastered but I’ve actually listened to both and I can’t hear any substantial differences. In either case, this is one of the best Wagner recordings I’ve ever heard. [review]

Here is the opening of Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III. Hotter is Wotan and Nilsson is Brünnhilde:

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Brahms: Piano Works
Arcadi Volodos
(Sony, 2017)

If, like me, you love those last, late piano pieces Brahms left us in his Op.116, 117, and 118, then I cannot recommend more highly these superb renditions by Arcadi Volodos. Volodos is a pianist I haven’t followed very closely (though I love his account of Liszt’s virtuosic transmutation of the Wedding March!). His playing is muscular, and he makes a big, well-rounded sound. You might not think that would work all that well with these elegiac masterpieces, but these are winsome performances that I have greatly enjoyed. This is elite playing, not just technically but artistically, and this is a great disc. [review]

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Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Steven Osborne, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena
(Hyperion, 2012)

Messiaen described this gigantic musical explosion as “a song of love, a hymn to joy”, and the joyous feeling he sought to capture as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, and abandoned”. Perhaps no better description of the symphony is possible. It is among the biggest, boldest, most outrageous, wildest examples of musical excess in the repertoire, and, as such, not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to, but it’s the symphony’s spirit of unadulterated, supercharged love of life that wins me over. I’ve a few recordings in my collection, but this one from the Bergen Philharmonic, with Steven Osborne handling the difficult piano part, has delighted me to no end. The orchestral sound, which is the be-all and end-all of this piece, is wonderfully alive and vivid. A ravishing sonic experience. [Audio excerpts]

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Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2017)

For the past few years my year-end list of favourites has usually included something by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and I have something this year too. Gidon Kremer has become a high-profile champion for Weinberg’s music, and in 2017 he, with Kremerata Baltica again, issued a two-disc set of Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet. The Quintet is an early work (Op.18) that has become quite popular, having now been recorded more than any of Weinberg’s other music. Kremer and his crew give it a good hearing, and of course ECM’s sound engineering is outstanding. But for me the chamber symphonies are the real draw. They are late works (the earliest being his Op.145), and, as always with Weinberg, I feel they put me in touch with a man of great musical intelligence, overlooked for too long. Music to treasure.

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In years past I have written twice about my favourite music of the year: first classical and then popular. This year there were pop music records that interested me from Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne, Van Morrison, Sufjan Stevens, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, and Neil Young, and some others too, but I either didn’t get around to hearing them, or didn’t hear enough of them to form a judgement. Maybe next year.

Favourites of 2013: Classical music

January 8, 2014

My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).

I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.

In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.

weinberg-violinWeinberg: Complete Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo
(Challenge, 2013)

For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.

Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:

Elgar: The ApostlesElgar_Apostles
Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder
(Halle, 2012)

This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]

Wagner--Kaufmann-Jonas-Runnicles-Donald-ODOBWagner
Jonas Kaufmann
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles

(Decca, 2013)

Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.

Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressedlibera-nos
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
(Signum, 2013)

The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]

ockeghemOckeghem: Missa Mi-Mi
Cappella Pratensis, Rebecca Stewart
(Ricercar, 1999)

It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.

Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:

Bach: Cantatas, Vol.55Suzuki-Bach_Cantatas_55
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
(BIS, 2013)

This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!

sainte-chapelleWhitacre: Sainte-Chapelle
Tallis Scholars
(Gimell, 2013)

Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.

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Honourable mentions:

ludfordLudford: Missa Regnum mundi
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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schubertSchubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
[Listen]

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howells-requiemHowells: Requiem
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Stephen Layton
(Hyperion, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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yoffe-songofsongsYoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)
[Listen]

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philippe-herreweghe-victoria-officium-defunctorumVictoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Listen]

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mahler2-zanderMahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
(Linn, 2013)
[Listen]

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praetorius-adventPraetorius: Advent and Christmas Music
Bremer Barock Consort, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2007)

 

Tristan und Isolde in Toronto

January 31, 2013

I have mentioned before that in February I will be seeing the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is one of those operas that has been on my short-list for quite a few years, and I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to see it.

It opened this week, and I am pleased to see that the production is being praised in lavish terms (also here). Hurrah! I think this is going to be great.

Here is a promotional video for the COC’s production:

Great moments in Wagner’s operas

June 21, 2010

Since I recently finished listening to and writing about all of Wagner’s mature operas,  it occurs to me that I can make a contribution to the common good by gathering together, in one spot, links to all the constituent posts.  Here they are:

Great moments in opera: Parsifal

June 15, 2010

Parsifal was Wagner’s last music-drama, and in many ways it is the artistic culmination of his life, bringing his techniques of musical composition, his love of medieval legend, and his penchant for long, slow musical lines together into what I can only describe as a sublime musical creation.  Debussy called it a “monument of sound”, and he was right.  The music is gorgeously majestic, and, like Lohengrin but to an even greater degree, it seems to be illuminated from within by an intense and pure radiance.  It is among the most beautiful things that I have ever heard.

Most of this beauty is in the orchestra.  The singing does not partake of any of the usual operatic conventions: there are few melodies that remain in the ear, and nothing at all that resembles an “aria”.  The vocal lines are almost uniformly very slow, as though the singers were statues just come to life, and this stateliness is a good match for the on-stage “action”, of which there is not very much.   This unhurried pace, which in some of Wagner’s previous work tended, in my judgement, toward ponderousness, here achieves a kind of rapt intensity and heroic strength.

The story of Parsifal is drawn from Chretien de Troyes, Wolfgang von Eschenbach, and the Welsh Mabinogion.  The Knights of the Holy Grail are tormented by Klingsor, a sorcerer, who has stolen the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side, and who, by means of an enchanted garden filled with beautiful maidens, seduces any knight who attempts to retrieve it.  Meanwhile, Amfortas, the leader of the knights, has been wounded by this same spear and is racked with pains.  Only another touch from the spear can heal his wound, and a prophecy says that the spear can be retrieved only by a guileless fool.    Accordingly, the knights await him.  Parsifal, of course, is the awaited one.

In Act I, we learn the back story, and we see Parsifal make his first appearance among the knights.  In Act II, he goes to Klingsor’s enchanted garden and there confronts Kundry, the chief seductress who is herself under Klingsor’s spell, and who is one of Wagner’s most complex and interesting characters.  Parsifal overcomes her temptations, finds the spear, and, making with it the sign of the cross, sees Klingsor’s castle collapse into ruin.  In Act III, he returns, after many years, to the knights, and heals Amfortas’ wound with the sacred spear. Parsifal is over four hours in performance.  (Act I alone lasts nearly two hours.)

I am not sure how to interpret this work.  It is full of Christian imagery, with much of the action centered around sacred relics and the Blessed Sacrament.  One of my opera guides says that it depicts the triumph of Christianity over paganism, and this is a plausible — indeed, the most obvious — reading.  It is possible, I think, to appreciate it simply as a particularly effective dramatization of one of the wonderful medieval tales of the knights of the Grail.  On the other hand, one hardly expects a forthright defence of Christianity from Wagner, and there may be something else afoot.  Some sources say that Parsifal is consciously influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer.  That would explain the long section in which one of the characters articulates a view of the world as will and representation.  I jest.

The orchestral prelude to Parsifal introduces many of the central leitmotifs — those of the Sacrament, of the Grail, and of Faith, most notably — and it illustrates very well what I tried to say above about the translucent purity of the music.  The prelude lasts longer than 10 minutes, so too long for a single YouTube clip, but here is the first part of it, conducted by James Levine.  (The remaining part is here.)

One of my favourite scenes is from Act I, in which Parsifal is brought, for the first time, into the great hall of the Knights of the Holy Grail.  The knights themselves then enter, singing a beautiful chorus, and gather around the Grail.  This is really beautiful.  English subtitles are included in this high-quality video of a Bayreuth production:

To illustrate the style of singing that dominates most of Parsifal, consider this lovely scene from Act III.  Parsifal has returned from his long journey, carrying the sacred spear, and he meets the old knight Gurnemanz and a repentant Kundry in a meadow.  It is Good Friday.  This clip is again from Bayreuth, and with English subtitles.  Parsifal is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, Gurnemanz by Hans Sotin, and Kundry by Eva Randova.  (If you like this scene, it is continued here.)

**

I believe that I have now completed this survey of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas.  May those who think that it has gone on too long, and those who think that it has gone on too short, forgive me.  May those who think that it has gone on just long enough join me in giving thanks to God.  Amen.

Shaw: The Perfect Wagnerite

May 18, 2010

The Perfect Wagnerite (1898)
A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring
George Bernard Shaw (Dover, 1967)
156 p.  First reading.

On one level, this little book is a basic introduction to the story-line and the music of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  It was written in the days before sound recording, when one would have had to go to an opera house, and maybe even all the way to Bavaria and Bayreuth, in order to hear the music.  Under those circumstances, and when “surtitles” were unknown, English-speaking Wagnerites would likely have been grateful for an elegantly written synopsis of each of the four music-dramas, and Shaw provides it.  The book also includes chapters, mercifully non-technical, on the music of Der Ring, on the leitmotif technique, on Wagnerian singing, and on the Bayreuth theatre which Wagner had built to house his epic drama.

On another level, The Perfect Wagnerite is an examination of (and an evangel for) the philosophical and political program which Der Ring allegorically enacts.  It is possible, says Shaw, to take these dramas simply as dramas, resting content with the literal meaning, but those who do so are very inferior persons:

It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance.  I profess to be such a superior person. . .

I admit that I am not sure whether he is entirely sincere in these self-regarding assessments, but even, and maybe especially, if he is, this is quite amusing.  Imagine someone who thought that unfolding the allegorical significance of magical swords, sky castles, dwarves, and talking animals was an activity especially indicative of superiority!  Evidently neither Wagner nor Shaw anticipated the tastes of their ideological descendents.  But I digress.

The political allegory which runs hidden, like a thread of Rhine gold, through the fabric of the Ring, is one of revolution: “the gods”, by which, Shaw argues, are meant the ancient powers of Church and State, are to be overthrown and cast down, and in their place will arise the new man, represented by Siegfried, who is to replace power with love and redeem the world through his intense vitality and greatness of spirit.  Oddly enough, Wagner implies that the gods themselves bring this about (as Wotan is himself grandfather to Siegfried) because they realize that their reign is exhausted and must yield to the inexorable progress of history, or something.

This interpretation of the allegory sits uncomfortably with the plot of Götterdämmerung, in which Siegfried dies rather ignominiously, to be survived by the inglorious Gibichengs and the repulsive Nibelungs. What happened to the hero? Shaw says that Wagner was disillusioned by the failure of the revolutions of 1848 that had inspired the Ring in the first place, and that he wrote his disappointment into the story, revising the original ending to portray the sad end to which his revolutionary hopes had come.

The unveiling of this revolutionary subtext is hinted at in Shaw’s plot synopses, which are also generously sprinkled with insults aimed at inferior persons who fail to apprehend and approve the glorious theme, but it is concentrated in two very interesting essays: “Wagner as Revolutionist” and “Siegfried as Protestant”.  The former is principally devoted to elaborating the interpretation that I have already outlined.  The latter argues that Siegfried represents the spirit of Protestantism, which Shaw sees as the historical stepping-stone between supernatural religion and secular liberalism, overthrowing authority in favour of the freedom of the individual will.  (In fact, he argues that although a kind of anarchic liberalism is the true logical telos of Protestantism, the historically-workable form which liberalism will actually take is socialism.)  I have seen this general assessment of Protestantism offered from Catholic critics, but it is interesting, to say the least, to see it argued from the secular side as well.  Sincere Protestants are understandably chagrined to find themselves cast in such a role, but, having made their bed, I suppose they must lie in it.

Implicit in the allegory of the Ring is the recognition that, though the gods be overthrown, not every man will be thereby possessed of heroic attributes.  Siegfried is but one man, and the world still crawls with Nibelungs and shudders with the march of oafish giants.  The presence of this riff-raff is an ongoing irritant to those who await the triumph of the new man.  It is evidently an irritant to Shaw, who is not satisfied that such men should steer clear of the opera house.  In “Siegfried as Protestant” he writes:

The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society.

We can hardly read such words without a shudder and a chill at what they portended. It is all very well to say that Shaw could not have foreseen the manner in which those who had “no business to be alive” would, in fact, be deprived of life, “earnestly and scientifically”, on a vast scale.  The truth is that the thought he expresses was odious then (and Chesterton, let us remember, said so to Shaw’s face on more than one occasion) just as it is odious now. It is also well to remember that such sentiments were considered “progressive” at the time, openly professed by self-consciously superior persons. If historical examples like this do not innoculate one against reflexive admiration for intellectual elites, then I don’t know what will.

There remains the question of just how tainted the Ring cycle is by these unsavoury associations.  Hitler famously said that Wagner held the key to understanding the Nazis, and though I do not know precisely what part of Wagner’s work he had in mind, it is at least plausible that it was the Ring, for the reasons we have outlined. On consideration I am inclined to absolve Wagner.  It is possible, as Shaw shows, to read into the Ring an ugly and, as it turned out, horrifying and bloody imperative to secure the triumph of the new and glorious mankind by the eradication of the old and inglorious, but the possibility is nowhere, to my knowledge, proposed or even suggested by the Ring itself.  In any case, Wagner’s prophecy was disappointed during his own lifetime and even written into the Ring, which effectively tarnishes the ideal he had originally set forth. This hope, he seems to be saying, ended, and ended badly.  To me this does not feel like a summons to action.  Not to worry, however: for those of us who harbour an allegiance to “the gods” there remain plenty of reasons to object to the Ring without needing to drag the Nazis into it.

In the end, I admit that I am most content to take the story of the Ring in its literal sense, leaving the allegorical sense aside.  This makes me, I know, an inferior person, but so be it.  I am, and not only in this respect, a very imperfect Wagnerite.

Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

May 13, 2010

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins; 2009)
377 p.  First reading.

The nature of my education was such that I learned of Tolkien’s Ring before I learned of Wagner’s.  Once I knew of both, I naturally wondered about the relationship between them.  There are obvious similarities, but to what extent was Tolkien’s idea of the “ring of power” indebted to the older tradition?  I remembered reading that C.S. Lewis had, in his youth, been enamored of Wagner’s music-dramas, and I thought it possible that Tolkien, who was about the same age, had been similarly influenced.  Only later did I realize that Wagner’s story was rooted in an immense medieval legendary tradition.  Tolkien being the man he was — a man for whom literature was all downhill after Chaucer — those older sources were a much more likely inspiration for Middle Earth, if indeed there was any connection at all.  But was there?

I still don’t know that I can answer the question decisively, but reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún has inclined me strongly toward answering in the affirmative.  This book demonstrates, at least, that Tolkien knew the medieval sources thoroughly, and admired them enough to expend time and effort writing his own versions of the stories, for that is precisely what we have here: English-language poetic renderings of two of the central legends in that medieval tradition.  The principal source for this material is the thirteenth-century Icelandic and Norse Edda (and not, as one might have expected, the Nibelungenlied).

The first poem, called by Tolkien Völsungakviða en nýja (“The New Lay of the Völsungs“), covers much the same ground as Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Apart from variations in names (“Sigurd” = Wagner’s “Siegfried”) and some differences in the details of how the plot unfolds, there is a recognizably close kinship between the two.  Tolkien’s version, more faithful (I would think) to the ethos of the medieval originals, has none of the modernist philosophical weight that Wagner larded onto his version.  Indeed, in his very extensive notes that accompany these poems Christopher Tolkien mentions Wagner only briefly, and that simply to note that “in spirit and purpose” Wagner’s dramas “bear little relation” to his father’s work.  Tolkien’s poem is not a translation, in any straightforward sense, of a particular medieval source, but rather an original composition that draws on several strands found in the medieval sources.

The second poem, Guðrúnarkviða en nýja (“The New Lay of Gudrún“, continues where the previous poem left off.  The Gjúking family (called the Gibichungs by Wagner) are threatened by the advancing armies of Atli (the historical Attila the Hun, of happy memory) and they offer their sister, Gudrún, as a bridal peace offering.  She is accepted and there is peace for a time, but, as you can imagine, things do not end well.  Gudrún becomes the central figure in a devastating tragedy that brings everyone to ruin.  Of the two poems, this was my favourite: it has a clearer line of development, greater atmosphere, more pathos, and larger snakes.

Tolkien’s poetry for these stories is quite different from that he wrote in, for instance, The Lays of Beleriand.  There are similar insofar as medieval poetic forms are clear inspirations, but the details are different.  Here Tolkien has used an Old Norse form called fornyrðislag, consisting of a concise eight-line stanza, each line being limited to just a few words, and he has taken pains to observe the rules of stress and alliteration found in his models.  There is no rhyming.  Together, these characteristics give the poems a concise, rough-hewn musicality.  I give an example below.

The book is nearly 400 pages long, but only roughly half of that is Tolkien’s poetry (with sparse typesetting to boot).  Christopher Tolkien has written extensive notes commenting on the relationship between his father’s poems and the medieval sources; I did not read this material in depth.  The poems are prefaced by a fairly long introduction that includes an interesting transcribed lecture that Tolkien once prepared on the subject of Eddaic literature.

I enjoyed reading these poems, although they are certainly peripheral to Tolkien’s oeuvre.  We don’t have much poetry in English that tries to emulate medieval models in this way, and seeing it done — and done pretty well, all things considered — is, I would think, the chief attraction here.

**

Here is an excerpt from “The New Lay of Gudrún”.  Gudrún’s brother Gunnar, come to rescue her from Atli, has been thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes:

There gleaming-eyed
Gudrún waited;
the heart within her
hardened darkly.
Grim mood took her,
Grímhild’s daughter,
ruthless hatred,
wrath consuming.

There grimly waited
Gunnar naked;
snakes were creeping
silent round him.
Teeth were poisoned,
tongues were darting;
in lidless eyes
light was shining.

A harp she sent him;
his hands seized it,
strong he smote it;
strings were ringing.
Wondering heard men
words of triumph,
song up-soaring
from the serpents’ pit.

There coldly creeping
coiling serpents
as stones were staring
stilled, enchanted.
There slowly swayed they,
slumber whelmed them,
as Gunnar sang
of Gunnar’s pride.

As voice in Valhöll
valiant ringing
the golden Gods
he glorious named;
of Ódin sang he,
Ódin’s chosen,
of Earth’s most mighty,
of ancient kings.

A huge adder
hideous gleaming
from stony hiding
was stealing slow.
Huns still heard him
his harp thrilling,
and doom of Hunland
dreadly chanting.

An ancient adder
evil-swoolen,
to breast it bent
and bitter stung him.
Loud cried Gunnar
life forsaking;
harp fell silent,
and heart was still.
(stanzas 133-9)

Great moments in opera: Götterdämmerung

April 29, 2010

With Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) we come to the end of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle.  Before these last few weeks I had heard it just once before, and, as it turns out, I had forgotten most of it.

It is in some ways a difficult work to penetrate.  It introduces a raft of completely new characters, which is rarely a good idea when one is nearing the end of a story.  (I do understand that Wagner was working with pre-existing material and faced certain constraints in consequence, but he still bears responsibility for his choices of pre-existing material.)  The music, too, fits somewhat uncomfortably with the other panels of the Ring, for the leitmotif-saturated prosody of the previous works is displaced by much more conventional operaticisms: heroic duets, high Cs, massive choruses, and so on.  I read somewhere that Wagner “Lohengrinized” this opera, and I can see the truth of it.  I am not averse to operaticisms, and in fact prefer them to Wagner’s usual manner of song, but I still found the contrast jarring.  It almost feels as though Wagner had a failure of nerve or of artistic vision, just as his magnum opus was almost complete, and that is rather sad.

Part of the explanation is perhaps historical.  The text of Götterdämmerung was the first Ring text that Wagner wrote, and it was originally intended to be a stand-alone work.   I suppose he wrote in the choruses and the duets at that time.  Only later did he go back and write the other parts of the Ring to fill in the background.  Once the texts were finished he began writing the music,  but by the time he got to the music for Götterdämmerung, about twenty-five years had elapsed from the time he wrote the text, and maybe it seemed like too much work to revise it to be more congruent with the other parts of the cycle.

Two characters from the earlier parts of the Ring reappear in this opera: Siegfried and Brünnhilde.  (The Nibelung dwarf Alberich, whom we have not seen since Das Rheingold, also makes a brief appearance at the beginning of Act 2.)  At the end of Siegfried, the titular hero had clambered onto the fiery rock where Brünnhilde was sleeping and rescued her.  Here, at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, she is, for some reason, still there, twiddling her thumbs while Siegfried roams the country-side seeking adventures.  He stumbles into the company of the Gibichungs, who hatch a plot against him to steal the Ring.  The plot involves a magic love potion that makes Siegfried forget all about Brünnhilde.  In the course of time one of the Gibichungs, Hagen (the son, it turns out, of Alberich), kills Siegfried with a spear in the back.  At the very end, Brünnhilde arrives, takes the Ring and throws it back into the Rhine where it is received by the Rhine maidens from whence it came.  She then throws herself onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.

The most famous parts of Götterdämmerung are probably the orchestral interludes — one depicting Siegfried’s journey up the Rhine, and another to accompany his funeral — and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”, in which she throws herself into the fire as the opera comes crashing to an end.  These are indeed great moments in an opera that is, at times, not all that exciting, so we’ll sample two of the three.

First is Siegfried’s death and funeral.  As this clip begins, Siegfried has been stabbed in the back and lies dying, but he manfully rouses himself to deliver one last song, singing of the eyes and sweet breath of Brünnhilde, before he goes the way of all flesh.  When he dies the Gibichung men gather around and carry him away in a funeral procession, and the music which Wagner provides is wonderfully atmospheric.  My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book calls it “the supreme musico-dramatic climax of all that Wagner wrought”, which is high praise indeed — especially from Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book.  The music is woven from many leitmotifs that relate to Siegfried’s life: the motives of the Wälsungs (his parents), of Heroism, of Sympathy, of Love, of the Sword, and of Siegfried himself.  Dominating them all is the ominous motive of Death.  Siegfried Jerusalem sings Siegfried and James Levine leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra:

Soon Brünnhilde appears.  She takes the Ring from Siegfried and returns it to the Rhine maidens, thereby restoring the order that was disrupted by the theft of the gold at the beginning of Das Rheingold.  She then sets Siegfried’s funeral pyre alight and, calling for her trusty steed (who does not arrive in either of the two productions that I have seen), she rides into, or runs into, the flames herself.  Hagen makes one last attempt to steal the Ring from the Rhine maidens, but he is drowned.  The music ends on a majestic, soaring melody: the motive of Redemption.

This clip shows the end of Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene”; she throws herself into the flames at about the 2 minute mark. In this production, from Bayreuth in the 1990s, the ensuing scene of Hagen and the Rhine maidens is bizarre enough to be corny, but it is at least intelligible, which is more than can be said for the staging of the very end of the opera.  Honestly, some of these modern stage directors ought to be themselves drowned in the Rhine.  Anyway, I believe that it is Waltraud Meier singing Brünnhilde, and Daniel Barenboim leads the orchestra.

*

Now that I have reached the end of the Ring cycle, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on it.  What on earth is going on here?  To the end of Siegfried, I though that the cycle was going to be a paean to modernity, which overthrew the gods and established in its place the putative heroism of man and the purity of love.  Siegfried himself was the poster boy for this exalted new reality.  But in Götterdämmerung Siegfried is a shadow of his former self: he spends most of the opera under the spell of a magic potion that makes him, in effect, an entirely different character, and then at the end he is suddenly and un-heroically killed.  Why is Wagner killing his poster boy? Even Brünnhilde, perhaps the noblest of Wagner’s characters, dies at the end, and by suicide.   Perhaps we are meant to celebrate her love, which leads her to sacrifice herself in order to . . . what?   I cannot see any point to her death.  So I am befuddled.

I know that some people object to Wagner, and especially to the Ring, because of his, and reportedly its, anti-Semitism.  I know that Wagner was a devout anti-Semite, but I honestly do not know where I am supposed to see anti-Semitism in the Ring.  So I am doubly befuddled.

*

Of the four parts of the Ring cycle, my favourite was Die Walküre, followed by Siegfried, then Das Rheingold, and finally Götterdämmerung.   Musically I found Das Rheingold the least attractive — too harsh and dark — but at least I was able, I thought, to understand roughly what was happening and why, which was not the case with Götterdämmerung.  In the course of listening, I grew to admire Wagner’s sophisticated use of leitmotifs; there is always the potential that these “musical calling cards” could become a bit trite and artificial, but in his hands I found them quite fascinating and effective at adding depth to the drama.  Viewing all four Ring operas in a row — over the course of about eight weeks — was exhausting; I cannot imagine doing all four in four nights, as Wagner intended.  I might climb onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre myself.  But in the end I enjoyed them, more or less, and I hope I live long enough to hear them again one day.

Great moments in opera: Siegfried

April 15, 2010

Siegfried is the third part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  The title character is the central heroic figure of the Ring cycle, the offspring of the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde (in Die Walküre).  This part of the cycle follows him as he discovers his potential for heroism.  At the beginning of the drama he is living in the woods with Mime, the Nibelung dwarf, wondering why he has no mother and what Mime means by “fear”.  By the end of the drama he has re-forged his father’s sword, slain Mime, slain the dragon, recovered the Ring, broken the power of the gods, and rescued the maiden Brünnhilde from her fire-guarded sleep.  And he’s not even tired.

I believe that the main dramatic development, within the context of the Ring cycle as a whole, is the Act III confrontation between Wotan (disguised as a Wanderer) and Siegfried, in which Siegfried’s newly forged sword shatters Wotan’s spear.  Here we have the conflict between two of the central symbols of the drama.  Wotan’s spear has represented Law, and in particular Wotan’s power as Law-giver.  Siegfried’s sword represents — well, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s not Law.  Maybe Love, or Nature, or Man.  Anyway, the triumph of the sword over the spear marks the onset of the twilight of the gods and the rise of the heroic man, which will be the theme of the fourth and final part of the Ring, Götterdämmerung.

I would like to highlight two segments of Siegfried that I particularly enjoyed while I was listening this week.  The first is the scene near the end of Act I in which Siegfried joyfully re-forges the fragments of his father’s sword Nothung.  Wagner has given him a youthful and confident song to sing: “Ho ho! Ho hei!  Blow, bellows, blow!”.  The other on-stage character is the scheming dwarf Mime, who, as you’ll see, hopes to use Siegfried to help him recover the Rhine gold and the Ring guarded by the dragon.  This clip is from a Bayreuth production in the early 1990s, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  Siegfried is sung, fittingly enough, by Siegfried Jerusalem.

At the end of Act III, Siegfried has braved the fire that encircles Brünnhilde and, having removed her helmet, he beholds a woman for the first time in his life.  He is overcome with awe and fear.  She awakes, and they bring the house down with a half-hour long love duet that closes the opera.  Here is the opening section of that duet, in which Brünnhilde awakens.  Again, Siegfried is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, and Brünnhilde by Anne Evans.

Great moments in opera: Die Walküre

March 26, 2010

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, following on from Das Rheingold.  Dramatically, it is a bit of a mixed bag: the three Acts feel disjoint, and the rationale behind the action is at times quite opaque, at least to me.  Musically, it is far lovelier than was Das Rheingold.  The first Act especially, in which we are introduced to the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, achieves a sense of hushed and intimate intensity that is quite beautiful.

Since the end of Das Rheingold, the god Wotan has been busy: he has fathered two mortal offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have then been separated as children and grown up separately.  At the opening of Act I, Siegmund stumbles unknowingly into the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding.  The twins, though not recognizing one another, nevertheless sense a deep connection and misinterpret it as romantic love.  This is most unfortunate, since it means that we are obliged to contemplate an incestuous love affair as part of the story — and not on the margins of the story, either, since the fruit of their union, Siegfried, will be the central hero in the subsequent parts of the Ring.

Anyway, it soon comes out that Siegmund is fresh from killing Hunding’s friends and relations, seeking to avenge Hunding’s own slaughter of Siegmund’s family many years before.  They vow to fight one another on the morrow.  Siegmund has just one problem: he has no sword.  Conveniently enough, the room in which he is being held has a great tree in the center — the World Ash Tree — with a sword embedded in its trunk.  He learns from Sieglinde that many years before a powerful man — their father, Wotan, in disguise — had put the sword there, declaring that only the one destined for it would be able to pull it out.  Siegmund tries his hand at it and, sure enough, he succeeds.

Here is the section in which Siegmund and Sieglinde declare their love for one another.  Dramatically this is pretty nasty stuff, but the music has a lyrical beauty that is rare in Wagner.  The section begin with Siegmund’s song Winterstürme wichen, in which he sings about spring, blossoms, fresh winds, birds, and other things that trip readily from the tongue of a lover.  Sieglinde answers him in kind with Du bist der Lenz.  They then exchange pleasantries about shining faces, noble halos, spring moonlight, and dreams of love.  At the end of this clip they creep up to the realization that they have the same father, and that each is therefore the other’s long-lost twin.  The singers here are Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer, in a 1976 Bayreuth production conducted by Pierre Boulez.

In Act II we meet for the first time Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie from whom this part of the Ring takes its name.  She is a goddess who rides a horse in the sky.   The plot in this Act is convoluted and not very clear to me.  By the end of it, Siegmund is dead (killed by Hunding, his sword shattered by Wotan) and Sieglinde has been taken by Brünnhilde to Valhalla.  Sieglinde is pregnant.   Meanwhile, Brünnhilde has brought the wrath of Wotan upon herself by disobeying his orders.

Act III opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries; personally I find this section laboured and bombastic.   Once it ends, Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the fragments of Siegmund’s shattered sword and bids her take refuge in the woods, awaiting the birth of her child.  Then, in the final scene, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her disobedience.  He strips her of her divinity and puts her into a deep sleep, promising that she will remain there until awoken by a mortal man, to whom she will then belong.  She begs him to surround her with terrors as she sleeps, so that only a great hero will be able to find her, and he concedes.  She falls asleep and Wotan, summoning the god of fire, places a great ring of flame around her.  There she will remain until the end of Siegfried.

The closing moments of Die Walküre, when Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde and sets the fire around her, are among my favourites in the Ring.  The orchestral music, sometimes played separately as the Magic Fire Music, is quite extraordinary.   Here it is, in a 1990 production from the Metropolitan Opera.  Wotan is sung by James Morris and Brünnhilde by Hildegard Behrens.

Die Walküre is nearly four hours long, and I must admit that at times I found it tough going. Any hope I may have had of penetrating the philosophical or political meaning of Wagner’s drama is slipping away as I struggle to master even the literal sense.  The music is not nearly as rough and ugly as it was in Das Rheingold, but the slow action and sometimes perplexing logic driving it are trying my patience.  I am determined to see the Ring through to its conclusion, but I am beginning to have wistful dreams about a certain Wolfgangus Theophilus.