RECORDS / DOUBLE PLAY: End of the world - on ice?: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson search for the passion of Wagner's Ring

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WAGNER: Gotterdammerung

Eva Marton, Siegfried Jerusalem

Thomas Hampson, Marjana

Lipovsek, John Tomlinson, Theo

Adam, Bavarian Radio Symphony

Orchestra and Chorus

/ Bernard Haitink

(EMI CDS 7 54485-2 - four CDs)

TWILIGHT's last gleaming for the Bernard Haitink Ring, and the final chapter is nothing if not consistent with the whole. One feels in safe, commanding hands with Haitink. His sense of evolution is unwavering, he is masterful in transition, in the execution of those huge 'dissolves' from one scene, one mood, to the next; his handsome orchestra broods and glowers magnificently. And he has one momentous, inevitable climax in store for us - the final catastrophe.

Otherwise this is not a Ring to thrill and overwhelm - not in the hypertheatrical Solti sense anyway. When Hagen strikes down Siegfried, Solti's brazen funeral processional would seem to have unleashed all the anger in the world. Vengeance is his. If that is for you, then Haitink is not. His cast is a world-beater, with one fatal flaw: Eva Marton's Brunnhilde. Since the prime of her Walkure, this hefty voice has spread impossibly. She sounds almost perpetually harassed now: breathy, shrill, unalluring.

Siegfried Jerusalem, on the other hand, has bloomed, and his heroic vehemence (which is especially exciting in Act Two) is now beautifully offset by the vulnerability of his dying moments. And there is a Hagen of malevolent relish from John Tomlinson - poison in every syllable. His scene with Alberich (Theo Adam - a clever piece of casting) festers grimly, though again I will never be able to hear the summoning of his vassals without recalling the sound of Gottlob Frick and Solti at their most resplendently uncouth. ES

COMPARING a symphony to a river is nothing new; but an opera? Why not - Wagner's music dramas have often been praised for their 'symphonic' construction, and here is a Gottderdammerung that shows how true that view can be. In Bernard Haitink's recording, the undercurrent of Wagner's mythological Rhine can be felt behind almost everything, holding the attention even in those long stretches where for some reason the characters feel obliged to go through their life stories again (were there no synopses at Bayreuth?).

It is impossible not to respect such comprehensive understanding of such a huge score, especially when the orchestral response is so alert and cultivated. But as Brunnhilde rides majestically on to Siegfried's flaming pyre, the Rhine overflows and Valhalla collapses, shouldn't one feel a little more than respect? As human drama most of this leaves me cold. John Tomlinson's Hagen can make the scalp tingle in his more devilish moments; Siegfried Jerusalem's Siegfried is strong and secure - the bones and sinews are there, if not so much the flesh and blood - and it is wonderful to hear the Rhinemaidens so musically shapely and in tune.

But where is the passion? Not in Eva Marton's Brunnhilde - intensity, yes; warmth. . . And her wide vibrato, at several key points hovering around but not quite sitting on the notes, will not be to everyone's taste. In the end, a hollow ring. SJ

LISZT: Lieder

Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo),

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

(Decca 430 512-2)

LIEBESTRAUME with words opens the door on this world of love and longing, and even before Fassbaender is properly into her stride you know that this is the right singer for the songs. It is the plangency of her sound that gets to you every time, the rasp of heartache and death ever present in the grainy lower reaches of the voice. Fassbaender can use words like electric charges and then disarm you with the shyest of legatos; she is operatic, patently so, but she knows where and how to confide. So did Liszt. The intensity of the songs and their singer stays with you, distilled - in some memorable instances - into a mere handful of lines.

The single four-line stanza of Freudvoll und leidvoll ('Joyful and sorrowful') chronicles the agony and the ecstasy of love in simple melodic contradictions. Und wir dachten der Toten ('And we remembered the dead') is horribly abrupt, Blume und Duft ('Flower and scent') as elusive as the perfume of its metaphor, while Einst ('Once') is whimsical to the point of flippancy until the piano falls silent with the words: 'but you, alas, are no longer here]'

Then there are the settings which reveal that Wagner was more indebted than we know. The 'Parsifal' chords are a halo around Wanderers Nachtlied II, and in the finest and most theatrical of the collection, Ich mochte hingehn ('I would depart'), the 'Tristan' theme points us to a bitter, broken-hearted conclusion. Thibaudet is a resourceful accompanist, truly the equal partner, the best of travelling companions. ES

CARDS on the table: I have difficulty with a lot of Liszt, and while some of these songs have made me think again, in others long-ingrained prejudices were if anything reinforced. I cannot hear Liszt's Mignons Lied without wishing I was listening to Wolf's version - Kennst du das Land? - instead. For me, Liszt's theatrically gesturing Mignon is a mere puppet after that. And I am not sure that Brigitte Fassbaender's commanding intensity is quite in order for a piece of salon sentimentality like O lieb', so lang du lieben kannst ('Love as long as you can'). But there are extraordinary things here - songs in which the theatricality becomes knowing, darkly ironic, hinting at inner desolation in ways quite unlike anything else: the disturbing Lasst mich ruhen ('Let me rest'), for instance, or the genuinely agonised Ich mochte hingehn ('I would depart').

Fassbaender is penetrating in these, and occasional lapses in intonation that bothered me in one or two other songs did not seem a problem here. Jean-Yves Thibaudet accompanies with feeling and discretion. I shall certainly be trying at least some of these again. SJ

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