A Ring Of Authenticity: ‘Das Rheingold’ Played On Period Instruments

Conductor Kent Nagano and the Concerto Köln aim to recapture the sound of the ‘Rheingold’ performances of mid-19th century Bayreuth. (Eduardus Lee photos, courtesy NTR)

PERSPECTIVE – The Rhine River hasn’t quite the unfathomable depths as usual, but more seismic eruptions take place underneath the ripples in Das Rheingold during the radically historic performance by the highly respected early-music ensemble Concerto Köln under Kent Nagano. After three years of research, a specially formed, four-member Rheingold committee delivered its findings that were the basis for Nagano’s search for the sound and rhetoric Wagner might’ve hoped for when composing the piece in the 1850s.

None of the dreaded “Bayreuth barking” was heard in the two November performances in Cologne and Amsterdam with a cast of smaller voices known more for smaller-scale repertoire than Wagner. Of course, the period instruments with gut strings don’t have the Berlin Philharmonic’s force, grandeur, and muscle. But how much were those qualities missed? Put it this way: In the Dutch radio broadcast I caught, this was the most important Wagner performance in a year when Berlin, London, and much of the operatic world was abuzz over higher-profile Ring activity. The other installments of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with Concerto Köln are set to unfold over the next three years.

Much of the Cologne project’s research centered around discovering the exact nature of the instruments during a highly transitional period of orchestral development as well as what kind of German pronunciation Wagner had in his ears at that time. Haven’t we been there already with Simon Rattle’s Rheingold with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 2004?

Nagano searched for a mid-19th century sound and rhetoric.

Only superficially. We’re now in the thick of a larger trend that’s also circling back to historically informed Brahms and perhaps much else that hasn’t crossed my screen. Period performance has continually expanding horizons, though this performance was far more than an incremental step forward. In the 1980s, the likes of Frans Bruggen’s Orchestra of the 18th Century seemed to apologize for period instruments by showing that they can do the work of modern ones.

Others, such as John Eliot Gardner, stripped away the accumulated barnacles of the 19th century, but only in recent years have generated heat where there was once mainly speed. The enemy was an orchestral sheen, widely associated with Wagner, that tended to smooth down the edges and threatened to impose a uniformity of manner and expression from one phrase to the next — and one composer to the next. But is that sheen even appropriate to Wagner? Perhaps with Parsifal (1882), but that wasn’t likely to be part of the language of Das Rheingold (finished in 1854, though not premiered until 1869) even though Herbert von Karajan’s suave recordings can convince you otherwise.

The most obvious difference with period instruments is that their less-brilliant sound and quicker decay times dictate faster tempos. That’s why Rattle’s 2004 Rheingold, for all of its Rattle-esque insights, was a curious enterprise, clocking in at a longer playing time than Karajan at his most sumptuous. (Rattle has since speeded up in his modem-instrument recording with the Bavarian State Orchestra).

Of course, timings only offer an idea of the performance’s playing field. But it’s significant that Nagano’s Rheingold comes in at 134 minutes, in contrast to Karajan’s studio Rheingold on DG that’s 11 minutes longer at 145 minutes. On the Brahms front, Andras Schiff’s 1989 Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with the never-languid Georg Solti was 50 minutes, compared to Schiff’s recent acclaimed recording on an 1859 Blüthner piano with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which is 47 minutes.

The Project Orchestra, which is giving a series of Brahms performances Leiden under Johannes Leertouwer, is more radical, not because of any research discoveries.

Though Leertouwer’s Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 this fall with Paolo Giacometti, on an 1857 Blüthner piano, shaved only another minute off Schiff’s timing, the inner workings of the performance definitely reflect the project‘s mandate, which is applying what has been widely known about historic Brahms but widely ignored. Flexible tempos and portamento are the hallmarks of this seasoned Dutch violinist-conductor who has an extensive discography including Beethoven violin sonatas as well as symphonies. Though these period-Brahms effects can sound affected or induce sea sickness in the wrong hands, Leertouwer makes the music float as never before. You would think such performances would’ve happened years ago. 

Research centered around the exact nature of the instruments during a highly transitional period of orchestral development.

Selective use of known performance information can be prompted by practicality, since modern concert halls are large and not everybody has three years to work on one Rheingold. So often, the fine print of a historically informed recording states that the instruments have been copied from the end of the composer’s lifetime rather than from more formative years.

Modern ears are often met halfway, both by performers (who have learned the great masterpieces a certain way) and audiences struggling to leave behind what they think they know about long-beloved repertoire. A recording of Carl Maria von Weber violin sonatas by Isabelle Faust fearlessly used a less-exalted period violin — shorn of vibrato — that seemed so compromised to my ears that I couldn’t get through it. Often lacking is modern notions of charm. We can be forgiven for wanting to be seduced by sound. But old instruments often don’t do that, which is perhaps why Marc Minkowski’s authenticity-minded 2013 recording of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is an interesting experiment but lacking atmosphere.

The most important element I get from the Brahms Project Orchestra performance — which so far includes Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Double Concerto — is a plurality of instrumental voices. This is what redefines grandeur: The voices gain collective power from their co-existing individuality. So vividly do the individual sections emerge that every piece feels like a concerto for orchestra. Dividing first and second violins on each side of the conductor isn’t uncommon, but how often do you really hear the antiphonal effects that are possible from that arrangement? You definitely hear them here, and the effect is thrilling. Nearly every moment brings some new instrumental balance I’ve never heard. Horns are a constant point of reevaluating what I thought their particular gestures were saying.

Faster tempos are the starting point in this historic-instrument project, the interplay between singers and orchestra more conversational.

Add the singers of Das Rheingold to a historic-instrument project and the piece may well depart further from previous expectations. Faster tempos are the starting point: The music’s contours become sharper if only because the musical events are closer together. Because the tempos contract the vocal lines, the interplay between Rhine Maidens in the opening scene becomes sharper and more conversational. (Imagine how that approach might transfer the long discourses in Siegfried.)

In moments of exclamation and exaltation, the maidens break into a kind of Sprechtstimme that is suggested by the vocal lines and make an emphatic impression. Here, the plurality-of-voices effect is felt in the variety of declamation. Wagnerites have long lamented that text articulation gets the short shrift as singers cope with slower tempos, large venues, and louder orchestras. Here, text is the starting point. Everything falls behind it — particularly important in Das Rheingold because its action is fairly continuous with little sense of set-piece arias. What about the sense of atmosphere that’s lacking in Minkowski’s Dutchman recording? The composer and his orchestra is much more evolved in Das Rheingold. In the Nibelheim scene, the penetratingly fast tempos and less-upholstered sound create a sense of cruelty amid slavery unlike any Rheingold I’ve ever heard.

Nagano’s ‘Rheingold‘ came in at 134 minutes, in contrast to Karajan’s studio Rheingold on DG that’s 11 minutes longer.

Reports from live performances say that the semi-staged presentation attempted authentic gestures, though that element was greeted with puzzlement. Would an authentic Wagner staging move into the realm of repeating pathetic inadequacies of the past?

The world often needs decades to catch up with musical innovations. Just because Mozart’s concerts had only one rehearsal in his lifetime doesn’t mean this is the way to go. But I’ll bet that in another decade, some well-subsidized theater will have a period staging to match the instruments. Will it be some jokey enterprise, as in the 1983 Richard Burton mini-series Wagner in which prone-position Rhine Maidens were attached to clanking machinery and obviously fake waves? If this was the makeshift solution at that time, it could be entertaining for the wrong reasons. But if the staging was something that struck a significant chord in 19th-century audience, if such effects meant something important to people then, they have — with a careful resurrection — the possibility of meaning something to us now.