'Die Walkure'

"Die Walkure" from the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

Wednesday marked Richard Wagner's 200th birthday, and Bayreuth’s big dude is bigger than ever, which is saying something.

Record companies have been releasing and re-releasing Wagner recordings this year to an endlessly excessive extent. But the one that thus far stands out most, which is also really saying something, is a performance of Wagner’s most popular “Ring” cycle opera, “Die Walküre,” from the Mariinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg and conducted by Valery Gergiev.

First of all, forget just about everything about Gergiev’s scrappy Russian “Ring” that he brought with the Mariinsky on tour to Costa Mesa in 2006. It had its glorious moments, especially in Gergiev’s flexible phrasing, but the casts were uneven and the orchestra sounded under-prepared and overworked.

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This new recording, the first of a forthcoming “Ring” set from the Mariinsky, is different. It was made as a concert performance over two occasions in the company’s concert hall and features a dream international cast -- today’s most stirring Wagner tenor, Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund); the fiery dramatic soprano, Anja Kampe (Sieglinde); the exquisitely sensitive bass, René Pape (Wotan); and that commanding Wagnerian soprano, Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde).

But what brings this all together with such moving eloquence is Gergiev’s deeply penetrating conducting. With expansive tempos, he savors Wagnerian orchestral colors and pulls out of his singers every last, rich ounce of expression. There is no bluster, not even in a restrained, even luminous “Ride of the Valyries.” The utter beauty Pape and Gergiev bring to Wotan's farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde at the end is quite simply inexpressible in words.

The sumptuous recorded sound -- in SACD if you’ve got the gear -- is of demonstration quality. Happy birthday, Richard.

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Composer Richard Wagner's 200th birthday is marked worldwide