Sequentia – ‘The Rhinegold Curse’ An SACD review by Brett Rudolph

The Rhinegold Curse’ is definitely not the “usual” type of album that I find myself sitting down to review, so much so that this piece is as much about explaining a little about the rich history on which the music is based, as the album itself.

The Rhinegold Curse’, or to give it its full title of ‘The Rhinegold Curse; A Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge from the Medieval Icelandic Edda’, is a well-told story, most recently – and famously – in its incarceration as the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner. However, its origins are far more ancient then Wagner, in fact, most of the stories can be traced back in one way or another to the 4th century. While these poems were not really collated into any know work until the 13th century, over the years the bards and performers managed to keep their pieces pretty much intact.

The goal of Sequentia, a well-respected ensemble who perform such medieval music, is to create a realistic environment by reciting the poems with the aid of period musical instruments and in authentic styles. They are comprised of Benjamin Bagby (voice and director), Agnethe Christensen (the voice of Brynhildur and drum), Lena Susanne Norin (the voice of Guрrъn), Elizabeth Gaver (fiddle) and Norbert Rodenkirchen (flutes and lyre). Admittedly it is beyond my current knowledge base to comment on how well they succeeded in this particular goal, but I can tell you that the environment they created is certainly something that is best experienced before making one’s own judgments.

Based upon the brief historical perspective of the preceding paragraphs, it may not come as much of a surprise when I begin by saying this particular set of discs from Marc Aurel Edition – a co-production with Deutschland Radio and Westdeutscher Rundfunk Kцln – is not for everyone. The ‘music’, although haunting at times, also borders on grueling, in fact for many the performance will be on a par with someone repeatedly running their nails down a chalkboard. Yet, through it all, the poems somehow manage to get the point across, such is the strength of the performance as I really don’t have much of a grasp of ancient European languages. The peaks and valleys of sound, both from the vocal rendition of the poems and the accompanying musicians seem to tell not only of the content, but also paints a picture of the ancient times in which these poems were written and first performed.

Listening first to the Red-book CD layer of this hybrid SACD, one finds that the poem and music seem to wrap themselves around each other in a way that both enhances and supports each other; the words are less meaningful than the interaction between voice and musical performance. The recording is able to create an extremely lifelike and three-dimensional soundstage with sounds that normally would be hard to mesh together coherently remaining clearly delineated. This alone is a testament to the recording techniques used during the album’s production. The lute, the fiddle and the flute that are used throughout are difficult to reproduce at the best of times. It’s worth stressing that the musical elements of the album rely heavily on the abilities of the playback system, and while the CD version does an admirable job of keeping the instruments from blending into each other and becoming a mish mash of sounds, it does not have the dynamic range or reproductive assets to make for the most impressive experience.

When one moves from the standard CD layer to the SACD alternatives (the album has both stereo and multi-channel high-resolution mixes), it is not difficult to determine where the true strengths of the higher fidelity formats lie.

From the moment the music begins, the SACD captures something that one doesn’t notice is absent from the CD layer until one has heard the higher resolution version, that being a sense of space. While there are some levels of multi-dimensionality in the 44.1kHz PCM mix, they are nothing compared to that presented by the higher resolution DSD, where it seems, the medieval instruments come alive and tell their own stories of strife and anguish. It is not difficult to understand why the bards of old were able to hold an audience’s attention not only with their voices, but their music too.

Another interesting “feature” of the SACD format is its ability to allow the listener to gain an almost tangible sense of the musician’s expression and playing technique. One can ‘feel’ the notes from flute and fiddle and bathe in the decay, as those notes seem to move back from whence they came. Musicians stand out in the soundstage in a way that, unlike the CD presentation, produces a synergy of sounds that gives one a thirst for more. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the actual content of the album is such that the sense of wanting more is tempered by the very essence of the music and presentation. It’s hard going and I will admit to having trouble sitting through the entire performance, a little bit at a time was far less stressful.

I must mention that when it comes to the multi-channel mix, this album had none of the issues present in many of the discs I have reviewed to date; no important content was lost and there was no unnatural repositioning of either vocalists or instruments. In actual fact, the surround version adds little to the experience, the only thing one can say it offers over the stereo presentation is that given a room that isn’t perfectly set up for two-channel playback, the listener can attain a more holographic image thanks to the additional acoustic cues.

In short, this is not an album for everyone. In fact, like many great operas, though this is not an opera in the traditional sense, I don’t believe the type of listener who wants instant gratification or a warm and fuzzy feeling will find it even remotely bearable. The ‘music’ is a testament to the times, thoughts and feelings of a place long forgotten, told using techniques that have an overwhelming sense of history rather then an overwhelming sense of classiness. Imagine if you will, the bard from days of old coming into your home and playing for you; the thoughts and feelings of the person, and the grim tales of a plagued people who couldn’t find happiness or stability anywhere they went.

I could go on and on, but the truth is that the best way to really decide if this album is for you is to buy it and give it a listen, although hopefully this review will have given you an idea of the mood, tone and presentation of the piece. I can tell you that, even if the music doesn’t appeal to your senses, the album itself will give your system a true workout and reveal not only the assets of your playback system, but likely some of the deficits as well.