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WAGNER   Der Ring des Nibelungen

 

 

The Solti Ring

 

August 2012

Das Rheingold: Die Walküre: Siegfried: Götterdämmerung

package also includes

Siegfried Idyll: Kinderkatechismus: Rienzi Overture: Der Fliegende Holländer Overture: Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, blu-ray audio CD of complete performance, DVD of television documentary The Golden Ring, reprint of John Culshaw: Ring Resounding, text and commentary by Deryck Cooke: A Guide to Der Ring des Nibelungen

George London (baritone: Wotan),  Hans Hotter (bass: Wotan), Birgit Nilsson (soprano: Brünnhilde), Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor: Siegfried), James King (tenor: Siegmund), : Régine Crespin (soprano: Sieglinde), Gottlob Frick (bass: Hunding, Hagen), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone: Gunther), Gustav Neidlinger (baritone: Alberich), Set Svanholm (tenor: Loge), Paul Kuen (tenor: Mime), Gerhard Stolze (tenor: Mime), Kirsten Flagstad (soprano: Fricka), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano: Fricka, Waltraute): Claire Watson (soprano: Freia, Gutrune), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor: Froh), Eberhard Waechter (baritone: Donner), Jean Madeira (contralto: Erda), Marga Höffgen (contralto: Erda), Walter Kreppel (baritone: Fasolt), Kurt Böhme (bass: Fafner), Oda Balsborg (soprano: Woglinde), Lucia Popp (soprano: Woglinde), Hetty Plümacher (mezzo-soprano: Wellgunde), Gwyneth Jones (soprano: Wellgunde), Ira Malaniuk (mezzo-soprano: Flosshilde), Maureen Guy (mezzo-soprano: Flosshilde), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano: Waltraute), Berit Lindholm (soprano: Helmwige), Helga Dernesch (soprano: Ortlinde), Vera Schlosser (soprano: Gerhilde), Helen Watts (contralto: Schwertleite, 1st Norn), Vera Little (contralto: Siegrune), Claudia Hellman (contralto: Rossweisse), Marilyn Tyler (contralto: Grimgerde), Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano: 2nd Norn), Anita Välkki (soprano: 3rd Norn), Joan Sutherland (soprano: Woodbird): Vienna State Opera Chorus: Singverein der Geschellcraft der Musikfreunde: Wiener Sängerknaben: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Georg Solti 

 

Recorded:. Sofiensaal, Vienna, September-October 1958: October-November 1965: May and October-November 1962: May-June and October-November 1964: 14 November 1965: March 1968: October 1961: February 1967

 

DECCA 0289 478 3702 2 [17 CDs, 1 DVD, 1 Blu-Ray Audio Disc]

It comes as something of a shock to realise that this pioneer recording of Wagner’s Ring is some fifty years old. Decca have now issued it again in a luxury package which not only includes the complete recording and some supplementary CDs but also includes a reprint of producer John Culshaw’s account in Ring Resounding of the whole process by which the massive tetralogy was committed to disc, a complete text of Deryck Cooke’s analysis of the music, complete libretti and other essays. The supplementary material constitutes three substantial volumes and the result, packaged together with a fourth volume containing the recording itself, is issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the birth of the conductor. It also of course anticipates the spate of reissues from other companies which may be expected as the recordings themselves come out of copyright. It might be thought that many readers of this review may be familiar with these performances, but there will be many to whom the recordings will nevertheless be entirely new; and the opportunity can also be taken to make some comparisons of this pioneering studio recording of the cycle with its successors.

 

When this recording was first issued, there were no other complete sets of Wagner’s Ring in the catalogues; now there are dozens. But there are surprisingly few purpose-made recordings even today. This is not surprising, given the expense and complexity of setting up a studio recording; and there are those who find that the issue of ‘live’ recordings from broadcasts or the opera house have an immediacy that studio recordings cannot match. But the Ring is particularly prone to stage noises (especially in some modern productions), and suffers even more from the minor (and major) imperfections that can arise in the course of a live performance. For that reason, in this review I am ignoring all the recordings which derive from live performances even when these have been ‘patched’ with passages taken from rehearsals, and concentrating purely on those recordings which come from the studio and should therefore be expected to be note-perfect throughout. I am aware that this will exclude from consideration some major sets, including both of those by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the superb set in English conducted by Reginald Goodall, Karl Böhm’s and Daniel Barenboim’s Bayreuth sets, as well as many others that have found critical approval over the years; but one has to draw the line somewhere.

 

Shortly after the Solti Ring was completed, Herbert von Karajan began a DG cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic as an adjunct to his stage performances at the Salzburg Festival. There were no further studio recordings until the digital era, when the East German company Eurodisc committed to CD a set conducted by Marek Janowski. This was followed by an EMI set conducted by Bernard Haitink, recorded at the same time as his Covent Garden performances but with the Bavarian Radio orchestra (reviewed for MusicWeb by Göran Forsling); and another from DG conducted by James Levine based around his performances at the Metropolitan Opera. There have been no others since, and given the expense involved in such a massive undertaking we should not perhaps expect any.

 

The performance here of Das Rheingold is dominated by the superlative performance of Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich. John Culshaw does not mention the fact in Ring Resounding, but in his incomplete and posthumously published autobiography Putting the record straight it is amazing to learn that he was put under considerable pressure to use Otakar Kraus (the resident Alberich at Covent Garden) instead of Neidlinger. Kraus, as can be heard from live recordings, was good in the role; but Neidlinger is simply great. He has a nobility of tone that makes the Nibelung into a tragic figure as well as a villain, and his delivery of the curse is blood-curdling. When he steals the gold, Wagner specifies in the score that “Alberich’s mocking laughter is heard.” Usually, if we get a laugh at all, it is a generalised snarl or shout of derision; but Neidlinger has noticed that when Alberich’s mocking laughter is heard again as Mime is killed in Siegfried, the laughter is a notated version of the Nibelungs’ hammering motif; and that is what he gives us here. It works superbly, even if this is the only point in the set when notes that Wagner did not actually write are added to the score. Comparisons with his rivals in the other studio recordings – Zoltán Kélémen for Karajan vicious rather than heroic, Theo Adam for Haitink unsteady in sustained passages, Ekkehard Wlaschiha for Levine rather lachrymose in his lamenting passages, and  Siegmund Nimsgern for Janowski almost too heroic, serve only to underline Neidlinger’s superiority which remains unchallenged after some fifty years.

 

In the opening scene he is teamed with the three Rheintochter. One of these, Irene Malaniuk, was a famous Fricka and seems to have been engaged not so much on her own account but as a cover in case Kirsten Flagstad fell ill or was unwilling to take the latter role. She has a commanding presence as Flosshilde which underlines her underlying sense of seriousness as opposed to her more light-hearted sisters. These are taken by Oda Balsborg and Hetty Plumacher, two regulars at the Vienna State Opera at the time but neither of whom advanced much beyond supporting roles. When Decca came to record Götterdämmerung five years later, these roles were taken over by Lucia Popp and Gwyneth Jones, both of whom became world renowned for much more than supporting roles; but in 1958 Decca were presumably not prepared to fund such extravagances in casting. Balsborg and Plumacher are fine; although in Ring Resounding Culshaw complains that there were passages when one or the other of the Rhinemaidens were out of tune, no such problems are apparent in the recording as completed.

 

Which brings us to the vexed question of consistency of casting throughout the four Ring operas. Even in cycles given in the opera house over a period of a week or two, it is not uncommon to find different singers undertaking some parts from one evening to another – either because of the non-availability of some individual singers, or to spare them strain – and sometimes this can be positively desirable. It would be odd indeed to find the mezzo-soprano who sings the major role of Waltraute in Götterdämmerung undertaking the same part in the final Act of Die Walküre, where she is merely one of a collection of eight Valkyries who act as a sort of semi-chorus; and if she did, it would be difficult for the singer to avoid overpowering her companions (even though in Die Walküre she is drawn in a more sympathetic light, in a manner than anticipates her later resolve to be the only Valkyrie to visit the exiled Brünnhilde). But in this Ring, recorded over a period of seven years, there are more changes of cast from one opera to another than might be considered desirable. The replacement of Kirsten Flagstad in 1958 by Christa Ludwig in 1965 was of course necessitated by Flagstad’s death; but of the eight solo singers in Rheingold who appear in later episodes of the cycle, no less than six are re-cast in the sets recorded later – the only two who remain unchanged are Neidlinger and Böhme. On the other hand, Karajan’s cycle has even more changes of cast, with two Brünnhildes and two Siegfrieds as well as two Wotans and two Mimes.

 

One member of the Rheingold cast who is replaced in later episodes is George London as Wotan, where Hans Hotter takes on the mantle of the role in Walküre and Siegfried. Now Hotter was one of the great Wotans in the period following the Second World War, but by the 1960s his voice was showing distinct signs of wear. His vibrato could be unsteady, and the bass orientation of his tessitura could make upper notes sound ‘woofy’ although he never shows signs of strain even in the highest register. There are times in this set where the unsteadiness is more obvious than others – the scene with Mime is probably the worst offender in this respect, where Culshaw notes that he seemed to be running short of voice – but his intelligent reaction to the text and his gentle inflection of the lyrical passages remains a model. Culshaw says that the part of Wotan in Rheingold “never really suited” him and that this was why George London was chosen for that opera – but one suspects that the real reason was simply that Hotter was unavailable at that time, being under contract elsewhere. London could never be accused of being gentle in his inflections (even when he is talking in his sleep in his opening phrases, he sounds wide awake) but he was not an unintelligent singer and his response to the text is vivid; he is magnificent when commanding Donner not to kill the giants, and sounds suitably overawed by Erda’s warning. In other Wagnerian roles, such as the Dutchman or Amfortas, he could be unpleasantly lachrymose when required to sound emotional (as he is indeed as Wotan in Erich Leinsdorf’s 1961 studio Walküre) but there is no call for this in Rheingold and he certainly sounds more authentically Wagnerian than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (for Karajan in Rheingold) and less grittily unsteady than Theo Adam (for Janowski).  James Morris (for both Levine and Haitink) is the equal of London in Rheingold but loses points to Hotter for subtlety in the later operas, as does Thomas Stewart who takes over there from Fischer-Dieskau for Karajan.

 

Kirsten Flagstad was of course the great Wagnerian soprano of the period 1935-50, and assuming the mezzo-soprano role of Fricka in Rheingold she remains every inch a commanding presence. Christa Ludwig (who took over the part for Solti after Flagstad’s death) is mellower, but has a sense of presence which sustains a high level of drama. By comparison Josephine Veasey (for Karajan) is plainer and less involved; Ludwig (again, twenty years later) for Levine is older and more worn of tone; Yvonne Minton for Janowski is good and solid but slightly placid; and Marjana Lipovšek for Haitink does not have Flagstad or Ludwig’s nobility. In the roles of the minor gods and goddesses, Viennese stalwarts Waldemar Kmentt, Eberhard Waechter and Claire Watson have good presence and don’t let the side down. Jean Madeira, also a fine singer, is properly stentorian as Erda; she also is replaced in Siegfried by Martha Höffgen, who sounds remarkably similar in tone if slightly less secure at the top of her range (in what is some ridiculously high writing up to A-flat for a deep contralto).  Walter Kreppel, another member of the Vienna State Opera at the period, is firmly resonant at Fasolt; but there is more light and shade in the sometimes lyrically expressive part than we are given here, and we don’t really feel sympathy for the lovelorn giant as we should. The scene between the giants and Wotan lacks a degree of involvement here, just where Wagner’s music also tends to sag; a singer like Martti Talvela (for Karajan) manages to lift the drama where it is needed.

 

The role of Loge has tended to attract two quite distinct kinds of singer: either a character tenor (like Gerhard Stolze for Karajan) or a heldentenor taking a step back from heroics (like Siegfried Jerusalem for Levine). But Loge has some quite lyrical singing to do, as in his narration describing his search for one who would forswear love; and for this reason Janowski casts Peter Schreier, a Mozartian tenor who also undertook Strauss roles to good effect. Svanholm was a heldentenor who was by 1958 nearing the end of his career, but he still had the lyric resources to give full measure to the part and his voice is naturally more honeyed than the sometimes thin-toned Schreier.

 

Gerhard Stolze sings Mime in Siegfried for both Solti and Karajan, and although he is better for Karajan he is definitely something of an acquired taste. His flickering almost Sprechstimme delivery is involving enough in the character role of Mime but misses totally the lyrical intensity of Loge (for Karajan); and in the Solti Siegfried he delivers the most blood-curdling whooping sounds when Mime is directed to cackle during his scene with Siegfried. Now Wagner specifically asks here for a high-pitched “hi!-hi!-hi!” on top G or G-sharp, and that is exactly what Stolze does for Karajan; but for Solti the sound is not only not what Wagner demands but sounds totally inauthentic. (One of the adjuncts to this set comes in the form of the complete original reviews in the Gramophone, and it is interesting to note that Alec Robertson there similarly picks out this passage for adverse comment.) Culshaw says that there were some passages in the Ring that he would have liked to record again, and this should most definitely have been one of them. One might wish that Decca had stuck with Paul Kuen as Mime throughout – his tenor did not lack character but had a much more secure sense of style than Stolze displays – and he is suitably woebegone in his little scene in Rheingold. Heinz Zednik (for Levine) is in the same sort of mould as Stolze, but uses his voice with a much surer sense of what is appropriate; Peter Schreier (for Janowski in Siegfried) simply lacks the pungent sense of character that one finds in his rivals; Peter Haage (for Haitink) is a bit wild.

 

And so on to Die Walküre. In the First Act we encounter James King as Siegmund, and his performance has come in for a good deal of stick over the years by critics who compare his performance unfavourably with his live recording for Karl Böhm made at Bayreuth at around the same time. Complaints have centred around a supposed lack of commitment and intelligent shading of the text. I really don’t feel that. He produces a stream of golden tone which not only thrills by his emotional ardour but also can be refined down to a heartbreaking sense of loss. King was at the peak of his form at the time of this recording – he could sometimes be rather laid-back, as I recall from a live Turandot at Covent Garden in the late 1960s – and his reading here has to my mind more heroic ring than Reiner Goldberg (for Haitink), Gary Lakes (for Levine) or the young Siegfried Jerusalem (for Janowski). His only real rival on disc is Jon Vickers (for Karajan) who certainly delves into the words with more intelligence but has a less naturally ingratiating voice.

 

As his sister Régine Crespin is quite simply superb, thrillingly full-toned and every inch the heroic figure she should be. Gundula Janowitz (for Karajan) is as beautiful as always, but she simply does not convince the listener that she could drug Hunding in order to elope with her twin brother – this Sieglinde would simply not have had the nerve – or that she could imply to his face that her husband is a coward. Jessye Norman (for both Levine and Janowski) most certainly could, but one gets the feeling that she would have done a good deal more than simply imply anything. The only soprano in a studio recording who comes close to rivalling Crespin is Cheryl Studer (for Haitink) but she is sabotaged by Goldberg’s inexpressive Siegmund and Haitink’s less than ecstatically impassioned conducting.

 

Crespin also appears as Brünnhilde in the Karajan set (for Die Walküre only) and this can only be regarded as a serious mistake. She sounds seriously over-strained throughout, and her final address to Wotan gives us a distressing picture of a voice pushed beyond its limits. It is no surprise that Karajan turned to Helga Dernesh for the rest of the cycle (after Christa Ludwig refused a request from him), although she too begins to show signs of wear in places and in hindsight it is clear to see that she would in a few years return to the mezzo repertoire in which she excelled. Karajan’s experiments with casting were of course notorious, and as we will see with Siegfried his habit of pushing singers beyond their comfort zones could be disastrous. There is of course not the slightest danger of disaster with Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde here. For a period of twenty years and more she was the singer of the role in opera houses throughout the world, and her voice, steady as a rock and never showing the slightest sense of strain, remains a miracle to hear, always strong and firm and never ever making an ugly sound. None of the singers of the role on the other sets comes close to matching her. Jeanine Altmeier (for Janowski) gives us a smallish voice nicely produced and steady but lacking in punch; Hildegard Behrens (for Levine) is intelligent and hard-working but lacks the sheer sense of glamour that one finds with Nilsson; and Eva Marton (for Haitink) is disastrous, at once loud and unsteady. There have been worse Brünnhildes to be found on the stages of the world’s opera houses, but Marton is pretty low down the league – which is topped unassailably by the marvellous Nilsson, whose voice has never been matched and is captured here in its prime and under ideal circumstances. There are those who prefer her live recording with Karl Böhm (who has many of the same singers as Solti) for its supposedly greater nuances, but the Bayreuth balance for Böhm cannot begin to match the carefully shaded studio recording that Culshaw and his engineers give us here.

 

The Valkyries in the final Act are a mixed bunch (as always) including some voices of greater strength than others. But rarely can we have heard a more stellar line-up than here with two future world-class Brünnhildes (Berit Lindholm and Helga Dernesh), and the incomparable Brigitte Fassbaender and Helen Watts among the participants. The other four don’t let them down, either. Gottlob Frick is a good Hunding, properly challenging in the Second Act and with rock-solid tone; and his offstage horn (about which Culshaw is so amusing in Ring Resounding) was worth all the trouble the producers went to in recruiting a proper Alpine horn (unfortunately accompanied by its amateur player to the sessions – it proved difficult to persuade him to hand the instrument over). No other set manages to get anything like the remarkable sound we have here.

In Siegfried we encounter Wolfgang Windgassen, who has also come in for a share of criticism over the years. Culshaw himself admits that he was not the first choice for the part; indeed he was a last-minute substitute when Ernst Kozub, who had originally been contracted for the role, proved inadequate. Culshaw suppresses Kozub’s name in his book, and indeed deliberately misleads the reader by implying that Kozub was previously unknown to him; he had in fact already appeared (as Melot) in Culshaw’s production of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Solti. It might well be that Kozub would have sued for libel given the unflattering depiction of his inadequacies given in the book, but given what one has heard of his voice elsewhere one cannot imagine that he would ever have been more than an adequate Siegfried. Windgassen could be lazy, and although I never saw him on stage I have been told that he could also be slapdash and resort to deliberately ‘sending up’ moments like “Das ist kein Mann!”, but although he does not have a supremely heroic voice like Lauritz Melchior in the 1930s (he is sometimes slightly soft-centred), he is excellent in the forging song and rises to the challenges both here and in Götterdämmerung superbly. René Kollo (for Janowski) is nothing like as pleasant to listen to, and Reiner Goldberg (for Levine) is even worse; the only real challenger to Windgassen is Siegfried Jerusalem (for Haitink) who also does not have a naturally heroic voice but manages what he does have well and impresses one as being heroic even when he isn’t. Helge Brilioth (for Karajan in Götterdämmerung) is good – his performing career in the 1970s was short, although at his best he was convincingly full-voiced – but Jess Thomas (for Karajan in Siegfried) is unfortunately another example of Karajan simply pushing a good singer too far too fast. Thomas was a superb Lohengrin and I remember him with pleasure in Meistersinger and Tristan at Covent Garden, but the forging scene simply demands too much of what was essentially a strong lyric voice. At about the same time Alberto Remedios at Sadler’s Wells was managing to sing the role with a similar sort of voice; but he was helped by Goodall’s sympathetic and less forceful conducting, and even then his voice did not survive the strain unscathed.

 

In the Second Act of Siegfried we encounter the Waldvogel of Joan Sutherland, which was described at the time as “a piece of ritzy casting.” But it was not absurd; she had indeed sung the role a number of times in her earlier career at Covent Garden, and one finds it hard to imagine a voice more perfectly suited to the small role. Certainly none of her rivals on disc, even the delectable Kathleen Battle for Levine, really match the effect of a voice like Sutherland’s in this music. Complaints about her unclear diction are really not that important here. Kurt Böhme returns as Fafner, as louring a presence as in Das Rheingold, and the efforts made by the producers to achieve a suitable cavernous tone for the dragon pay dividends in spades. None of the other recordings achieve the same sort of baleful atmosphere. One’s only reservations might concern the roars during the fight with Siegfried, which are indeed called for by Wagner but which are here just a bit too insistent even though their presence is dramatically thrilling.

 

In the Prologue to Götterdämmerung we meet a very good trio of Norns, with Helen Watts superbly cavernous at the First Norn, Grace Hoffman (another Viennese regular in mezzo roles) as a nicely rounded Second and Anita Välkki (who sang Brünnhilde in Solti’s first London Walküre) as a rather squally Third. Most of the studio sets do themselves proud with the casting here. Haitink has a starry line up consisting of Jard van Nes, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jane Eaglen, Levine has Helga Dernesch, Tatiana Troyanos and the slightly less impressive Andrea Gruber, Karajan has Lili Chookasian, Christa Ludwig (who doubles as Waltraute, and is the best of all) and the young Caterina Ligendza; and only Janowski has a somewhat less impressive team in Anne Gjevang, Daphne Evangelatos and Ruth Falcon. Culshaw here places the voices of the Norns in a bleached chilly acoustic, which could have been dangerous with a less accomplished team of singers but which here brings just the right sort of doom-laden atmosphere. And one cannot possibly complain either about the blatantly electronic engineering of Windgassen’s voice when disguised as Gunther at the end of the First Act, which realises just the right sense of strange alienation without being in any way unmusical.

 

At the beginning of the First Act proper we are at once introduced to Fischer-Dieskau’s Gunther, a controversial piece of casting but one which is fully justified by a stunning performance – more convincingly Wagnerian in tone than his Rheingold Wotan for Karajan, for example. With intelligent pointing of words he realises the Gibichung ruler as a truly tragic figure in his own right, and only his unfortunate lapse into a sort of Wagnerian ‘bark’ at the end of his Third Act phrase “Angst und Unheil greife dich immer!” ever suggests any sense of strain. None of his rivals in the other studio sets comes close to touching him. By his side Claire Watson seems a somewhat pallid Gutrune – Gundula Janowitz for Karajan is more feminine, and Cheryl Studer for Levine more passionate – but she gets the right sense of fear into her solo at the beginning of the final scene. And Gottlob Frick is simply superb as Hagen, baleful and strong even in the highest register and black as night in his watch. By comparison Matti Salminen (for Levine and Janowski) is suitably dark but somewhat lowering and bullish in tone, John Tomlinson (for Haitink) is blackness itself but less villainous in sound, and Hans Ridderbusch (for Karajan) too soft-grained. Here, too, Decca again went to great lengths to get the right sort of sound from the Stierhorns, specially manufactured for the recording, and their discords at the beginning of the muster of the vassals rivet the attention.

 

Christa Ludwig as Waltraute (for both Solti and Karajan) is one of those assumptions of a role that simply defeats all possible challenges. She is by turns fearful, haunted and demanding, and none of her rivals in studio recordings come near to matching her; both Ortrun Wenkel (for Janowski)  and Hanna Schwarz (for Levine) have unacceptably unsteady passages, and Marjana Lipovšek (for Haitink) although intelligent simply lacks the richness of voice needed for the lower passages. In the final Act we encounter our new trio of Rhinemaidens, and although the strength of the young (and, at that stage of her career, rock-steady) voice of Gwyneth Jones can sometimes overpower her somewhat smaller-voiced sisters, they generate plenty of excitement and blend well in ensemble. The choir, trained by Wilhelm Pitz, are excellent; but one does wish that Solti had obeyed Wagner’s specific instructions when he sometimes asks only for “one voice” or “two voices” especially when the vassals are interrogating Siegfried during his narration. To have the questions delivered by a full body of choral voices introduces an air of artificiality into the proceedings which Wagner clearly wished to avoid and which sounds unnatural. Furtwängler in his dreadfully recorded (and cut) La Scala performance gets it right.

 

So here we are, well over 4000 words into this review, and I have not even yet mentioned the conducting except in passing. Now it has to be admitted that Solti was an excitable conductor, and that in the theatre he sometimes allowed the emotion of the moment to lead him into an over-emphasis that could unbalance the conception of the work as a whole. But for listening on record, without the visual element, this would seem to be a fault on the right side. Goodall, for example, who could pace the whole of the Ring as a single structure, frequently paid the price with passages that seem slightly pedestrian or even pallid. Janowski is an excellent technician, but he lacks Solti’s ability to work up Wagner’s frequent climaxes with all the energy that they demand. Haitink, who can rise to these occasions in live performance, allows the tension to slip in the studio. Levine has the same sort of energy as Solti, but sometimes he allows this to lead him into sudden unconvincing switches and accelerations of tempo (the climax of the prelude to Act Two of Siegfried is a good example of this). Karajan’s set is peculiar in this regard; when he recorded Walküre (the first of his cycle to be issued) he seemed to be looking for a ‘chamber music’ feel in the score which simply fails at times to rise to the climaxes at all – Rheingold suffers in the same way – but by the time he came to Götterdämmerung he had reverted to the more rounded and saturated sound that mature Wagner needs. For that reason, and because of the changes of casting in all the major roles between episodes, his Ring seems the least unified of all. No, Solti’s contribution to this set seems to me to have been persistently under-rated even by critics who recognise the superlative casting of the recording. He clarifies the textures every bit as much as Karajan (and with better playing, for example before Donner’s “Heda! hedo!”), and the only important orchestral line in the whole score which is underplayed is the superb rising trumpet line which follows immediately after Brünnhilde’s “Helle Wehr!” in Act Two of Götterdämmerung, which is almost smothered by Nilsson’s supremely dramatic performance (Karajan is similarly reluctant to ‘bring out’ this passage; Goodall gets it right in his live performance at English National Opera). In a score the length of the Ring, to find only one brief passage where the balance is arguably awry is an awesome achievement. None of the many live performances on CD can claim anything like as much.

 

The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is of course superb; even the sometimes acidic tone of the oboes is acceptably characterful. Culshaw in his book says that the orchestra purchased a new set of timpani especially for the recording, and they have all the punchiness that one could possibly want; and the Viennese horn players have a marvellous sense of nobility which makes the entry of the Wagner tubas (played, of course, by the second set of hornists) at the beginning of the second scene of Rheingold something very special (this was the point at which the original LP side division occurred, but the splicing of the two presumably separate recording tapes is sensitively done here). The string playing has a coruscating quality that quite outclasses Karajan’s Berlin players, notably in the divided passage that begins Donner’s call to the thunder towards the end of Rheingold. At the same time they are masters of the impressionist sweeps that Wagner introduced into orchestral writing in the Magic Fire Music (and at many other points in the score) and which lend the music much of its distinctive colour. Nobody is going to record a studio Ring without a world-class orchestra, of course, and the other sets made in Berlin, Dresden, Munich and New York all boast first-rate playing; but the Viennese have a tone that is saturated in the Wagner sound and at the time of these recordings had a tradition stretching back some eighty or more years to conductors like Richter and Möttl, who had worked with Wagner himself on the Ring at the first Bayreuth performances. Some of the older players here will therefore have performed alongside colleagues who had a first-hand connection to the composer himself.

 

It is not surprising that the Solti Ring was one of the first operatic sets issued on CD by Decca after 1983. However the initial releases were somewhat disappointing in many ways. At that stage of the development of CD technology it was not possible to allow any of the Acts of the tetralogy except Act One of Die Walküre to be heard without interruption; the sound, especially in Siegfried, was a bit boomy and lacked the sheer excitement of the original LP resonance; and the newly designed covers were uninspired and dispiriting. In 1997 Decca remastered the recordings, to their considerable benefit, restored the magnificently atmospheric original cover designs, and rationalised the CD layout to eliminate many of the undesirable mid-Act breaks (incidentally reducing Rheingold from three to two CDs). This reissue not only remasters the original tapes again, but also restores a quaver in Rheingold that was accidentally missed out in the original editing. I must admit that I had never noticed its absence. The side breaks here remain as in 1997, which is unfortunate in Siegfried where the first break actually comes in mid-note: Windgassen’s phrase “Wo birgst du dich?” ends in mid-air, and the fp string tremolo which should underpin the final word in fact begins the second disc. It may have actually been recorded that way (the same break was made on the original LPs) but it should have been possible in this remastering to restore what Wagner actually wrote and move the break back to a silent bar some time earlier. The break between the last two discs comes after Wotan’s “Weisst du, was Wotan will?” where Wagner’s score indicates Langes Schweigen; but this is a dramatic pause – the supposedly all-wise Erda is unable to answer his question – and a better break could have been made just after Siegfried’s entrance some minutes later, where the Goodall set makes it. Otherwise the breaks between the discs, where they are unavoidable, are made with sensitivity and taste. I will return to this matter later when considering the Blu-Ray Audio version.

 

The second volume of this set brings a full new edition of John Culshaw’s book Ring Resounding, long out of print, but one must admit that the format of the book in two columns on a full-side LP-style page does not make for ease of reading. The text remains as in the original, complete with Culshaw’s reticence about Ernst Kozub and with his disparaging remarks about both the Hans Knappersbusch 1951 live Bayreuth Götterdämmerung  and the complete 1955 Joseph Keilberth recording from the same venue remaining (both have subsequently become available on CD and the Keilberth has garnered ecstatic critical reviews); the only alteration is the omission of the schedule showing the timings and layout of the original LP sides, which is of course no longer of any relevance. Some of the illustrations from the original book are no longer here either, and I miss the picture of Hagen’s alpine horn. Culshaw’s comments about the future of opera recording make very interesting reading; he anticipates the arrival of flat-screen stereophonic television and DVD performances, even if he was optimistic about the time-scale during which these innovations might arrive. We still await the fulfilment of his suggestion that the home viewer might be able to ‘produce’ the operas to suit his own pleasure (Culshaw would certainly not have been pleased by modern trends in production in the opera house), and his expectation of the use of film to provide background scenery for productions of the Ring remain unrealised. However he is always an interesting writer (he had once hoped to make a career as a novelist) and the book remains both readable and enjoyable.

 

Also readable and enjoyable is Deryck Cooke’s masterly analysis of the music of the cycle, contained in the third volume of this set. Originally given in full when the LPs were issued, the CD release abridged the printed text (the spoken text of course remained intact) which reduced the CD booklet to manageable proportions but robbed the reader of the chance to follow his arguments in detail. Cooke did of course go on to produce a much more elaborate analysis not only of the music but also of the text, but we were were denied three-quarters of his projected book by his death (the torso was published as I saw the world end and remains one of the most valuable pieces of writing on Wagner’s Ring) which makes this analysis all the more indispensable and valuable. Some of his conclusions on the way in which Wagner constructed his motifs (which are illustrated not only with excerpts from the Solti recording but also with some specially recorded examples) are perhaps a mite contentious (is the motif of ‘resentment’ really built up from the harmonies of the ‘ring’ motif in the rather mechanical way he describes?), but his classification of the motifs into ‘families’ which are linked by specific harmonic and melodic configurations is a valuable antidote to the prevalent habit of labelling the themes and leaving them to stand alone that was long the custom of earlier critics and analysts such as Walzogen and Newman. This set also gives us Culshaw’s valuable essays on the individual operas which were originally written for the LP issues, and a brief note by Humphrey Carpenter on the television documentary The Golden Ring which was recorded during the second set of Götterdämmerung sessions.

 

This television documentary also forms part of the package, and confirms one’s impressions of Solti’s dynamic conducting style (has any conductor, except perhaps Bernstein, ever worked so hard and energetically at getting exactly the sense of excitement he wanted?) as well as the impassioned commitment of Windgassen and Frick who really throw themselves into the dramatic implications of what they are singing. Nilsson is a tower of strength, of course, and it comes almost as a relief when she breaks down into a fit of giggles as the recording team introduce a live horse into the final session of her Immolation scene. The sound on the video recording is bit brash by comparison with the remastered sound on the CDs themselves, but the sense of excitement and passion remains for us to enjoy. Even the rather grainy black-and-white images and slightly sycophantic commentary by Humphrey Burton himself add to the sense of period occasion. For those who would like to hear the recording in better quality sound without the need to go to the original discs themselves, the video also includes surround-sound versions of the music included in the original television documentary.

 

The remastering of the 1997 digital tapes (the original analogues, we are advised, have unavoidably deteriorated over the years despite the best attempts to preserve them) is extremely well done. We are told that an attempt has been made to delete extraneous background noises, although the clatter (of something being dropped?) during Flosshilde’s seduction of Alberich in Rheingold – probably the most noticeable such sound – remains audible and presumably could not be removed. At the same time some of the internal balances in the orchestra have been improved, and one immediately notices one example of this at the very beginning of the Rheingold prelude. In the original LP issues, and in the first CD set, there was always a problem with the opening E-flat in the double-basses being followed by the B-flat a fifth above in the lowest register of the bassoons. This was a problem of Wagner’s own creation, in that it is simply impossible for the bassoons to play as quietly as the double-basses and there is an unfortunate tendency for the basic E-flat to be overshadowed by the fifth above it. In the 1997 reissue, and here, the E-flat is given its proper status as the bedrock on which the whole of the prelude is based, presumably by boosting the double-bass sound, an excellent example of the properly musical manner in which the remastering has been undertaken. (It should be mentioned that there was also a limited edition Japanese remastering issued in 2009 which was reviewed on the MusicWeb site by Jack Lawson, but it is not clear what connection that has to this new edition.)

 

We are also given a complete performance of the whole Ring on one Blu-Ray Audio disc, which gives us the whole recording without any compression and as closely as possible to the original taped sound.  I am grateful to a friend who set up a number of comparative audio systems to enable me to compare these, together with copies of the original LP sets (which we played on an SME turntable using a Koetsu Urushi cartridge). The first thing that has to be said is that the sound played through the best systems (we used a Sony Vaio laptop using Corel Win DVD pro 11 playing via USB into Benchmark Dac 1, Audio Research Reference 3 and Reference 110 amplifiers and Martin LoganVantage speakers) is quite definitely an improvement on even the CDs as remastered here; there is a greater sense of depth and resonance, and a natural hall acoustic which sets the voices further back within this without at any point compromising the immediacy of their dramatic contributions. But it makes an appreciable difference what equipment you play the disc on. Using a standard Blu-Ray set-up with a normal television receiver (we experimented with a BDP S350 via hdmi) will not get the best out of it, and listeners will need to experiment themselves with various configurations (as we did, using also a Sony BDP S350 Blu-Ray player optically linked to Benchmark Dac 1) to decide what produces the optimum results.

 

The notes with the set emphasise the continuity that is possible on Blu-Ray Audio without breaks between CDs, and the joins are well managed with one important exception. That comes with the CD change between discs 1 and 2 of Siegfried (between sides 2 and 3 of the original LPs), to which I have already referred. One would have expected here the engineers to have stitched back together the last note of Siegfried’s vocal line from the end of the first passage with the fp chord which begins the second; this can be done, as Decca themselves demonstrated with a similar passage in their CD reissue of the Dorati recording of Strauss’s Aegyptische Helena where the break between sides 1 and 2 of the original LPs was re-assembled, or as their fellow Universal company DG did between LP sides 5 and 6 of their Pfitzner Palestrina. Instead, and with incredible lack of awareness, they have instead inserted a pause of a couple of seconds right in the middle of a supposedly continuous passage. The German company responsible for the sub-contracted Blu-Ray transfer make great claims for their technical engineering work on their website. Did their engineers even look at Wagner’s score at this point? This is quite simply a disastrous example of spoiling a ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. I do not know whether Decca propose at some future date to release this Blu-Ray version as a separate item, or to make it available for lossless download; but if they do, this is a matter that requires addressing and correcting urgently.

 

We were puzzled by references in some online audiophile reviews to the fact that Rheingold is alleged in some quarters to have been transferred sharp in the CD reissue – that is, at a higher pitch than indicated in the score. Comparison with the LP issue showed no such transposition. We can only assume that the critics in question were not aware of the fact that the Vienna Philharmonic have always traditionally played at a pitch of A=448 or thereabouts, as opposed to the more normal pitch of A=440. This is therefore one point at which the engineers cannot be accused of any underhand practice; they simply reflected the actual sound produced by the orchestra. Perfect pitch can be a curse as well as a blessing. Other critics have expressed a preference for the sound in the original CD issue as opposed to the 1997 remastering; this is a matter of personal taste (we both preferred the clarity of the remastered recording, which more closely reflected the superb sound of the original LPs), but in any event the original CD issues suffer far more severely from unmusical breaks during Acts between the CDs (there are two breaks in Rheingold, and also breaks in Act Three of Walküre and both Acts Two and Three of Götterdämmerung – reflecting the original LP layout – which the 1997 reissues and this further remastering avoid).

 

Yet another disc in this luxury set gives us Solti’s recording of the original chamber version of the Siegfried Idyll, originally intended as a fill-up for his reading of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony but later included in Decca’s first issue of the complete cycle in an LP box. Culshaw remembers the session, completed in the final stages of the Walküre recording, as “pure enchantment” and this exactly describes the beautiful playing of members of the VPO even though, as Culshaw describes in Ring Resounding, the session actually caused a near-breakdown of relations between the recording team and the orchestra. Another pendant to the Ring cycle, the little Kinderkatechismus which Wagner wrote for Cosima after the completion of the cycle and which quotes from the final bars of Götterdämmerung, was recorded for inclusion in the first LP box of the complete cycle but has never subsequently appeared on CD. It is a charming miniature which deserves to be better known, even if the cloying sentimentality of the words might grate with sensitive ears. To fill up the CD we are given a series of recordings of Wagner snippets which Solti made with the VPO during the same period. Here perhaps some of the accusations about Solti’s hard driving might be regarded as justified. He enjoys the big tune during the opening of the Rienzi overture, but the brass-saturated final sections have a brashness that while exciting is harsh; and the Flying Dutchman overture is simply too fast and over-driven. An interesting comparison may be made here with Solti’s comparatively under-characterised reading which begins his complete recording in Chicago some fifteen years later, where the sound especially from the brass is more rounded. In his complete Tannhäuser recording, also with the VPO, Solti linked the Overture and the Venusberg music as Wagner himself did in his later performances; here we are given the two movements independently, and this enables us to appreciate Solti’s noble recapitulation of the Pilgrim’s march at the end of the overture – a nobility that does not however preclude excitement. He builds the reiterated violin figuration about which Berlioz was so scathing with a sure and steady hand, rising to a superbly judged climax; but the febrile excitement of his interpretation of the Paris version of the Venusberg music does not have the emotional intensity of his reading in the complete set. The choral passages are nicely distanced, however, and the ending has the right sort of satiated glow that the music demands.

 

The fourth volume in this set gives us not only Culshaw’s essays issued with the original LPs and a complete synopsis of the plot but also contains the complete libretti. In the 1997 issue we were given the original German together with parallel translations into both French and English. The English translations for the first three operas omitted all the stage directions, and were anonymous; that for Götterdämmerung was attributed to Lionel Salter and did contain the full stage directions. Here we have a new translation, including abridged stage directions, by Stewart Spencer which dates from 1993; it differs in many points of detail from its predecessor and is not as strictly accurate, frequently including additional words that are not in the original German, but it reads well and is literate. Fuller stage directions might have helped to identify some of Culshaw’s sound effects – there is no explanation, for example, of the rustle of metal as Mime drops the Tarnhelm at the end of the first CD – but the lack of a French translation is perhaps more serious. Indeed there are no languages except German and English used anywhere in this issue. Possibly alternatives will be provided for the international market? The volume also contains a number of session photographs which so far as I am aware have not been previously published.

 

There are some other extras, too. A pocket inside the jacket of the third volume contains some promotional photographs from the time of the original LP releases as well as the original advertisements and reviews from the Gramophone magazine. These might have been rendered even more valuable with the addition of the supplementary reviews that the Gramophone published at that time as ‘quarterly retrospects’ as well as Culshaw’s articles written to introduce the LPs as they were released – we are however given his final article written on the completion of the cycle as well as a retrospective article published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the issue of Rheingold. On a personal level I miss the original photographic artwork by Hans Wild which adorned the original LP releases and which were used for the individual box covers in 1997. On the other hand the repackaging of this luxurious reissue is most handsome, and make this set a possession that any collector would be most proud to own.

 

The Solti Ring has stood up well over the years and, as I hope my detailed review above has shown, it has most certainly not been out-classed by any of the later studio recordings. It is not perfect, of course – could any recording of this massive work ever hope to be? – but it has fewer weak points than any of its rivals; and the fact that it was recorded in a studio, with the possibility of ensuring note-perfect fidelity as well as allowing the singers to deliver passages in full voice that they would never be able to undertake without strain in the context of a live performance, means that it also stands head and shoulders above any rival for the sheer accuracy with which it reproduces Wagner’s intentions. In order to simulate the atmosphere of a theatre performance, Culshaw controversially introduced a large number of stage effects including sounds of filing and hammering of the sword, the collapse of the Gibichung hall and so on, which other recordings have largely eschewed (although the sound of the hall collapsing at the end of Götterdämmerung sounds more like a firework display in Haitink’s recording). But these effects never interfere with the quality of the music-making itself, and do add a dramatic frisson to the overall effect which compensates for the lack of the visual element. Collectors who want a complete Wagner Ring in their collection which gives us the score exactly as Wagner wrote it without any errors or slips such as are inevitable in any live performance will want this recording. And the presentation here, nearly perfect in every detail, should be most attractive to any new purchasers of the cycle. Decca showed great courage in meeting the enormous expense of making this recording in the first place, and the results fully justify their leap of faith. It remains as superb a performance now as it did when it was first issued, and in terms of sheer sound alone need fear no later rivals.

The Krauss Ring

 

January 2014

Das Rheingold: Die Walküre: Siegfried: Götterdämmerung

Hans Hotter (bass: Wotan, Wanderer), Astrid Varnay (soprano: Brünnhilde), Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor: Siegfried), Ramon Vinay (tenor: Siegmund), Regina Resnik (soprano: Sieglinde, 3rd Norn), Ira Malaniuk (mezzo-soprano: Fricka, 2nd Norn, Waltraute [Götterdämmerung]), Natalie Hinsch-Gröndahl (soprano:  Gutrune), Hermann Uhde (baritone: Donner, Gunther), Gustav Neidlinger (baritone: Alberich), Paul Kuen  (tenor: Mime), Erich Witte (tenor: Loge), Josef Greindl (bass: Fafner, Hunding, Hagen), Ludwig Weber (bass: Fasolt), Gerhard Stolze (tenor: Froh), Bruni Falcon (soprano: Freia, Ortlinde), Maria von Ilosvay (contralto: Erda, 1st Norn, Schwertleite), Rita Streich (soprano: Woodbird), Erika Zimmermann (soprano: Woglinde), Hetty Plümacher (mezzo-soprano: Wellgunde), Gisela Litz (mezzo-soprano: Flosshilde, Siegrune), Brünnhild Friedland (soprano: Gerhilde), Liselotte Thomamüller (soprano: Helmwige), Lise Sorrell (mezzo-soprano: Waltraute [Die Walküre]): Sybilla Plate (contralto: Grimgerde), Erika Schubert (contralto: Rossweise), Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival 1953 cond. Clemens Krauss

rec. Bayreuth Festival, 8-12 August 1953

OPERA D’ORO OPD 1504 [14 CDs, 72.49 + 71.20 + 61.47 + 51.34 + 52.46 + 45.09 + 59.33 + 53.33 + 58.28 + 60.06 + 65.08 + 58.28 + 64.51 + 68.15]

 

This reissue of the Clemens Krauss mono recording of the Ring from Bayreuth in 1953 is described by the Allegro Corporation, who are responsible for the presentation, as a “deluxe edition.” Although it is hardly in the same category as the genuinely “deluxe” reissue of the Solti Ring from Decca it is a considerable advance on the frequently perfunctory treatment given to historical reissues, coming as it does with four booklets containing complete texts and translations and a fifth booklet of 24 pages (entirely in English) giving not only synopses of the operas but three essays on the work itself. These essays include what is in effect an in-depth review of the performance from Robert Levine of Classics Today, which is admirably frank about the drawbacks of the recording while rightly praising many aspects of what is undoubtedly a most important issue. I shall refer to Levine’s comments at several points during the course of my own review.

Levine correctly identifies the two principal pluses of this recording as the conducting of Clemens Krauss and the superb singing cast which Bayreuth managed to assemble in 1953. He also notes that the fifty-year old mono sound is “excellent,” making the comment that “many believe it was the Decca records team that recorded all the Bayreuth performances in the ’50s.” This wish-fulfilling statement is fiction masquerading as fact. John Culshaw, the producer of the studio recording of the Solti Ring in Vienna which began five years later, notes in his autobiography Putting the record straight that Decca did indeed dispatch a recording team to Bayreuth in 1953, but after recording the dress rehearsal and opening night of Lohengrin they were recalled to London and a German team was substituted who promptly changed Decca’s microphone placements. The results were found “unacceptable for technical reasons” and Decca refused to issue them. Culshaw cites questions of balance, and elsewhere refers to the fact that at Bayreuth without careful microphone placement “the brass, which plays from an area under the stage, can sometimes sound muffled.” That is certainly the case here. Moreover in Ring Resounding Culshaw states that Gordon Parry persuaded the Decca authorities to record the Keilberth Ring in 1955 (recently reissued in stereo) with the implication that they needed persuasion since they were not accustomed to doing so.

And there are elements in the recording which suggest strongly that the recording was never designed for commercial release – voices tend to come and go depending on their position on the stage, and the orchestral balance is far from satisfactory with the distant-sounding trumpets often close to the threshold of inaudibility (as in their statement of the Gold motif which precede the Rhinemaiden’s paean of praise, CD 1 track 3) where they should dominate the texture. The recording clearly derives from a single set of performances, with no possibility of patching errors from dress rehearsal tapes, and Krauss only conducted one cycle of the Ring in 1953 since the other cycle was assigned to Keilberth. Oddly enough the Keilberth cycle, issued pseudonymously by Allegro, was the first complete Ring on LPs although threatened copyright suits ensured that its sojourn in the catalogue was short-lived.

Levine also states that the sound “has been remastered for these CDs to make it even clearer, with voice/orchestra balance more natural.” Again this is a rather dubious statement. The very opening phrase from Woglinde (CD 1, track 2) comes as a real shock, very close to the microphones and sounding louder than the full orchestral outburst which precedes her words; and the laughter of the Rhinemaidens just before Alberich’s appearance is loud enough to nearly obscure the orchestral sound emanating from the pit. Afterwards the balance becomes more realistic as the characters move backwards across the stage (with some audible thumping) to the extent that Alberich’s mocking laugh at the end of the scene hardly registers. Neidlinger here, as in his later recording for Solti (which it closely resembles in every detail), employs Wagner’s notated laugh for Alberich in Siegfried, which is surely right. Nor does Levine comment upon the quality of the orchestral playing itself, which is scrawny in the extreme during the Rheingold Prelude with the strings in particular sounding rather unpleasant and the horns tubby rather than heroic. But happily things soon improve as the performance takes wing – and take wing it most certainly does.

Much of this is due to the appearance of Hans Hotter as Wotan, throughout this cycle in much firmer voice than he was when he came to undertake the role for Solti in Walküre and Siegfried some ten years later. John Culshaw states that he was not cast in Rheingold there because the “role no longer suited him.” There may well have been an element of special pleading here – at the time of the Rheingold sessions Hotter was under exclusive contract elsewhere – but his performance here does not begin to justify such a scathing comment. Time and again he produces insights into text and music that eluded George London in the Solti recording, and his voice is always heroic and well placed without a suspicion of wobble. Nor do the top notes, sometimes a cause for concern in later years, create any sense of asthmatic hoarseness. What we have here is a Wotan at the height of his powers, and the performance is electrifying.

In his booklet note Robert Levine mentions Wolfgang Windgassen’s error with a late entry in the Forging song (unusual for Windgassen, who was prone to running ahead of the beat rather than behind it) but does not mention a far worse error by Bruni Falcon as Freia, who completely misses out one whole phrase just before the entry of the Giants in Rheingold (end of CD1, track 5). Apart from this slip the drama of the opening of this scene is well realised by Krauss, although he seems to be hustled by Ira Malaniuk’s dramatically well observed Fricka who consistently pushes the tempo forward. However with entry of the Giants themselves (CD1, track 6), the performance suffers from the very rough performance of Fasolt by Ludwig Weber, who almost totally misses the compassionate side of the lovelorn character. At the very start he slows down drastically from the tempo set by Krauss and one is constantly aware of his desire to take the music at a more moderate pace; and his tuning is not all it should be either, going off pitch badly during the passage where the Giants seize Freia (end of CD1, track 9).

The other Gods are well taken. Gerhard Stolze is perhaps an unexpected choice for Froh, but the pungency of his character tenor is much less in evidence here than it would become, and he produces heroic tone with some degree of lyricism. Hermann Uhde is well cast as the blustering Donner, and Erich Witte is a personable Loge with plenty of engagement with the text. He also has the right smoothness of delivery for his Narration, although the trumpet again misses out on the pianissimo delivery of the Rhinegold theme during Loge’s colloquy with Fricka, vanishing totally beneath the voices (CD 1, track 9). The anvils during the Descent to Nibelheim are a feeble bunch, completely ignoring Wagner’s requirement for a crescendo to fortissimo and back again and remaining resolutely at the same volume throughout. During the succeeding scene Alberich and Mime are in the safe hands of Gustav Neidlinger and Paul Kuen, who would reprise these roles five years later for Solti; and although Neidlinger’s backstage voice when invisible lacks the immediacy that Culshaw brought to the later recording, it remains well in the picture. What is less commendable is the manner in which the final bars before the entry of Wotan and Loge are artificially faded down to produce a most inelegant change of CD. Surely the break should have been made during the silent bar when Mime drops the Tarnhelm in panic, as it is in most other sets.

At the beginning of the second CD Krauss sets a very leisurely tempo for the opening section of Mime’s narration, tempting Kuen to push ahead of the orchestra and conclude a full half bar before them (track 2). However with the re-entry of Neidlinger and the extended confrontations between him, Hotter and Witte which constitute the remainder of the scene and the beginning of the next there is a real sense of dramatic involvement, assisted by superlative singing from all three principals and degrees of instinctive subtlety which Neidlinger failed to recapture for Solti five years later. It is just a shame that his instincts lead him to extremes in the delivery of his Curse (track 8), not only acquiring the wrong sort of forcefulness but shaking his tuning loose to an unacceptable degree; he appears to be a full tone off pitch at two separate points. And Solti delivers the orchestral peroration at a proper Sehr schnell which seems to elude Krauss, who is just a smidgeon too polite.

With the re-entry of the Giants, Weber is again remarkably unfeeling in the passage where he spies Freia’s hair through the piled-up hoard. At this point Wagner exceptionally gives a dynamic direction of p to the singer, but Weber simply ignores this, barnstorming through his notes and ending up shouting (track 10). Hotter brings a remarkable degree of sensitivity to his horror-struck exclamation when Fafner demands the Ring to fill up the crevice; but shortly thereafter Falcon as Freia sings both her cries of Hilfe! a beat too late, producing a most uncomfortable discord against Malaniuk’s Fricka. One is grateful that this is her last contribution to proceedings. After that Maria von Ilosvay delivers Erda’s Warning with great solemnity (track 11), and the orchestral sound seems to come somewhat further forward during the Forging of the Rainbow Bridge, exceptionally well delivered by Uhde and leading into a splendid performance of the final scene.

Krauss is indeed a very good conductor of the Ring – his performance has plenty of weight when required, and excitement too without adopting the extremes of speed of later Bayreuth performances by conductors such as Karl Böhm and Pierre Boulez. Occasionally he is unexpectedly slack – as at Donner’s Hier, ihr Riesen! which is hardly lebhaft as marked – but for much of the time he keeps a firm hand on proceedings and despite the unflattering recorded sound he manages to rival Solti in the presence he gets from the orchestra (the strings in the Forging of the Rainbow Bridge sound like a completely transformed body from their feeble predecessors at the opening). It is interesting to speculate how his Wagnerian style might have developed (Hitler apparently regarded him as second only to Furtwängler), but his relatively early death robbed us of the opportunity to discover this.

The energy levels are maintained during the Prelude to Act One of Die Walküre, with the strings churning away at their repeated figurations with all the guts that one could wish. As the curtain rises and Siegmund enters the hut, we hear the sound of the wind from the storm outside – an effect that Culshaw omitted for Solti – and the opening scene is beautifully phrased. Both Regina Resnik and Ramon Vinay as the Volsung twins were shortly to convert downwards to mezzo and baritone respectively, but here their top notes are fine although the tone of both is darker than would be expected from the specified soprano and tenor. Vinay unfortunately goes wrong at the beginning of the second section of his narrative (CD1, track 6), getting half a bar behind for some six bars; but apart from that everything goes well, the orchestral balance is a decided improvement on Rheingold, and Krauss thankfully does not take the Spring song too quickly, just at a properly rhapsodic lilt. At the beginning of the Act Vinay is a little brusque – his call for Ein Quell! sounds like an impatient customer in a pub just before closing time (CD1, track 2) – but he soon settles down, with some impassioned mezza voce. Both he and Resnik sing their hearts out in the love duet, but bring plenty of subtlety to the words too; Greindl is a very black-sounding Hunding.

At the outset of Act Two Krauss sets a very fast pace, and thereby creates a difficulty for himself. Wagner specifically states (twice) that the tempo should be exactly maintained throughout Wotan’s opening address to Brünnhilde and in her Hoyotoho! (CD 2, end of track 1 and track 2). This produces a sense of driving energy in the music which exactly fits the situation; but because Krauss has pushed ahead so rapidly at the very beginning he has to slow down as the voices enter, and the sense of impetus is dissipated. Also here once again the orchestral balances are awry, with the trumpets’ delivery of the Sword theme (so important in the context of the plot at this point) frequently too quiet and sometimes obscured altogether. Which is a shame, because Hotter is here at the height of his game, Malaniuk seems to be more relaxed about Krauss’s speeds, and Astrid Varnay is a spectacular Brünnhilde from the very off. During the early 1950s she and Martha Mödl were the two principal exponents of the role throughout the world, and frequently shared the part in the two annual Bayreuth cycles; but Mödl for all her expressiveness had a somewhat curdled tone which could turn sour and drift into unsteadiness. Varnay had no such problems, and she yields few if any points here to Mödl in the tenderness as she comforts her father and laments his decision to abandon Siegmund. In the long monologue at the centre of the Act (CD 2, track 7) Hotter colours his voice rather differently from his later performance for Solti, but every bit as effectively, although the orchestral balance in the climaxes is somewhat lacking in impact.

Although Krauss handles the following scene between the Volsung twins well, he seems to be nervous of boring the audience during the Todesverkundigung with its solemn cadences which he tends to hassle in a manner which lacks the other-worldly atmosphere that the scene demands (CD 3, track 2). And at the beginning of Act Three (CD 3, track 8) he launches the Ride of the Valkyries at one hell of a lick, maintaining a steady onward pressure that reduces some of the lines delivered by the warrior maidens to an unseemly gabble. Nor does his speed allow sufficient space for the brass to reverberate; the opening statement of the main theme on the horns is almost totally obliterated by the skirling woodwind and strings that surround them. Under the circumstances it may be cruel to point out that some of the girls, robbed of the chance to expand their tone, make a somewhat insignificant and uneven impression; but Hotter too sounds out of sorts after his entry (CD 3, track 11), with the nobility of his tone underplayed and the rather ‘woofy’ sound which is noticeable in his later recordings noticeable for the first time in this cycle as he attempts to keep pace with Krauss’s driving delivery.

When Brünnhilde steps forward to receive her punishment, the tension momentarily slackens (CD 4, track 1); but as her sisters attempt to intercede Krauss once again takes off and the ensemble threatens to come off the rails altogether as the voices pile unrhythmically one on top of the other. It is only when Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone that the performance suddenly regains dramatic weight, and the delivery by Varnay and Hotter of their long final scene is simply magnificent. There are unexpected moments, in the delivery of lines when Wotan (losing his temper) tells how he shattered the sword, or when Varnay fearfully asks what she is to suffer, which are unconventional but come off superbly (CD 4, track 4). And during the Farewell Krauss allows Hotter all the time he needs to phrase his lines with affection and emotion, which he does in a firm voice which shows no sense of tiredness at the end of a long evening. He has to take more than one breath during his final phrase, and the strokes of his spear which summon Loge (CD 4, track 7) are conspicuous by their absence from Wieland Wagner’s minimalist production; but these hardly impinge on what is a great experience both musically and dramatically. Even the orchestral balances seem to improve.

In Act One of Siegfried Paul Kuen Mime unaccountably enters a bar late in his description of fear (CD 2, track 1) and stays that way for a very uncomfortable eight bars groping desperately for the correct pitch. And when Windgassen makes his late entry in the first verse of the Forging song (CD 2, track 2) he does not even attempt to trouble to harmonise with the orchestra, simply ploughing ahead with his notes despite the discords that result; and he then simply skips a bar in order to catch up. But what follows is not much better. In a clearly desperate attempt to produce volume, Windgassen adopts a totally cavalier attitude to both rhythm and notes – sometimes pushing ahead of the beat, sometimes lagging behind, sometimes mangling the words and omitting whole phrases altogether. And the hammering! John Culshaw in Ring resounding comments that when Decca were recording the Keilberth cycle two years later, the onstage hammering was “so loud and unrhythmical as to obliterate the voice of Siegfried,” and an emergency patching session had to be arranged to correct this (I presume this is the version employed in the commercial release of that cycle). Here we can hear what he was complaining about; there are patches of notated hammering missing, the rhythm rarely conforms either to Wagner’s precise notation or his carefully differentiated dynamics, and other strokes are added seemingly at random. Through all this Krauss keeps driving along, presumably hoping that the nightmare will soon be at an end. In the theatre this sort of approximation of an admittedly horrendously difficult scene might just be acceptable in a dramatic context; as part of an audio recording it is just unacceptable, an illustration of nearly everything that can go catastrophically wrong in a live performance.

Thankfully after the interval sanity is restored in the Second Act. Neidlinger and Hotter are, as one would expect, superb in their opening scene, striking sparks off each other both dramatically and musically; and when Windgassen and Kuen return they too sound much more at ease. However the horn call (CD 3, track 2) suffers from considerable unsteadiness on sustained notes (which may be tape flutter) and in the ensuing scene with Fafner Windgassen manages at various points to come out half a bar ahead and (twice) half a bar behind, the final time as he tastes the dragon’s blood. And Kuen is no more satisfactory in the scene leading to his death; he avoids Gerhard Stolze’s caterwauling for Solti, but is no more accurate to the notes that Wagner has actually written. The unusually clear diction of Rita Streich as the Woodbird (luxury casting) cannot offset the generally sense of rhythmic sloppiness in this scene.

A similar moment of unease occurs during the opening bar of Act Three (CD 3, track 8), where the orchestra seem to take a couple of seconds to accelerate into Krauss’s driving tempo; but the main problem with this crucial scene in the drama comes later. When Wotan asks Erda (Hotter and von Ilosvay both in good voice) to foresee what are his intentions, and she is unable to answer, Wagner screws up the dramatic tension with three notated beats of silence which are additionally marked with a pause and the even more specific direction “Langes schweigen” (CD 3, end of track 10). Here Krauss allows no pause at all, and the sense of suspense and resolution is completely dissipated. (Mind you, other sets compound the offence by even more unforgivably inserting a CD break at this point.) In the later scenes the combination of Windgassen, Hotter and Varnay is pretty spectacular, although once again Windgassen displays a tendency to push ahead of the beat which actually infects Varnay as well at one point; but he shows none of the signs of tiredness which can sometimes cause problems at the end of a long evening. We are told that 1953 was the first year in which he had sung Siegfried at Bayreuth, and although this pays dividends in terms of freshness of approach there is a penalty to be paid in his evident lack of familiarity with the difficult role; I shall return to this problem later.

In the opening of Götterdämmerung we are met with a very good trio of singers, with Regina Resnik not sounding at all mezzo-ish as the Third Norn. Windgassen, recovered from his exertions during Siegfried, is well matched with Varnay in their dawn duet and when we reach the Gibichung Hall we are met with Hermann Uhde as a properly heroic Gunther and the black-toned Greindl as his half-brother. Levine’s booklet note is very rude indeed about Natalie Hinsch-Gröndahl as Gutrune, describing her as “so awful that she only throws more light on how luminous the others are”. This contrasts with the view of William Youngren in Fanfare, who regarded her as “superb” although Paul Orgel in the same publication described her as a “weak link” and “unsteady” – which just goes to show how individual ears can hear things differently. On the other hand she is definitely not heard to best advantage in her scene with Siegfried in Act Two (CD 3, track 1), sounding at once blowsy and thin in tone.

Levine also comments unfavourably on the bass Josef Greindl, describing him as “otherwise wobbly and invariably ineffective on recordings” although he acknowledges that here he is “rock-hard and meaner than sin.” Having suffered through Greindl’s assumption of roles in Verdi and Beethoven on video last year I would state unequivocally that he was not much better in the theatre, and he certainly never has the slightest hint of warmth in his tone; his casting in operatic sets during the 1950s seems quite inexplicable to me, when one considers for example his implacable and totally unsympathetic assumption of the role of King Mark in the otherwise superb Furtwängler/Flagstad Tristan. Here in the Ring he is confined to entirely villainous characters, and the lack of warmth in his tone is less of a problem. In later years he could display a distressing tendency to sit on the flat side of the note, but here he could give an object lesson to his Gibichung siblings in accuracy of tuning - Uhde sounds decidedly uncomfortable during the duet where he swears blood brotherhood with Siegfried (CD 2, track 1).

One major plus with this set is the consistency of casting throughout (unlike very many rival recordings); only one role is taken by different singers in two operas, and that is the part of Waltraute whose part in Götterdämmerung is so much more substantial than in Walküre. Ira Malaniuk gives a searching and intimate account of her narration (CD 2, track 5), and when Windgassen arrives disguised as Gunther he shows that he did not stand in need of the electronic manipulation to which Culshaw subjected his voice in the Solti set. Act Two comes off very well indeed, with a superb choral contribution and Greindl sounding really menacing in his summoning of the vassals; but the Stierhorn contributions, played on trombones, are not well balanced with some of the instruments sounding very much closer than others (CD 3. track 2). During the trio at the end of the Act the entry of the horns with the ‘Blood-brotherhood’ motif as Gunther in horror contemplates the murder of Siegfried is really badly articulated, the repeated notes joined together in a manner that manages completely to obscure what they are actually playing (CD 3, track 8).

Act Three builds up a good head of steam, and is dramatically involving throughout, but again there are a whole collection of errors which undermine the impact of the whole. Once more Windgassen is the main culprit. Just before his top C at the entry of the vassals his nerves lead him to enter a whole bar early (CD 4, track 3); shortly after this, in his narration, he completely omits the line telling how he took the Ring and Tarnhelm from Fafner’s hoard; and a couple of minutes later he gets ahead of the beat in his description of his awakening of Brünnhilde. The booklet with this issue tells us that 1953 was the first year that he sang the role of Siegfried at Bayreuth, and to be frank throughout this performance there are plentiful signs that he hadn’t learnt it properly. On the other hand, nine years later Culshaw observed that his rhythm “had got slack” and disastrously tried to replace him for the Decca recording of Siegfried – so the problem seems to have been endemic even in his later career. One must however observe with pleasure that Varnay delivers an excoriating account of the Immolation, and that Greindl’s Hagen roars out his final line with a regard for the written notes that is all too infrequent in more modern performances.

The new translation by Bill Parker and Rex Levang comes thankfully with (rather too heavily abridged) stage directions (in English only) which were for some unfathomable reason altogether omitted from the translations provided with some parts of the Solti set. However the idiom is very modern indeed and rather Transatlantic in tone, somewhat reminiscent of the translation by Peggie Cochrane which originally accompanied the Solti recordings but has long since been abandoned: Wotan exclaims “I paid for that dwelling with dirty money!” and the final line of the tetralogy is “Get away from the Ring!” which may be literally accurate but sounds somewhat over-chatty. The booklet could also have been more carefully proof-read; at one point a passage correctly ascribed to Gutrune in the German is inexplicably reassigned to Gunther in the translation (page 14). All the booklets – and the CD labels too – come with new artwork by John Martinez which somewhat recalls Rackham reflected through art nouveau spectacles, although I am not quite sure what the crouching nude male on the back of each booklet is intended to convey. There are a few booklet photographs, although that of Clemens Krauss was clearly taken many years before his participation in this cycle.

The Krauss Ring has come in for some extremely enthusiastic praise from some quarters; Levine quotes James Rockwell of the New York Times as describing it as “the best on records” and Alan Blyth in the Gramophone referring to it as “the most compelling and best-cast cycle” available. Blyth of course was notorious for his preference for vintage live performances as opposed to modern studio recordings, but despite the fact that he seems quite prepared to ignore the errors in the performance his comments are understandable; and his views are reinforced by the (admittedly often idiosyncratic) recommendations of the Rough Guide to Opera. Ronald Grames in Fanfare agreed, describing the set as “one of the finest – if not the finest – performance of the tetralogy available,” a verdict with which Colin Clarke in the same publication agreed when reviewing the Orfeo release in 2011. (Neither mention any errors in the performance.) The cycle has also been released by Pristine Audio and was considerably remastered for that reissue by Andrew Rose with results that Paul Orgel in Fanfare described as “less congested” and allowing “many previously obscured details” to emerge. He noted that a “loud cough” and “squeak” in the opening bars of Siegfried had been successfully expunged by Pristine. Here they are back, along with plentiful evidence of a bronchitic audience; and the three bars of timpani roll which begin the Prelude (which had disappeared in some previous issues of the recording such as that by Archipel, but was restored by Pristine) are once again missing. Indeed the sound in this new release is so much of an advance on the Archipel issue (the only version which I had available for comparison) that it sounds like a different recording altogether, and a much better one to boot.

However the layout on CD represents a step backwards from the Archipel release, with for example an unnecessary side break inserted into Act Three of Walküre, where Archipel managed to fit the whole performance of that opera onto three CDs. We are also given unwanted and superfluous breaks in Acts Two and Three of Siegfried, and Acts Two and Three of Götterdämmerung, where the music could easily have been presented unbroken on a single side. There seems to be no good reason for this, except a misguided desire to equalise the lengths of the CD sides, and it represents a real black mark against this issue since it could so easily have been avoided. The unavoidable side break in Act One of Siegfried, badly judged in the Decca set for Solti, is even worse chosen here, splitting the music in the middle of an orchestral phrase. Indeed the set as a whole includes nine breaks in the music between CD sides, whereas the Solti remastering has only six and in the event only four would actually have been required here.

And at the end of the day the recorded sound, despite the massive improvement of the remastering, still leaves quite a lot to be desired, to the extent that this could not possibly be considered as the sole representation of the Ring in a collection. But then of course no complete recording could ever be perfect – I mentioned several serious concerns about the Decca Ring in my earlier review – and this performance, with its generally superlative singing and conducting, must be counted among the greatest of live recordings of the cycle and well worthy of a place alongside the Goodall Ring (in English) as a second traversal of the music for those who rightly regard the Ring as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time (although those of a sensitive disposition should still avoid the end of Act One of Siegfried). However there again one might suggest that prospective purchasers might find the clearly more interventionist remastering on Pristine to be even better, even if not much can be done about the performance errors. And, given these errors, surely an even more preferable alternative with many of the same principal singers – Hotter, Varnay, Windgassen, Vinay, Kuen, Weber, Greindl, Neidlinger – is the Keilberth Bayreuth recording from two years later, in stereo sound and incontrovertibly produced by Decca engineers.

 

The 'Potted' Ring

 

September 2014

Volume One

Das Rheingold (1869)

Prelude [1]: Spotten nur zu! [2]: Wotan, Gemahl [3]: Zur Burg führt die Brucke…Abendlich strahlt [4]

Die Walküre (1870)

Act One Prelude [5]: Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater…Winterstürme [6]: Du bist der Lenz [7]: Siegmund heiss ich [8]: Act Two Prelude…Hojotoho! [9]: Der alte Sturm, die alte Muh! [10]: O heilige Schmach! [11]: So nimm meinem Segen [12]: Raste nun hier [13]: Siegmund! Sie auf mich! [14]: Zauberfest [15]: Wehwalt! Wehwalt! [16]: Geh hin, Knecht! [17]: Act Three Prelude…Hojotoho! [18] : Rette mich, Kühne! [19]: Wo ist Brunnhild’ [20]: War es so schmählich [21]: Du zeugtest ein edles Geschicht [22]: Leb wohl…Loge, hör! [23]

Louise Trenton (soprano) –  [2] Woglinde,  [15] Sieglinde: [2] Elsie Suddaby (soprano) – Wellgunde: [2] Nellie Walker (contralto) – [2,4] Flosshilde, [2] Fricka: Arthur Fear (baritone) – [2] Alberich, [3] Donner: Walter Widdop (tenor) – [3] Loge, [6-8,13-15] Siegmund: [3] Kennedy MacKenna (tenor) – Froh: Howard Fry (baritone) – [3,15] Wotan, [14]Hunding: [4,9-12,20-23] Friedrich Schorr (baritone) – Wotan: [4] Waldemar Henke (tenor) – Froh, Loge: Genia Guszalewicz (contralto) – [4] Fricka, [18,20] unidentified Valkyrie: Göta Ljungberg (soprano) – [6-8,13,19] Sieglinde, [18,20] unidentified Valkyrie: [9,11,12,19-22] Frida Leider (soprano) – Brünnhilde: [10] Emmi Leisner (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka: [14] Florence Austral (soprano) – Brünnhilde: Elfriede Marherr, Lydia Kindermann – [18,20] unidentified Valkyries: [1] Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates: [2,3,5,6,8,13-17] London Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates: [3,9,11,12,18-23] Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Leo Blech: [7] Orchestra/Lawrence Collingwood: [10] London Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli

rec. Queen’s Hall, London, [1] 2 February 1926, [5,8,14-17,23] 26 August 1928: Kingsway Hall, London, [2,3] 5 January 1928, [6,13] 27 May 1927: Singakademie, Berlin, [4,23] 17 June 1927, [5,6] 23-26 August 1928, [9,11,12] 12 September 1927, [18-22] 29 October-1 November 1927: Abbey Road Studio 1, [10] London, April 1932

PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 107 [2 CDs, 153.07]

 

This first attempt to produce a recording of connected sections of the massive Wagner Ring was made in the very earliest days following the introduction of electrical recording, and was originally issued as “a representative series of selected passages from the Music Drama”. Under the new and slightly chattier title of The Potted Ring, this two-CD set is the first volume of a series of three which will include not only the contents of those original sets of 78s but also a number of other items previously unissued or only made available as supplements. John Culshaw in his Ring Resounding has a great deal of fun at the expense of the cobbling together of the selected passages from widely varied sessions with mixtures of singers, venues, orchestras and conductors, but we do get some fairly extended continuous passages from Die Walküre, including the whole of the final scenes from Acts One and Three.

It must be noted, however, that the ‘selected passages’ from Das Rheingold hardly serve to give even a cursory representation of the score, and that two passages which were regularly featured on 78 rpm records – Alberich’s Curse and Erda’s Warning – are missing here. In fact the Rheingold excerpts were appended as a supplement to the issue of Siegfried, and of the five sides featured here one – Coates’s rather fine rendition of the Prelude, the earliest of all these recordings to be made – was never released as part of the original sets. It should also be noted that the singing casts featured here are highly variable. Howard Fry’s Wotan at the beginning of the Descent into Nibelheim fails even to deliver the right pitches; Kennedy MacKenna must be one of the feeblest Frohs on record (and there is some competition in this department!); and the performance of the interlude itself is ridiculously fast to an extent that leaves the trumpets at the climax flailing to keep up, and with decidedly unatmospheric anvils right in the listener’s ear; and we are given a weird concert conclusion drawn from somewhat later in Scene Three which jars horribly. Arthur Fear is interesting, in that he delivers Alberich’s laugh after the theft of the gold in the rhythmic form which Wagner wrote out in Siegfried, a precedent followed by Gustav Neidlinger but by very few others; one wonders how long this tradition extends back. The Rhinemaidens in their offstage passage at the end of the opera, sung by uncredited singers, are also very forward in the balance and do not blend well. Indeed, apart from Friedrich Schorr’s delivery of Wotan’s apostrophe to his newly built hall, there is nothing in these brief snippets that gives a very good impression of Wagnerian performance style at this period.

The much more extensive extracts from Die Walküre are more impressive, although Schorr’s delivery of his long Act Two narration suffers horribly from cuts throughout its length which hustle the listener from one passage to another without the slightest chance to draw breath, and incidentally completely ruin the plot development. The scene between Schorr and Emmi Leisner’s matronly Fricka also suffers from the complete omission of Brünnhilde’s re-entry (the orchestra simply plays its way through the music), but otherwise we are given the individual sections of the score without too much internal butchery. The cuts made in various of the other excerpts from Acts Two and Three have clearly been made with a commendably careful eye to the maintenance of dramatic continuity as well as musical transition.

The piecemeal nature of the enterprise to which Culshaw objected is however noticeable in the contrasts between the recording venues, which Mark Obert-Thorn admits in his notes on this reissue. “The original recording quality is variable,” he remarks, and “some of the Berlin sides can also sound rather dim, depending on the engineering of a particular session.” Obert-Thorn quite correctly aims to preserve the continuity of the music wherever possible, and his joining of separate 78 sides is always skilfully managed; but there is, for example, a real jolt during the Walküre Act One love duet when Siegmund’s acknowledgement of his name is suddenly so much more clear and present than his voice has been in the immediately preceding bars (as the venue shifts from Berlin to London). On the other hand, one of the other disadvantages of the 78 rpm record – the need for fast speeds to get the music onto a single side – is less in evidence here than in many other releases of this vintage. There is certainly no sense of Goodall-like expansion in the treatment of the score, but there are only a few places where one experiences a sense of undesirable haste – I would cite the aforementioned Descent into Nibelheim, and the speed for Walter Widdop’s “Dich, seliger Frau” which is jaunty rather than heroic. On the other hand, the singers frequently make substantial ritenuti at the end of cadential phrases (sometimes authorised by the composer, but more frequently not) which would raise eyebrows today and have the unfortunate effect of breaking up the music into individual ‘numbers’ and fly in the face of Wagner’s desire for maintaining the onward dramatic flow. The vocal entry in the Ride of the Valkyries, for example, slows down the speed just when the propulsive momentum should be maintained.

But of course the main point of reissuing these recordings is the opportunity to hear singers of the generation immediately following Wagner himself in music which they understood perfectly. Frida Leider, for example, is one of the few Brünnhildes who can manage the trill that Wagner asks for at the end of her Hojotoho, and she also is rock-steady throughout without any of the sense of strain or wobble which afflicts all too many modern exponents of the role. It is a pity that her part in the Todesverkundigung is taken over by Florence Austral, who sounds weak by comparison – or was not favoured by the microphone placement she was given by the engineers. Walter Widdop is a strong Siegmund with a properly heroic ring when he is not being hustled by his conductor, and Gota Ljungberg who sings the part of his sister is similarly a pleasure to hear (although her substitute at the end of Act Two is much less effective). The Valkyries in Act Three are a decent bunch, although not all of them are credited (there are clearly eight of them singing, but only four are named plus one other – “Alberti” – who is denied a forename). Emmi Leisner, as already mentioned, is rather contralto-ish in tone as Fricka (Wagner specifies the role for a soprano) but has plenty of dramatic impact.

In her scene Leisner is partnered by the Wotan of Friedrich Schorr, who is generally very well treated by the microphones and is certainly the most impressive of the singers to be heard here. His tone, very baritonal, is rather a shock to listeners accustomed to the more bass-orientated voices of Hans Hotter and his succesors, but he manages to encompass the low notes in his narration and elsewhere with plenty of body and delivers some stunning top Fs. Many critics have regarded him as the greatest exponent of the role of all time. John Steane remarks that he “performs that peculiar kind of disservice of which all great artists are guilty, for no one who carries in his head Schorr’s singing of Abendlich strahlt…is likely to hear another performance without some yearning to get back to the gramophone, and listen again to Schorr.” Well, up to a point. His firmness, solidity of tone, and adherence to the notes are all welcome; but there is also an element of sentimentality in his singing of Der Augen leuchtendes Paar which singers of the next generations such as Hotter and Norman Bailey managed to avoid. And his delivery of the final lines in Walküre somehow lacks authority, although this may be the fault not only of the rather distant Berlin recording but also of Leo Blech’s surprisingly slow speeds on the last two 78 sides. The strokes of his spear (which Wagner wrote rhythmically into the score at this point) are missing, but we are given a couple of production touches elsewhere such as Sieglinde’s unmarked scream of ecstasy at the point where Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree. And Howard Fry, who unfortunately takes over the role of Wotan for the end of Act Two, positively shouts his final “Geh!” to Hunding – a role which, oddly enough, he himself has been singing a couple of minutes before.

These sets have been described as the “Old Testament” of Ring recordings, and the Biblical description is just; no attempt was made to set down studio readings of the scores to anything like the same degree of fullness until after the advent of the LP era. And Mark Obert-Thorn, as always, has done wonders with the sound of these old 78s, bringing out orchestral as well as vocal detail which all too often goes missing in ‘period recordings.’ I once listened to a set of the old 78s of Siegfried in this same series, and although that was many years ago I can’t remember them sounding anything like as exciting or realistic as this. There has also been a reissue (also engineered by Obert-Thorn) on the Pearl label, but I don’t know whether it included the supplementary set of the Wotan-Fricka duet and in any event would not have had the advantage of modern noise reduction techniques which effectively eliminate the hiss and crackle from the 78 sides. Although Pristine do not provide full details of performers, matrix numbers, etc with the discs (they explain that they would have been “illegibly small”) they are available online and are outlined in the header to this review.

Not obviously a set of the Ring for first-time buyers, this is nevertheless the best opportunity yet for those interested in styles of Wagner singing and conducting in the first half of the twentieth century to become acquainted with these recordings which, despite their many failings, set a standard for some twenty years or more.

April 2015

Volume Two

Siegfried (1876)

Act One Prelude – Als zullendes Kind [1,2,3]: Soll ich der Kunde glauben – Dein Haupt pfänd’ich [1,2,3,4]:  Fühltest du nie [1,5,6]: Nothung! Nothung! – Hoho! Hoho! [1,5,6 ]: Im Wald und Nacht [4,6,7]: Dass der mein Vater nicht ist [1,6]: Haha! Da hatte mein Lied – Wohin schleichst du [1,2,3,7]: Da lieg auch du [1,6,8]: Act Three Prelude and Scene One [9]: Kenntest du mich – Interlude [1,6,10]: Selige Ode [1,3]: Heil dir, Sonne! [1,11,12]

[1] Lauritz Melchior (tenor) – Siegfried: [2] Heinrich Tessmer and [5] Albert Reiss (tenors) – Mime: [4] Friedrich Schorr, [9] Emil Schipper and [10] Rudolf Bockelmann (baritones) – Wanderer: [7] Eduard Habich (baritone) – Alberich, Fafner: [8] Nora Gruhn (soprano) – Woodbird: [9] Maria Olszewska (contralto) – Erda: [11] Florence Easton (soprano) – Brünnhilde:

[3] London Symphony Orchestra cond. Robert Heger: [6] London Symphony Orchestra cond. Albert Coates: [9] Vienna State Opera O[]chestra cond. Karl Alwin: [12] Orchestra of the Royal Opera House cond. Robert Heger

rec. [3] Kingsway Hall, London, 9, 12 and 21 May 1931: [6] Queen’s Hall, London, 16-17 and 29 May 1929: [9] Vienna, 26-28 April 1928: [12] Abbey Road Studio, London, 29 May 1932

PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 114 [2 CDs, 2 hr 31.10]

 

I first encountered this recording in the shape of a substantial box of 78s (19 discs in all) belonging to Claire Campbell, to which I and a number of friends listened rapturously in her rooms at Somerville College in Oxford in 1970 or 1971. We were enraptured chiefly the sound of the voice of Lauritz Melchior, so self-evidently made to sing the role of Siegfried and producing heroic tones which far surpassed the assumption of the role by Wolfgang Windgassen for the Solti Ring with which we were familiar. At the same time we were disappointed by the severely scrawny sound of the recording, and even more by the barbarous butchery inflicted on the score by the need to cram the extracts from the opera onto the lengths of 78 sides. I had not heard the recording since then, and although Pristine have done wonders with the sound in this remastering there is of course nothing they can do about the swingeing cuts which remove around half the score. Mark Obert-Thorn in his booklet note claims that “Melchior’s unsurpassed assumption of the role was captured nearly complete at the height of his considerable powers in these recordings”; but in fact there is nearly a third of even his part missing (at a guess) including the whole of his two encounters with Mime in Act Two and the greater part of his confrontation with the Wanderer in Act Three, as well as more minor cuts elsewhere. Nevertheless we do have the most salient parts of his assumption of the part here, in a series of studio recordings that inevitably have more vocal presence than the stage transcriptions made ten or more years later which have appeared on CD over the years.

Melchior was frequently criticised for his slack sense of rhythm and careless disregard for note values, but it must be observed that at this early stage of his career these faults are nowhere in evidence. He even manages a creditable top C on his entrance in Act One, which is more than can be said for many Siegfrieds even today. And the hammer strokes in the forging scene are spot on, which if Melchior is actually hammering himself is remarkable; but I suspect that the job is delegated to a percussionist, although John Culshaw seems to think that this ‘trick’ was not employed until the Decca recording the Ring under Keilberth at Bayreuth in the 1950s. Mime’s hammering at the opening of the Act, however, sounds quite different in tone (more like a wood block than an anvil), and since there are errors here one suspects that the effects were recorded live by Heinrich Tessmer. This is one of the few slips in his performance, steady and firmly voiced – which is more than can be said for Albert Reiss who takes over the role in the later sections of the Act, with a feeble tone which is afflicted by a wobble on sustained notes and frequently departs from the notated pitch altogether. That, coupled with the fact that the forging scene is recorded with less immediate impact (it is surprising how much electric recording techniques improved in a short period), leaves an impression that is unfortunately less than ideal even though Melchior is thrilling. But we do have Tessmer in the first half of his scene with the Wanderer, and here Friedrich Schorr is firm and trenchant even if some later interpreters have sounded more noble and less tetchy (there is a short cut in the scene, of the passage where he challenges Mime to their duel of wits).

Schorr returns again for the opening of Act Two and his scene with Alberich, which is disappointingly shorn of its atmospheric Prelude. And the dispute itself is barbarously abridged, which robs both protagonists of any chance to build up atmosphere, with even the closing bars of the scene brutally hacked off. Eduard Habich is a characterful Alberich, but it was definitely a mistake to ask him to double the bass role of Fafner; quite apart from the dramatic nonsense when he immediately responds to his own questioning, his voice is quite unsuitable and totally lacks any sense of distance; this dragon in his cave is clearly standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the microphone with the other characters. Habich also takes on the role of Fafner in his (heavily abridged) fight with Siegfried, and here his lack of the requisite bottom notes is simply embarrassing. Melchior is properly tender in the forest murmurs, but even his horn call is reduced to a single phrase and it is in passages like this that the phrase “potted” rears its head in entirely the wrong sense. The best section of this Act is the short duet between the two Nibelung brothers, where Habich and Tessmer build up quite a head of steam. In the final scene of the Act (somewhat trimmed) Nora Gruhn is a rhythmically free Woodbird, but Melchior is again superb with a real sense of loss as he sings of his loneliness after the deaths of everyone he has cherished in his life.

The first scene of Act Three is given absolutely complete (if with a rather abruptly cut off ending) but it is probably the least satisfactory rendition of this set, as well as the worst recorded. The orchestral playing under Karl Alwin is horribly imprecise, and the singing of the husband-and-wife team of Emil Schipper and Maria Olszewska is nothing special – he petulantly resorting to shouting in places, and she straining ineffectually for desperately thin high notes as she tears into Wotan’s treachery. Rudolf Bockelmann is considerably better, although clearly no Schorr, in the end of his scene with Siegfried; but this is ruined by the extraordinarily fast speed adopted by Coates which leaves both singers flailing to keep up. It is hard here to understand the high reputation that Coates enjoyed as a Wagnerian conductor, except perhaps to attribute it to the chauvinism of British critics at the time; in the following interlude there is a sudden cramming on of the brakes at the climax, which has no warrant whatsoever in the score. Heger is far more effective in the scene on the mountain top, again slightly cut but at a far more reasonable speed. Florence Easton sounds rather matronly at the beginning of the long duet, but by the end she finds a more appropriate tone and she and Melchior are well matched.

This set is of course no match for more modern recordings of Siegfried, and could hardly be regarded as a sole representation of the opera for a collection; but it stands as an ‘Old Testament’ of Ring recordings, illustrating both the very best and sometimes the worst of Wagnerian singing in the inter-War period. Mark Obert-Thorn has done wonders with the sound, reducing background noise to an almost undetectable silence which pays real dividends, for example, in the long passage for unaccompanied violins as Siegfried arrives on the mountain top. It certainly knocks spots off the scratching of the original 78s as I recall them from my first acquaintance.

It is a pity that fuller details of the recordings themselves and the artists could not have been provided in a more substantial booklet, but as usual with Pristine there are plentiful notes available on their website including a review of the original 78 set by Alan Blyth drawn from his Opera on Record. There were also recordings of the forging scene and the final duet (cut) made at the same time as the Schipper/Olszewska duet featuring Horst Laubenthal and Frida Leider as Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and we are advised that these excepts will be included as an appendix to Volume Three of Pristine’s Potted Ring.

July 2015

 

Volume 3 and Appendices

Götterdämmerung (1876)

Prologue [1] (complete): Begrüsse froh, o Held [2]: Hast du, Gunther, ein Weib? [3 ]: Hier sitz ich zur Wacht [4]: Seit er von dir geschieden [5]: Hoiho! [6]: Helle Wehr! [7]: Welches Unholds List [9]: Frau Sonne [9]: Mime heiss’ ein mürrische Zwerg [10]: Siegfried’s Funeral March [11]: Schweigt eures Jammers [12]: Sein Ross fuhret daher [13]   

Motives from The Ring [14]

Siegfried (1876)

Nothung! Nothung! [15]: Das er mein Vater nicht ist [15]: Forest murmurs [15]: (orchestral version): Heiss ward mir [15]: Heil dir, Sonne! [15]: Ewig war ich [15]: O Siegfried [15]

Götterdämmerung (1876)

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [16]: Funeral march [16]

Florence Austral [1,5,7,8,11,12] and Frida Leider [15] (sopranos: Brünnhilde), Walter Widdop [1,2,7], Lauritz Melchior [3] and Rudolf Laubenthal [9,15] (tenors: Siegfried), Gladys Palmer [1] (contralto: First Norn), Evelyn Arden [1] (soprano: Second Norn), Noel Eadie [1] (soprano: Third Norn), Arthur Fear [2,8], Friedrich Schorr [3] and Desider Zador [10] (baritones: Gunther), Göta Ljungberg [2,12] and Lieselotte Krumrey-Topas [9] (sopranos: Gutrune), Frederic Collier [2,8], Rudolf Watzke [3], Ivar Andrésen [4,6] and Emanuel List [10] (basses: Hagen), Maartie Offers [5] (contralto: Waltraute), Tilly de Garmo [9] (soprano: Woglinde), Lydia Kindermann [9] (soprano: Wellgunde), Elfriede Marherr [9] (contralto: Flosshilde), [1.2,5,7, 11] London Symphony Orchestra cond. Albert Coates, [3,9,10, 15] Berlin State Opera Orchestra and [6] Chorus cond. Leo Blech, [12, 14] London Symphony Orchestra cond. Lawrence Collingwood, [16] Berlin State Opera Orchestra cond. Karl Muck

rec. [1,7,8] Kingsway Hall, London, 26 January 1926, 17-18 October 1928 and 3 January 1929: [2] Kingsway Hall, 10 October 1928: [3] Philharmonie, Berlin, 15 June 1929: [4,9,10] Singakademie, Berlin, 17 February and 7 September 1928: [5] Kingsway Hall, 23 August and 25 October 1927 and 16 February 1928: [11] Kingsway Hall, 26 January and 26 March 1926: [12] Kingsway Hall, London, 1 December 1927: [13] Kingsway Hall, 25-26 August and 25 October 1927: [14] Kingsway Hall, 17 April and 23 May 1931: [15] Singakademie, Berlin, 25 and 27 August 1927: [16] Singakademie, Berlin, 10 December 1927

PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 118 [3 CDs, 65.06 + 77.03 + 60.30]


It may be perverse, but it makes some sense to deal in the first instance with the supplementary disc provided here containing the Appendices. Just over half of this disc consists of six excerpts from Siegfried featuring Rudolf Laubenthal, which were jettisoned from the original 78rpm boxes in favour of the tracks featuring Lauritz Melchior which were issued by Pristine as Volume 2 of their ‘potted Ring’. One can see the reasons for the substitution; Melchior was, as I have observed in my review of Volume 2, the most recommendable feature of the Siegfried recordings, and moreover the excerpts given there were much less truncated than those here. Nor is Laubenthal anything like as impressive as Melchior, sounding unpleasantly strained in the more strenuous passages of the role; and although Frida Leider is excellent as Brünnhilde in the extracts from the final love duet, the massive omissions from the score do much to vitiate the viability of what we are given here.

Nor does the singing on the first CD of Götterdämmerung do much to substantiate the  often-trumpeted notion of the 1920s and 1930s as a ‘golden age’ of Wagnerian singing. The Prologue, briskly despatched by Albert Coates, features a trio of Norns none of whom would pass muster today and in particular the pipingly small-voiced Noel Eadie who completely fails to engender any sense of drama as the scene moves towards its climax. When the lovers finally appear, Florence Austral and Walter Widdop seem to be flailing frantically to keep up with the headlong pace that is set for them by Coates; and once the curtain has descended, he despatches the Rhine Journey at a speed that would give the Flying Dutchman pause for thought. Even Alan Blyth, normally an admirer of this conductor, describes his pace here as “ridiculously fast.” Nor, when we reach the Gibichung court, do things improve much, since neither Arthur Fear and Frederic Collier begin to come to terms with the dramatic element of their characters and it is left to Göta Ljungberg in her few phrases to supply an element of vocal distinction.

The record containing the oath of blood brotherhood did not form part of the original boxed set of 78s but was clearly intended to fill in a gap in the plot which would otherwise have existed, and here everything suddenly comes to life. Lauritz Melchior and Friedrich Schorr make an ideal coupling, and the excerpt here leads nicely into Hagen’s Watch which is given a performance by Ivan Andrésen which is quite simply superlative, encompassing the lowest notes with ease and producing tone and diction which are black as night. He is equally good in the high notes of his summoning of the vassals (slightly cut) where the chorus respond superbly to his call, although no attempt is made to comply with Wagner’s request for a smaller number of voices in the opening section. Before that, at the end of the first CD, we have heard a solidly contralto performance of Waltraute’s scene from Maartie Offers, although she displays distinct signs of uneasiness on her highest notes, some of which she truncates very abruptly. This excerpt goes on through the exchanges with Brünnhilde, only concluding on the entry of the disguised Siegfried. Albert Coates takes surprisingly slow tempos throughout this scene, except in the passage describing Wotan’s felling of the World Ash Tree which takes on a sudden spurt of energy which verges on the jaunty. One suspects that this, and perhaps other unexpectedly fast tempi, may have been conditioned by the need to fit the music onto one side of a 78rpm record.

Widdop and Austral are efficient rather than exciting in their taking of their conflicting oaths, and the trio which concludes the Second Act relies largely on Austral to generate much sense of drama although Collier and Fear are in better voice than before.

 

The opening scene of Act Three (complete with a niggling cut of some ten bars) suffers from a totally unengaged trio of Rhinemaidens. Their warning to Siegfried of the curse on the Ring is so dismally unthreatening that one can hardly blame the hero for ignoring them. Laubenthal is in better voice here than in Siegfried, with less purely heldentenor tones required for the delivery of his narration. Here we are given the interjections of the vassals with the solo voice that Wagner designates, but it sounds as though the lines are given to Desider Zador as Gunther – which can be the only explanation that the one tenor vassal’s lines are simply omitted. Alan Blyth describes this recording of the narration as “one of the most clearly balanced 78s I have ever heard” – and although Mark Orbert-Thorn has done wonders with the sound throughout, it is true nonetheless that this section has a presence that one might well expect from a mono recording made more than twenty years later. Leo Blech is an excellent conductor in these sections, with a greater sense of moderation in speed than Coates. But then Coates also springs a surprise with a very measured account of the Funeral March, although an editing quirk introduces a couple of additional timpani beats just after the march begins (presumably the result of combining two different takes).

Florence Austral’s Immolation Scene suffers from a similar combination of material from two sessions, her voice sounding very much more distant at the beginning than at the end. There is also an inexcusable cut of some fifteen bars before the line “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” which is all the more galling when one realises that this omission comes at the expense of the exchange between Brünnhilde and Gutrune which precedes the scene itself, and which is not helped by a very underpowered delivery by Ljungberg (or maybe she was just too far away from the microphones). We hear the voice of Hagen (uncredited) at the end, and I am pleased to note that he really sings his line “Give back the Ring” rather than shouting as so many modern exponents of the role do. Coates thankfully avoids any sense of rush in the closing pages, but he does adopt the bad habit of making an unmarked ‘air pause’ before the last ten bars and the final chord is truncated rather abruptly. In the earlier part of the scene, despite the inferior recording, Lawrence Collingwood takes a properly measured and dignified approach.

Collingwood is also responsible for the delivery of the brief snippets of leitmotifs on the Appendix CD (which was originally issued on 78s separately). Each of these is preceded by an announcer giving a number, which refers the listener to the booklet where an explanation of each motif is given. This may have been valuable to audiences at the time, but it hardly comes up to the standards of Deryck Cooke’s marvellous exposition of Wagner’s compositional methods on his 2-CD lecture which originally accompanied Solti’s Ring (it remains available separately, as well as in the Decca luxury limited edition). The identification of the numbered motifs here also leaves much to be desired, with the principal love theme described as ‘Flight’ in accordance with Walzogen’s original error in his analysis published during Wagner’s lifetime and criticised by the composer for its inaccuracies. The two other tracks on the Appendix CD contain performances of the two orchestral sections of Götterdämmerung which were superseded in the 78rpm boxed sets; but they have a particular interest in that they are conducted by the veteran Wagnerian Karl Muck, whose association with Bayreuth extended back to the nineteenth century. Both extracts are truncated rather curiously, just coming to a halt before the music actually stops. In the main set the Funeral march is provided with a concert conclusion, but otherwise the excerpts stick to Wagner’s operatic score. There are some other points of historical interest, such as a bass trumpet which is clearly not the valved trombone that one finds used on other recordings of the period; and the cowhorns in the summoning of the vassals are simply trombones and not the specially constructed instruments that were at that stage still employed at Bayreuth.

I have had much pleasure in reviewing the seven CDs that Pristine have produced over the last year enshrining what has been described as the “Old Testament” of Wagnerian interpretation in the period immediately following the First World War. There are some singers here whose natural abilities still match or even transcend anything we can hear today; but it has to be said that the much-admired conducting of Albert Coates hardly bears scrutiny on the basis of these recordings, and the same could be said for a good deal of the singing in minor roles. Even as late as the 1950s live performances of The Ring show a propensity for performers to make mistakes which would hardly be tolerated today (see the Clemens Krauss Bayreuth Ring for an example, riddled with horrific errors of various sorts) but on these discs, without presumably much opportunity for retakes, the performers display a sense of security which is admirable. I note with some surprise the manner in which the singers slow down for cadences at the end of phrases to an extent which might occasion comment today, although Wagner does not always seem to expect them to do so; one wonders to what degree he accepted this in his own performances? Those who have an interest in such matters, as well as those who would like to encounter a sense of vocal history in the making, are earnestly recommended to hear these discs, with transfers which are unlikely ever to be bettered.

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