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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walkure (1870) first day of the stage festival play "The Ring of the Nibelung" Act I
Claire Watson (soprano) - Sieglinde
Fritz Uhl (tenor) - Siegmund
Josef Greindl (bass) - Hunding
Wiener Philharmoniker/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. live, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 21 May 1963
Executive Producer: Wilfried Scheib
Production Assistant: Franz Eugen Dostal
Asssistant Director: Peter Maar
Technical Director: Heinrich Eigner
Lighting Design: Arthur Zelnicek
Sound Recording: Josef Dworschak
Editing: Walter Hauk
TDK DVWW-CLHK63M [72:00]

 

 

This 1963 Wagner concert film is in clear black and white and opens with the crescent above the Theater an der Wien stage, panning along the circle onto the orchestra. During the performance, cameras are rarely far from the stage, mostly following orchestral and vocal highlights in the score. I would have liked contrasting long views from the back of the stalls or high in the upper circle, especially in orchestral tuttis.

The sound is similarly close with microphones visibly and audibly near the orchestra. Whilst the small number of microphones means the basic orchestral sound picture is natural, the voices are miked too for forward.

Hans Knappertsbuch was a truly great Wagner conductor. His 1951 live Götterdämmerung (Testament CD) unfolds on a monumental scale, culminating with extraordinary long-breathed power. And I've recently been spell-bound by a 1963 live Immolation scene from Humburg (Tahra CD), sung by mezzo Christa Ludwig putting a capital 'H' into Heroic. Knappertsbusch makes few temporal concessions for Ludwig being outside her comfort zone, conducting with elongated rubati and magnificent Wagnerian swell. So it was with some excitement that I approached this film from the same year. Would the magic be here too?

What an extraordinary craggy face! You could go mountain climbing on Knappertsbusch’s prominent cheekbones. The cameras show him often enough to reveal his economical gestures and how he clearly uses the occasional glance to exert powerful authority. He conducts with a clear beat but his gestures and technique are overall fluid, more pulsing and pushing than stabbing the baton. The great conductor was 76 when this film was made and sits throughout the performance. However in a defining shot Knappertsbusch stands and leans forward most dramatically after Nothung is pulled from the Ash Tree and the violins oscillate revelatory shards of light.

This Walküre Act I encapsulates what is both special and controversial in Knappertsbusch’s style. The opening Prelude exudes his typically rich bass-up sound. Whilst the overall timing throughout is not unconventional, his pulse is unusually steady. Siegmund’s cries of "Walse" are not elongated Melchior-style to the gallery. Also the famous passage where Sieglinde ecstatically recalls Wotan’s visit is surprisingly even. There’s a majestic inner rapture conveyed through the singer and orchestral colours, the violin figures especially clear within the long line. Sieglinde is given a natural arch to breathe and soar and Claire Watson seizes the moment thrillingly.

Yet why do I feel as if something was missed here? It's not as if Knappertsbusch is buttoned-up and I love the way he buoys and floats phrases. He certainly captures the radiance of passion but the ardent, chemical-rush somehow slips through his fingers. In key passages the orchestra needs to sing with more outward fervour, for instance when Sieglinde anticipates her avenging hero or in the closing bars. Furtwängler (studio EMI 1954) or Böhm are preferable in this respect but Knappertsbusch does not make Furtwängler’s mistake of over-dropping the temperature in the opening scene.

Claire Watson was an American soprano based in Munich. Benjamin Britten cast her as Ellen in his legendary 1958 recording of Peter Grimes and she also recorded Donna Anna in Otto Klemperer's mid-1960s EMI Don Giovanni. Solti used Watson as both Freia and Gutrune in his studio Ring cycle. Watson was much admired as the Marschallin, Ariadne and the lead in Capriccio. Sadly, she died, only 62 years old, of a brain tumour.

Here Watson delivers a fresh, passionate performance with beautifully rounded tone and clear diction. Like her Siegmund Watson is totally secure and never flags over the Act. She's certainly no Lehmann or Rysanek, whose Sieglindes sound is if they are bursting forth from every fibre of their being, but Watson is engaged and natural enough for her Sieglinde to still be special. I now greatly look forward to seeing the DVD of Watson's Ariadne (1912 version), alongside Beverly Sills and conducted by Leinsdorf, newly released by VAI.

Her Siegmund is Fritz Uhl, who bears a passing physical resemblance to a youngish Walter Mathau. His key camera angle bears downward giving the impression Uhl is singing to the front of the stalls too often. Uhl is less well represented on records but did sing both Loge and Melot on Bayreuth broadcasts. He was famously cast as Tristan in Solti's disastrous Tristan recording, where he sounded outgunned by Nilsson, Culshaw's engineering and Solti's relentless conducting. So it’s a pity that Uhl suffers here as the voices are miked too forward, making his projection harder than it might sound if nestled in a natural orchestral glow. In any event he lacks the warm baritonal shadings of the finest Siegmunds, notably Ramon Vinay and Melchior.

Uhl’s opening line is hardly redolent of Siegmund’s world-weariness but he does later respond professionally if not with the fullest inspiration throughout Siegmund’s inner journey of renewal and passionate discovery. Uhl’s richest singing appropriately follows Siegmund’s Big Excalibur Moment so it seems churlish to point out that he slips on a note in the final line.

Josef Greindl’s black-voiced Hagen has the best physical stage presence of the three singers with that large frame and those expressive eyes that lower menacingly. Greindl often sang Hunding at Bayreuth and must have been formidable when acting freely onstage.

This leads to my ambivalence about concert stagings of opera. I'm not expecting the performers to ham it up and run about - there's no room on this tight stage anyway! - but there is little physical acting here beyond facial expression. Something feels held back, even constrained, for all the emphasis on pure music. Watson, at one point, half turns to Uhl but soon turns back again, unconsciously revealing how the natural drama is suppressed. Would it overstep the mark if Hunding was to turn and glare at Siegmund when challenging him to a duel? Or if the incestuous twins were to smile at each other when their true identities and passion are finally revealed?

This mid-price TDK reissue is only 72 minutes long. The otherwise informative booklet could have included fuller biographies of the performers and I would have liked some discussion about the making of this historic film. Was it made for television or cinema? Subtitles are in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish and there are no extras on the DVD.

David Harbin

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