This live radio recording, thought lost but happily re-discovered amongst the collection of a Milanese enthusiast, has been hyped as possibly 'the best live performance on disc'. Well, maybe - there are some promising indications, not least the presence of a young (-ish, at fifty) Herbert von Karajan in the pit and two Wagnerian giants on stage in Birgit Nilsson and Hans Hotter. This was in fact Nilsson's début as Brünnhilde at La Scala, in the same year that she had made her first appearance at that opera house as Turandot. She deservedly scored a total triumph in both roles; the demanding La Scala audience were astonished by her poise and power and you can hear her here in freshest voice, not just touching but punching out those gleaming top B's and C's in 'Ho-jo-to-ho!' and showing enormous vocal stamina. Likewise, Karajan seems inspired; the orchestra responds to his every demand and he encapsulates the huge emotional range of this, the greatest - I believe - of the Ring 'music dramas'. OK; co-ordination between the singers and orchestra goes to pot in the 'Ride', but this happens in live performance and generally the musical standards are high. So far so good; so why am I not able to be quite as excited about this issue as its promoters would like?
There are a number of reasons: the principal problem is the inadequate Siegmund of Ludwig Suthaus. This estimable artist will be known to most collectors as the Tristan in Fürtwängler's famous 1952 studio recording with Flagstad or indeed as Siegmund in the 1954 studio recording with the same conductor shortly before his death. While it might be heresy to some for me to whisper it, I do not share the widespread adulation for that account of 'Tristan und Isolde', but I do enjoy Suthaus's part in both sets and hear a marked decline in his voice between those recordings and this stage performance. Here in 1958 he sounds badly worn, his voice a mere shadow of its former, thrilling self. He was only 51 but sounds older. In every note which is mezzo-forte and above the vibrato degenerates into a pronounced wobble. He frequently seems to be compensating for his inability to sustain pitch and vocal tension by shouting for emphasis at climactic moments. Key words are punched out unmusically and the line is broken. He is least effective when it most counts, for example in his cries of 'Wälse'. His voice was always attractively baritonal, a feature shared by the greatest Wagnerian tenor of his day, Ramon Vinay, but by this stage it has lost all beauty of tone and Siegmund's narratives fall ungratefully on the ear. I made a point of careful comparison between the 1954 studio performance and this. As for comparison, there is none; the voice is barely recognisable as the one we hear in the Fürtwängler set. I note that rather disingenuously - or perhaps wisely - none of the promotional blurbs for this recording mentions Suthaus's performance. Now we know why: this is 'Hamlet' without the Prince.
This is all the more regrettable when set against singing of the
standard provided by Nilsson and her co-performers. Jean Madeira
as Fricka provides sturdy, refulgent tone with ringing top notes;
she is I wonderfully impassioned in her vocal acting, and presents
a force for Wotan to reckon with. It is interesting, too, to note
the presence of rising star Christa Ludwig among the Valkyries
as Waltraute. Of the other principal roles, I have always had
something of an aversion to Hotter's Wotan but accept that
in his 1953 Ring cycle with Clemens Krauss he is in magisterial
voice, at the very peak of his prowess. Here, however, he seems
to be having a bad night, perhaps the result of the allergies
which blighted his career, or perhaps the decline in his voice,
which became apparent by the time he was recording the 'Ring'
for Solti, is beginning. He sounds tired during the closing stages;
we hear the blare, rockiness, and characteristic 'woofiness'
which gradually impaired Hotter's sonorous bass-baritone manifesting
themselves. This is still a massively authoritative impersonation
of Wotan - but not a patch on that of George London three years
later for Leinsdorf.
Hunding is sung, according to IDIS, by Otto (sic) Frick. It makes me wonder just how much attention is being paid by those who control the production quality of these records. Surely someone might have noticed that they had called the foremost German bass of that day by the wrong name, on the back cover? It's right in the cast list in the liner notes. Anyway, Gottlob Frick is in typically trenchant, saturnine voice, making Hunding a truly menacing character.
The final star singer in a major role is Leonie Rysanek. Her major virtues as a singer are much in evidence - refulgent top notes, amplitude of tone, depth of feeling - and some of her - admittedly negligible - faults, too, such as a certain clumsiness in the middle of the voice. I prefer a more vulnerable, silvery vocal personality for Sieglinde such as that provided by Gre Brouwenstjin or Gundula Janowitz. Even so, Rysanek presents a fully realised, wholly credible and magnificently vocalised account.
With so much fine singing to reward the listener, surely the relative weakness of Suthaus's contribution can be tolerated, especially when the conducting and orchestral playing is so fine? You will note that I have not yet mentioned the quality of sound, a crucial factor given the strength of competition from live and studio recordings of the same era, many featuring the same artists. The sound is in fact pretty standard for a live recording of this time: sometimes a bit dim, and frequently scratchy and congested when the volume peaks or there is any ensemble. It's no aural treat but it's listenable with a little good will. However, there is one repeated flaw: sudden drop-outs into silence or lurches resulting in a lost bar or two of music. The most significant and damaging among these occur in the Prelude, the 'Ride of the Valkyries', Wotan's 'Leb wohl' - which should be so moving but is here disrupted - and just before 'Loge, hör!'in the finale. Documentation is minimal - a cast-list, the cues and three photos - but given that one of the few pieces of information vouchsafed to us is the announcement proudly encircled by laurel leaves that the recording has been 'Digitally remastered by Danilo Profumo at Philip & Cyril Studio Vignate (Milan) April 2008', it would have shown refreshing candour if IDIS had alerted the listener or prospective buyer to these deficiencies in the master tape.
In the 100th anniversary of Karajan's birth, this so-called 'World Premiere Recording' on CD - although Myto has also produced its own, considerably cheaper issue - is obviously of historical importance. Karajan and Nilsson completists will want it, despite its sonic and vocal limitations, for the conductor's mastery and the great soprano's bravura. She sings as if she hasn't a nerve in her body despite the avowed apprehension she confesses in her autobiography on this, one of the biggest moments in her career. There are, however, compelling alternatives. If you want better all-round sound and singing of a similar stature but with a more satisfying Siegfried, I would recommend either Suthaus's younger, superior self in the Fürtwängler recording, Leinsdorf's electrifying version with Nilsson, Vickers and London or, if you want Karajan conducting in his later, more controversial, 'chamber-style' Wagner, try his 1966 studio recording.