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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Der Ring des Nibelungen - Highlights
Donald Grobe - Froh
Jon Vickers - Siegmund
Gundula Janowitz - Sieglinde
Thomas Stewart - Wotan
Jess Thomas - Siegfried
Thomas Stewart - Wanderer
Catherine Gayer - Woodbird
Helga Dernesch - Brünnhilde
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
Rec 1970s
DG Panorama 469 223-2 [two discs] [ADD] [153'38]

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The charisma of Karajan shines through every note of this potted Ring (the cycle dates from the late 'sixties), although whether or not one views this as a plus point depends on whether one is a Karajan-worshipper or a Wagnerite. Certainly, the impression these performances give is that Wagner's mythical world lies somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin.

Karajan's control of his orchestra is complete, so that the scene-painting is phenomenal. Witness (almost literally) the ageing of the gods in Rheingold, or 'Forest Murmurs' from Siegfried. But the aural experience remains rooted in the 'Karajan sound', and this can be distracting after a while. Thus, the Rhinemaidens are positively narcissistic and incapable of basic emotions (they hardly seem distressed as they lose the gold). Donald Grobe as Froh is certainly guilty of over-beautification as the gods traverse the bridge to Valhalla, and the undeniable weight of the BPO at the close of this 'Vorabend' is nowhere near enough to compensate for these failings.

The match of Jon Vickers (Siegmund) and Gundula Janowitz (Sieglinde) for highlights from Act 1 of Walküre is a good one. Vickers possesses the requisite power, while Janowitz has many shades of emotion at her disposal and a deep, veiled quality to her voice. Karajan carves out a sense of unfolding drama, being let down only by a lacklustre 'Nothung', and, towards the end, by a not quite ecstatic enough outpouring of love. Excerpts from Act 3 do bring real tenderness (Thomas Stewart as Wotan kissing the godliness from his daughter, for example), despite some over deliberate pacing from Karajan.

Jess Thomas's account of the title role of Siegfried shows his deeply musical side: he obviously lavished much thought on every phrase. Thomas Stewart is a powerful Wanderer. Only Catherine Gayer's Woodbird is disappointing in being over-tremulous, hardly the flighty, magical creature she should be. However, passages like 'Heil dir Sonne! Heil dir Licht' obviously held great attraction for Karajan and this comes through in the music's internal energy.

Finally, Götterdämmerung. The excerpts make it clear that this is the Brünnhilde (aka Helga Dernesch) show, aided and abetted by Karajan, now fully into his stride. Karajan's grasp of harmonic direction seems complete here, his account of Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March truly impressive. Unfortunately, Dernesch's voice is not quite full enough for the most dignified of farewells (the Immolation), despite some touching moments.

Mixed excerpts from a mixed Ring, then. Taken as a whole, Karajan fails to scale the heights of the greats (if you want to hear a great overall conception, try the Goodall cycle, currently being reissued by Chandos on their 'Opera in English' series). This remains a reminder of Karajan's determination to tread his own path at all costs. Sometimes, unfortunately, that cost involved the wishes of the composer himself.

Colin Clarke

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