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
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
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.