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Richard WAGNER
Der Ring Des Nibelungen

Sung in German
Siegfried - Wolfgang Neumann/Edward Cook (tenor)
Brünnhilde - Carla Pohl (soprano)
Wotan - John Wegner (bass-baritone)
Alberich - Oleg Bryjak (bass)
Siegmund - Edward Cook (tenor)
Sieglinde - Gabriela Maria Ronge (soprano)
Mime - Michael Novak (tenor)
Hunding - Frode Olsen (bass)
Gunther - Bodo Brinkmann (baritone)
Erda - Ortrun Wenkel (contralto)
Fricka - Zlatomira Nikolova (soprano)
Badische Staatskapelle
Günter Neuhold (conductor)
Recorded live at the Badischen Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Germany between 1993 and 1995
Das Rheingold [149’29"] Die Walküre [216’17"] Siegfried [233’25"] Götterdämmerung [245’29"]
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99801 [14CDs: 14 hours 4’40"]


There are, to date, twenty-three complete performances of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy conducted by Moralt, Gebhardt, Furtwängler, Stiedry, Karajan, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Kempe, Böhm, Swarowsky, Goodall, Boulez, Janowski, Haitink, Levine, Sawallisch, Barenboim and now by Günter Neuhold conducting the Badische Staatskapelle.

It should be made clear from the outset, but with no hint of appearing to be patronising, that there is no Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London or Gottlob Frick among the cast, nor a Polanski or Tomlinson. Karlsruhe is a provincial German opera house. There is no getting away from the fact that it is not in the premier league occupied by the likes of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne or Frankfurt. Having said that, one can still experience the customary thrills and emotional highs during the course of these fourteen wallet-packed CDs. No frills, there is a complete synopsis and German libretto, but no translation and absolutely no information about any of the cast. But then Brilliant Classics have to keep their costs down (and after all their complete Bach set runs to 160 discs) so that they can sell cheaply.

The sound is good, orchestral balance kept, Bayreuth-like, in the background unless they are unleashed in the preludes to each act, the journeys to and from Nibelheim, or later on Siegfried’s trek along the Rhine (an eventful journey it would appear, for he was Wolfgang Neumann when he set off but Edward Cook when we next hear him in Götterdämmerung, rather like Miss Elly in Dallas), the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried’s Funeral March. Rheingold flags at times, but the first act of Walküre gets off to a thrilling dash through the forest before the exhausted Siegmund slumps down before Hunding’s fireside. This act, the finest of all in The Ring in this reviewer’s opinion, contains passion and eroticism as well as threats of death and gloomy foreboding overshadowed by the sin of incest, and from ‘Winterstürme’ to the end of the act, including the extraction of the sword Nothung from the ash tree, this set begins to catch fire. Therein lies its problem. There are those whose singing is prone to dullness (such as Wegner’s disappointingly effortless Wotan which, apart from his angry entry searching for his errant daughter Brünnhilde in Act Three of Walküre, never makes much impact) and, as noted above, one wonders why two tenors are used for Siegfried.

As Sieglinde, Gabriela Maria Ronge is impassioned, dramatically fiery and clearly dying for her Siegmund (Edward Cook, who, in vocal terms, only just makes it to the end of the act) to come along to rescue her from the wife-beater Hunding, threateningly sung by Frode Olsen. Bryjak’s Alberich is also invested with a rich, dark bass, full of evil menace. The three Rhine maidens, the cause of the whole problem (why on earth do they tell Alberich that all he has to do is to renounce love and then the world is virtually his?), cavort and blend well in both the first and fourth evenings, Mime indulges in the usual semi-bleating characterisations as he tries to insinuate himself into Siegfried’s trust, while the eight daughters of Wotan "Hojotoho" their way through the sky to grand effect, each of them making the most of their brief solos and joining together with a wonderful combined sound of decibels. The Woodbird (her name is Tiny Peters so we are evidently talking wrens here) might have been one of them for she is rather too full-throated and tight-toned in the upper register, while Ortrun Wenkel’s Erda, never a purveyor of good news, is Mother Earth to the core. Fricka is the one character who, under threat from being overshadowed, often tends to come from behind when the Ring’s sopranos are judged (such as Helga Dernesch, Gabriele Schnaut and above all Waltraud Meier) and Zlatomira Nikolova is no exception on this set. Her encounter with Wotan in the first scene of the second act of Walküre leaves no holds barred in both dramatic and vocal terms, and even inspires Wegner to get off his vocal backside to a limited degree.

As Siegfried (Mark 1) Wolfgang Neumann’s is a voice you need to get used to, for he has two bad habits; his vibrato tends to cost the pitch its focal core, when he sings softly it becomes almost parlando (spoken) especially when he muses on the mother (Sieglinde) he never knew; either that or he has a habit of shouting when singing loudly. On the other hand Cook’s voice is not quite large enough but is at least free of his Doppelgänger’s habit of shouting. As Brünnhilde Carla Pohl’s bright soprano is at its best after twenty years rest asleep atop her mountain, in the final act of Siegfried, her weakness being one of forcing her sound and going sharp in the process.

In short this is not a set for Wagner devotees in search of top class singing (the orchestra is however consistently very good), but for those collectors who must have all of the complete sets available, or for those who are as yet uninitiated into this miraculous music, it is an inexpensive introduction without having to make do with just excerpts, and for that alone one should be grateful.

Christopher Fifield


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