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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (Highlights)

Das Rheingold (1869): 1. He da! He da! He do! [2:15]; 2. Zur Burg führt di Brücke [1:39]; 3. Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge [3:24]; 4. Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu [0:48]; 5. Rheingold! Rheingold! [3:33]
Die Walküre (1870): 6. Winterstürme wichen den Wonnemond [3:03]; 7. Du bist der Lenz [1:56]; 8. Oh süβeste Wonne! [6:19]; 9. Siegmund heiβ ich und Siegmund bin ich! [3:43]; 10. Ride of the Valkyries [5:53]; 11. Loge, hör! [1:02]; 12. Magic Fire Music [3:37]
Siegfried (1876)
13. Was am bester er kann [3:59]; 14. Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert! [1:52]; 15. Du holdes Vöglein (Forest Murmurs) [3:13]; 16. Nun sing! Ich lausch dem Gesang [3:54]
Götterdämmerung (1876)
17. O heilige Götter, hehre Geschlechter! [2:25]; 18. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [5:47]; 19. Siegfried’s Funeral March [6:48]; 20. Grane, mein Roβ, sie mir gegruβt! [3:12]; 21. Zurück vom Ring! [3:32]
see end of review for singers
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Herkulessaal, Munich, 1988-91
Experience Classicsonline

To coincide with the re-release of Haitink’s complete Ring at budget price (see review) EMI have reissued their 1-disc set of highlights on their budget label, Classics for Pleasure. Compiling less than 80 minutes of highlights from this mighty work is an all but impossible task, and we should salute anyone who tries. Nevertheless, I was left feeling that I had sampled enough of this set to give me an adequate taster without wanting to go much deeper.
The extracts themselves are well chosen. The longest chunks are the full entrance of the gods into Valhalla and an extended section of the love music from Act 1 of Walküre. We are also given the ubiquitous Ride of the Valkyries, the Rhine Journey and Funeral March. Everything else feels more bitty, but what else can you expect on only one CD? Turning first to the singing, it is almost uniformly good. James Morris’s Wotan sounds powerful and exciting, more so than I had heard him elsewhere. His peroration at the end of Rheingold captures the young god’s idealism and excitement at the prospects of his new home. There is a searing nobility, even majesty in his command of the role. Furthermore, we can feel his pulse quicken with excitement after the first appearance of the Sword motif, and thereafter his singing becomes more energised at the thought of his hopes for the future. The lesser gods are all taken very well indeed with some real star casting. Special mention to the slithery Loge of Heinz Zednik, long unsurpassed in this role. The acoustic placing of the Rhinemaidens sounds just right here, distant but still clear.
Things aren’t quite so successful in Walküre. Cheryl Studer makes a secure, if somewhat matronly, Sieglinde, though she misses the excitement as her recognition of her brother slowly dawns. Reiner Goldberg’s Siegmund is altogether less pleasant to listen to. His voice feels hollow and coarse for the Winterstürme, with little of the virility one would hope for in this role. He barks out the closing moments of the act with squally insecurity. His son, Siegfried, is much more successful. From hearing him on the Levine and Barenboim Rings I have long thought that Siegfried Jerusalem was the most successful modern exponent of the role, and this recording only confirmed this. He sings the forging song with complete security and more than a little boyish petulance. His virile, excitable tone conveys all of the hero’s youth and optimism, though the clanging of the anvil is placed rather uncomfortably forward and has a tendency to drown him out. He tempers this for the Forest Murmurs and his exchange with the Woodbird is enchanting before he takes off with even more impetuosity at the end of the Act. It’s quite a treat to have Kiri as the Woodbird: her tone is beautifully natural, though she doesn’t seem comfortable with the rapid German pronunciation.
In many ways, however, the most interesting vocal aspect is the one we hear least of. Eva Marton’s Brünnhilde has long been the most criticised aspect of this set, and it can surely be no accident that we hear so little of her here. The short extracts from Götterdämmerung only confirm her dangerous insecurity in this role. There seems to be no centre to the voice; instead she struts around the notes, struggling to the top and sounding uncomfortably insecure when she gets there. There is a noticeable beat in all of the big climaxes in both the Prologue and Immolation scenes, and it makes for very unpleasant listening. Perhaps she gets better elsewhere, but in view of the competition I wouldn’t choose to listen to this Brünnhilde again.
Haitink is the anchor that holds everything together. The first time I heard him conduct Wagner was in his Covent Garden Parsifal in December 2007, which he directed with security, precision and architectural vision. Happily the same is true here. He shapes the big climaxes very well, such as the buoyant yet empty optimism at the end of Rheingold, and the tender beauty that lies at the heart of the Magic Fire Music. He is most impressive in the Götterdämmerung interludes: the Rhine Journey really does feel like a journey with a sense of momentum and purpose that climaxes in the emergence of the Rhine theme, sweeping all before it in a most impressive manner. The same is true of the Funeral March which has a nihilistic inevitability to it. Those brass chords thunder out with inexorable doom, and the ringing brass theme at the end sounds all the more desolate for the backward-looking loss it conveys. If he is a bit less solid in his control of tempi at the end of the Immolation then this is easily forgiven. Less easy to forget is the thundering collapse of the Gibichung Hall which is so loud that it drowns out the music for nearly ten seconds! Haitink is supported at every turn by the Bavarian RSO who play with the utmost dedication and an emphasis on beauty over all else.
As a disc of highlights this one is successful enough, and it would tempt me to explore the complete set were it not for Eva Marton’s Brünnhilde. If you’re looking for a one-disc set of Ring highlights, though, you won’t find better than Karajan’s selection on DG, provided you can cope with the casting inconsistencies. His unifying sense of momentum is even more striking than Haitink’s and the singing is super, not least from Thomas Stewart as the Walküre Wotan. Furthermore he has the peerless Berlin Philharmonic as his orchestra, before whom all else must yield. No-one can really be satisfied with Ring highlights, though. With so many sets available so cheaply these days, just take the plunge and go for the whole thing.
Simon Thompson
James Morris (baritone) – Wotan
Eva Marton (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor) – Siegfried
John Tomlinson (baritone) – Hagen
Reiner Goldberg (tenor) – Siegmund
Cheryl Studer (soprano) – Sieglinde
Peter Haage (tenor) – Mime
Kiri te Kanawa (soprano) – Woodbird
Andreas Schmidt (baritone) – Donner
Peter Seiffert (tenor) – Froh
Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo) – Fricka
Heinz Zednik (tenor) – Loge
Julie Kaufmann (soprano) – Woglinde
Silvia Herman – Wellgunde
Susan Quittmeyer – Flosshilde
Anita Soldh (soprano) – Gerhilde
Ruth Falcon (soprano) – Helmwige
Ute Walther (soprano) – Waltraute
Ursula Kunz (soprano) – Schwerteleite
Silvia Hermann (soprano) – Ortlinde
Margaretha Hintermeier (soprano) – Siegrune
Carolyn Watkinson (soprano) – Grimgerde
Margarita Lilowa (soprano) – Roβweiβe

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