Just how much of Wagner’s music did Wagner want you to
hear? It is worth
reading Frederic Spotts’ Bayreuth: a history of the Wagner festival
discusses Wagner’s sunken orchestra pit at his purpose-built Bayreuth Festspielhaus
and further care as producer of the first Ring productions that the orchestra
should never overwhelm the text. Spotts recounts Richard Strauss’s assertion
that “Wagner the composer was willing to sacrifice his music for the sake
of Wagner the dramatist”. The orchestra should never overwhelm the text
or stage action as Wagner aimed to create a new form of ‘total artwork’ or ‘music-drama’.
Spotts describes how Bayreuth’s orchestra pit features a forward cowling
and sound dampener at the rear which frame a unique sunken platform for orchestra
and conductor on six wide steps, descending from the audience side towards the
stage. In the theatre audience attention is further kept focused on the drama
as the orchestra and light from the pit are hidden from view. Not everyone liked
this setup. Wilhelm Furtwängler expressed doubts saying balances should
be left to the conductor. Karajan, ever the egocentric, even wondered whether
a gap could be sawed out so the audience could watch him conduct!
Someone who certainly thought he knew better, for recordings at least, was Decca
producer John Culshaw. His pioneering stereo studio Ring
, begun in 1957, rebalanced
the orchestra with unmatched parity against the singers. Instrumental leitmotifs
and sheer orchestral heft emerged as never before on record to create a theatre
of the mind revealing new psychological depths for the home listener. Perhaps
the absence of visual drama meant Culshaw could get away with the orchestral
rebalance. Multi-mic wizardry, some would say gimmickry, ensured the text was
not swamped. But would Wagner still have approved?
If nothing else Culshaw’s newly imagined aural stage forced open the debate.
Later the 1955 live Bayreuth cycle conducted by Joseph Keilberth was finally
published in 2006 as the true first stereo Ring and most critics preferred
the reinstatement of the natural Bayreuth balances. Yet even there listeners'
perceptions are obviously modified through the engineers’ art. During
eighty plus years of recording in Wagner’s Festspielhaus there were numerous
microphone set-ups so there is varied representation on record of the authentic
Bayreuth sound. Questions of orchestral balance affecting the drama in recordings
The radio engineers behind this 1956 live Ring
opted for an orchestral
image far more diminished than the 1955 Keilberth Ring
the unique Bayreuth blended sound is certainly evident but Wagner's orchestral sonorities
are constantly under-represented. Timps, woodwind and brass might as well be
half way down Bayreuth’s Green Hill. Worse the dynamic impact of Wagner's
miraculous score is often sunk. Try the orchestral explosion of joy and anticipation
at the end of the Götterdämmerung
duet where the brass and timpani
lack the visceral presence to lift the spirits. Worse, the mighty cumulation
that closes Götterdämmerung
is underwhelming. Throughout the
listener must mentally bring out the orchestral lines and imagine how magnificent
Knappertsbusch's orchestra might have sounded if the microphones had been sensibly
placed. You might subsequently feel Culshaw had a point even if he took it too
Orchestral losses focus attention on the voices and luckily, for the most
part, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner's carefully nurtured 1950s vocal team
really deliver. Hans Hotter is a totally satisfying Wotan; simply stunning in
the Act 3 Walküre Farewell. His voice is beautifully graded from loud authority
to hushed inwardness. This acting would befit a great Shakespearian tragedian
tackling Lear. It is interesting to compare his lyric and more conversational
delivery under the ebullient Krauss in 1953 with the greater emphasis on extended
legato here. Interestingly a slight unsteadiness has crept in since the Krauss
broadcast. Windgassen is yet again mostly a dream Siegfried and, amazingly, also
covers as Siegmund for an indisposed Ramon Vinay. However Windgassen is a lot
more accurate in singing on the note for Keilberth in 1955. Here Windgassen
can push ahead of Knappertsbusch, noticeably in Walküre
I wanted to enjoy Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde, I really did. I’ve
read her autobiography 55 years in 5 acts
from cover to cover and am impressed
with the roles and career trajectory of this extraordinary artist. Her stage
debut began at the Metropolitan Opera as Sieglinde in 1941 aged only 23
and with less than a day’s notice. Varnay went on to sing at great opera
houses in the Americas and Europe with signature roles including Brünnhilde,
Elektra, Ortrud and Senta. This 1956 Brünnhilde confirms the characteristics
for which Varnay was justly acclaimed: dramatic intensity, clear diction, generous
legato and vocal heft. Yet Varnay’s constant swelling into notes is bothersome.
The mannerism is sometimes so acute one wonders whether it is a tuning issue.
And Varnay’s tone is fruity, sometimes even matronly, in the lower and
middle registers. Brightness best appears when Varnay unfurls her thrilling top
notes with greater emphasis on the head voice. Anne Evans for Barenboim may not
have Varnay’s power but her precision and alluring tone are preferable.
Legendary reputations can mislead so do try to listen to Knappertsbusch’s
conducting with fresh ears. There is magisterial command of line and the saturated
orchestral palette. Grand passages such as the orchestral prelude to Act
, Hagen’s Watch, Wotan’s kissing away Brünnhilde’s
godhead and the entry of the gods into Walhalla have real seriousness of purpose
and weight. Dramatic intensity is illumined from within rather than pressed upon
Wagner’s score. Yet Act I Walküre
is radiant rather than passionately
engaged and Act III Siegfried
curiously fails to go airborne at the close.
Occasionally phrasing can turn sluggish. The Walküre Ride sounds less like
the flying warriors we hear under Krauss and Furtwängler than tanks battling
through muddy trenches. Such vagaries are all redeemed in the grandly elevated
Immolation although both the sound engineering and Varnay are superior in Kna’s
Maggi Payne’s remastering from an original set of broadcast tapes is impressive
and there is an informative, occasionally critical, commentary in the booklet
by William H Youngren. Youngren expresses “bewilderment” that Knappertsbusch
shows “skill and insight” in Wotan’s difficult Walküre
monologue yet conducts a “dreadful retard at bar 54 of the Prelude”.
If only all record companies allowed booklet essay writers such freedoms! There
is no libretto or cued synopsis. Interestingly Music & Arts can fit ‘monumental’ Knappertsbusch’s
1956 Walküre onto three CDs whilst the 1955 Keilberth (Testament) and 1953
Krauss (Opera D'Oro) are spread over four.
Poor engineering prevents this from being a first or even second Ring. Newcomers
are best to snaffle Barenboim’s cycle at little extra cost. For an historic
turn first to 1953 Krauss or 1955 Keilberth, in fine stereo.
The 1953 RAI Ring
(EMI) is impossible to supersede in terms of Furtwängler’s
conducting at least. If you must hear Knappertsbusch - and you should - cry “Heiaha!
Heiaha! Hojotoho! Hojotoho!
“ as you fly towards Götterdämmerung
at Bayreuth in 1951 (Testament) or at the Bavarian State Opera in 1955 (Orfeo). The
conventional orchestral pit at Munich reveals completely different internal balances
to the benefit of woodwinds, timpani and brass. Proof that Furtwängler was
right in thinking Wagner should have trusted conductors more?