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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen

Hans Hotter (bass-baritone) ... Wotan/Wanderer; Gustav Neidlinger (bass-baritone) ... Alberich; Alfons Herwig (baritone) - Donner; Hermann Uhde (baritone) - Gunther; Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano) - Gutrune/Freia/Sieglinde; Lore Wissmann (soprano) - Woglinde; Astrid Varnay (soprano) - Brünnhilde/Third Norn; Paula Lenchner (soprano) - Gerhilde/Wellgunde; Hilde Scheppan (soprano) - Helmwige; Gerda Lammers (soprano) - Ortlinde; Ilse Hollweg (soprano) - Woodbird; Georgine von Milinkovic (mezzo) - Fricka/Grimgerde; Elisabeth Schärtel (mezzo) - Waltraute; Jean Madeira (mezzo) - Rossweisse/Waltraute; Luisecharlotte Kamps (mezzo) - Siegrune; Maria von Ilosvay (mezzo) - Flosshilde/Second Norn; Jean Madeira (contralto) - Erda/First Norn; Maria von Ilosvay (contralto) - Schwertleite; Ludwig Suthaus (tenor) - Loge; Paul Kuen (tenor) - Mime; Josef Traxel (tenor) - Froh; Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) - Siegmund/Siegfried; Josef Greindl (bass) - Fasolt/Hunding/Hagen; Arnold Van Mill (bass) - Fafner
Bayreuth Festival Chorus; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. Bayreuth, 1956. ADD
MUSIC & ARTS CD-4009 [13 CDs: 908:00]
Experience Classicsonline

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 which 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 remain.

The radio engineers behind this 1956 live Ring opted for an orchestral image far more diminished than the 1955 Keilberth Ring. Yes, 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 far.

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 Act I.

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 III Siegfried, 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 1951 Götterdämmerung (Testament).

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 Bayreuth Ring 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 live 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?

David Harbin 

 


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