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CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Das Rheingold (1869)
Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Clemens Krauss
rec. live, in concert, Bayreuth Festival, 8 August 1953
Full cast details at end of review
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO039 [2 CDs: 145:15]


CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Die Walküre (1870)
Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Clemens Krauss
rec. live, in concert, Bayreuth Festival, 9 August 1953
Full cast details at end of review
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO040 [3 CDs: 210:55]

CD & Download: Pristine Classical 

Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Siegfried (1876)
Choir and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Clemens Krauss
rec. live, in concert, Bayreuth Festival, 10 August 1953
Full cast details at end of review
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO041 [4 CDs: 242:11]
Experience Classicsonline

One “Ring” to rule them all? Well; maybe. It’s a party game for Wagnerians without a winner; the big obstacle to advocacy of this 1953 live recording was always the dim, recessed sound of the orchestra. Those for whom the “Ring” is primarily a music-drama for orchestra and voices have always balked at the elevation of this set; those who first seek mighty Wagnerian voices are to some degree blinded by the vocal quality of the stellar cast assembled here and prepared to forgive those moments, such as when Donner gathers the mists about him and strikes the rock with his hammer, when the impact of the orchestral sound is sadly distant.

However, this enterprising remastering by Pristine Audio goes a long way towards countering those objections and will for many permit this famous cycle to take its place at the head of a long line, even if it is mono and can never rival the “Sonicstage” splendours of John Culshaw’s Decca set. Pristine’s sound engineer Andrew Rose understandably hesitated to undertake the task given that Opera d’Oro/Allegro had already issued a beautifully packaged bargain box-set of the whole thing - but this new incarnation leaves it in the dust, sonically speaking. By comparison, the Opera d’Oro sound is cavernous and bleary; Pristine have given it much more warmth, presence and definition. The blare has been reduced and the all-important orchestral detail now emerges more clearly. This improved sound has the effect of making the orchestra seem to play better; on previous issues it could sound more like a high school band than the same orchestra which the year before had been led to the heights in Wieland Wagner’s new “Tristan und Isolde” under Karajan. There are still moments when ensemble goes to pot - the “Ride of the Valkyries” is not its finest hour - but we must remember that this is a live performance, with its pitfalls and imperfections. It is also worth pointing out that it is not fair to judge the sound quality of the whole cycle by “Das Rheingold”; although it’s perfectly listenable. I am sure that by the second night the Decca sound engineers had worked out better microphone placement and made the appropriate adjustments to equipment sound-levels based on the experience of the first night’s recording; there is a noticeable improvement in the sound of “Die Walküre” onwards. At the time of reviewing, only the first three operas have been released by Pristine but “Götterdämmerung” must be imminent - and I shall make sure that I acquire it.

Apart from its inherent virtues, the legendary status of this production was enhanced by the fact that its conductor, Clemens Krauss, was dead within nine months. Krauss is today widely reviled for the fact that he is perceived as one of the worst “Nazi collaborator” conductors - yet he and his wife, the celebrated soprano Viorica Ursuleac collaborated with the Cook sisters to smuggle Jews to safety in England. Leaving that aside, Krauss was clearly a skilled Wagner practitioner who favoured a fleet, forward-moving pulse but also knew how to give his singers space and to achieve the required stillness in the more reflective moments of the drama. His approach is light-years away from the sturdy Kapellmeister grind adopted by such as Knappertsbusch and to my mind far preferable. My one serious disappointment lies in Krauss’s failure to generate enough excitement at the end of Act 1 of “Die Walküre” when the explosive passion of the incestuous twins is uncovered. He is rhythmically too slack here and cannot emulate the inexorable drive of Bruno Walter in 1935 or Leinsdorf in his neglected 1961 recording, but elsewhere, in general, Krauss sustains tension admirably.

The cast is extraordinary; all the more so in an age bereft of Wagner singers. Vinay’s effortful Siegmund, for all his musicality and burnished tone, cannot be considered the equal of Walter’s Melchior but he is a fine actor and has all the notes. Windgassen’s first essay as Siegfried is compromised by his intermittently bleating tone, some pardonable slips and a characteristic, infuriating anticipation of the beat in the forging scene. He is no-one’s youthful ideal as Siegfried, but where is his like today? I admire Regina Resnik’s impassioned Sieglinde although it has generally been considered a weakness. Astrid Varnay, while not having the laser intensity of Nilsson, exhibits extraordinary vocal commitment and stamina as Brünnhilde, some scooping apart. Josef Greindl assumes three pivotal bass roles as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen, and is far steadier than was sometimes the case; a proper German “black” bass to chill the marrow. But for me, and for all the virtues of the other singers, the two stars of this cycle are Gustav Neidlinger and Hans Hotter.

Neidlinger’s Alberich is a fully-formed assumption: malevolence and despair incarnate, incredibly steady and incisive. He makes a formidable adversary to Hotter’s Wotan.

The improved sound allows us to hear the slight wheeze in Hotter’s singing no doubt attributable to his chronic hay fever, but for the most part the sonority of his bass his awe-inspiring. I admit that I never “got” Hotter before listening to this set but my impressions were gained from hearing him recorded too late in the Solti cycle, when his tone had loosened and become “woofy”. Here his authority and commanding vocalisation really do conjure up a god - yet conversely he is humanity and tenderness incarnate in “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”; he inflects the text with the heart-breaking intensity of a seasoned Lieder-singer.

Other famous names from the 1950s feature in even relatively minor supporting roles. This consistency and strength of casting in combination with Krauss’s alert direction have always endeared this “Ring” to Wagnerians but this remastering by Pristine will be instrumental in encouraging a new generation of “Ring” aficionados previously deterred by the primitive sound to become acquainted with a great Bayreuth monument. It will not replace Solti or Karajan for beauty of sound, but it is now the front-runner as a supplement.

Ralph Moore 

Full cast lists
Das Rheingold
Wotan - Hans Hotter
Donner - Hermann Uhde
Froh - Gerhard Stolze
Loge - Erich Witte
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger
Mime - Paul Kuen
Fasolt - Ludwig Weber
Fafner - Josef Greindl
Fricka - Ira Malaniuk
Freia - Bruni Falcon
Erda - Maria von Ilosvay
Woglinde - Erika Zimmermann
Wellgunde - Hetty Plümacher
Flosshilde - Gisela Litz

Die Walküre
Siegmund - Ramón Vinay
Sieglinde - Regina Resnik
Wotan - Hans Hotter
Brünnhilde - Astrid Varnay
Hunding - Josef Greindl
Fricka - Ira Malaniuk
Gerhilde - Brünnhild Friedland
Ortlinde - Bruni Falcon
Waltraute - Lise Sorrell
Schwertleite - Maria von Ilosvay
Helmwige - Liselotte Thomamüller
Siegrune - Gisela Litz
Grimgerde - Sibylla Plate
Rossweisse - Erika Schubert

Siegfried - Wolfgang Windgassen
Mime - Paul Kuen
Brünnhilde - Astrid Varnay
Wanderer - Hans Hotter
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger
Fafner - Josef Greindl
Erda - Maria von Ilosvay
Waldvogel - Rita Streich



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