Richard WAGNER (1813-1833)
Der Ring des Nibelungen : Das Rheingold in 4 Scenes (1853-54); Die Walküre in 3 Acts (1854-56); Siegfried in 3 Acts (1856-71); Götterdämmerung in 3 Acts (1869-74)
Cast: Theo Adam; Birgit Nilsson; Helga Dernesch; Dorothea Siebert; Anja Silja; Annelies Burmeister; Ruth Hesse; Vera Soukupová; Hermin Esser; Erwin Wohlfahrt; Martti Talvela; Kurt Böhme; Gustav Neidlinger; Gerd Nienstedt; Wolfgang Windgassen; Liane Synek; Gertraud Hopf; Elisabeth Schärtel; James King; Sieglinde Wagner; Leonie Rysanek; Sona Cervena; Danica Mastilovic; Erika Köth; Marga Höffgen; Josef Greindl; Martha Mödl; Ludmila Dvoráková; Thomas Stewart
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Karl Böhm
rec. live, Bayreuth Festival, 1966-1967. Stereo. ADD
DECCA 478 2367 [14 CDs: 13:39:00]
This reissue might be new, but Böhm's Ring Cycle is already well known to Wagner aficionados, and to the internet's legion of armchair pundits. Their opinions vary, but the general consensus seems to be that:
• it is up there with the best of them, although the question of whether it gets top billing among Ring recordings comes down to your opinions of Solti and Karajan
• the cast is excellent, almost uniformly so, and has not since been surpassed on record
• the sound quality is very good for its time, and possibly on a par with Solti's cycle, although the technical problems here are different as it is a live rather than a studio recording.
For most Wagnerites then, it is a straight two-horse race between Solti and Böhm. In fact, the two sound very similar, and with good reason. These live recordings were made at Bayreuth in 1966-7 and many of the singers (Windgassen, Neidlinger, Nilsson) also appear on the Solti, which was completed only the previous year in 1965. By the mid-1960s, Decca were clearly world leaders in sound reproduction technology, and the singers in both cycles are served extremely well by the audio, although the orchestra is not as well recorded here as in the Solti, a consequence of the opera house venue.
The most important similarity between this recording and its predecessor is the approach taken by their respective conductors. Like Solti, Böhm is a control freak when it comes to Wagner, and everything here is coordinated with an iron grip from the podium. Both conductors are able to create real architecture from the symphonic shape of each of the acts, and also to ratchet up the suspense at each of the climaxes. Both conductors prioritise drama above all else, and in this sense Böhm has the upper hand. This may be because he is conducting a staged performance, or perhaps it is down to the insights the main singers brought from their time with Solti, but for whatever reason, Böhm makes you feel you are in the orchestra stalls. That's an important asset, although perhaps not the clincher.
The major criticism you'll read time and time again of Böhm's Ring Cycle is that his tempos are too fast. That is a fair judgement, but listening to long stretches of these recordings, it is clear that Böhm has thought through how these fast tempos will work and interconnect, meaning that he is able to generate both dramatic momentum and structural continuity through his often radical pacing. Many of the set-pieces - particularly the Rheingold Prelude and the Immolation Scene, feel breathless and even mechanical when heard out of context, but when heard at the start and end of whole acts that are performed this way, they make perfect sense. And it's not all taken at record-breaking speeds; Siegfried's Funeral Music is surprisingly slow, and actually quite limp in places.
All the singers give virtually flawless performances, at least to my ears, but they don't all cope as well with Böhm's relentless pace. One or two, and I'm thinking in particular of Theo Adam as Wotan and Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, sound cold and emotionless for long passages. It is hard to judge whether it is the conductor or the singers who are to blame. Certainly, Nilsson would have put in a more moving performance if she had been permitted a little more rubato. Some of the singers push in the opposite direction, giving intense emotion whether the conductor likes it or not. Anja Silja, for example, piles on the vibrato and coloratura as Freia, but her excesses don't necessarily balance Böhm's discipline. James King and Leonie Rysanek do better as Siegmund and Sieglinde, both following the letter and the spirit of Böhm's direction, making Die Walküre the opera in the cycle where everything adds up thanks to a real unity of intent between the stage and the pit. Dramatically, the most convincing performances are from the bad guys. Gustav Neidlinger is as sinister an Alberich as you could want, and Josef Greindl puts in a similarly show-stealing performance as Hagen.
One major advantage Solti has over Böhm is the Vienna Philharmonic. The Festspielorchester here are certainly good, and as you'd expect, they demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the music. But their woodwind soloists aren't as distinctive, their strings don't quite manage the same fullness of tone, and their trumpet section has a nasal timbre that can get quite annoying after a few minutes. The audio doesn't help them, and the thin sound, especially from the back of the pit is the one major disappointment of this cycle.
Another curious anomaly is the almost continuous audibility of the prompter, giving each of the singers their lines a few bars before their entry. I can only assume that Decca let this pass the first time round because home audio equipment then wasn't quite what it is today. In fairness, you have to turn it up high before it is a real problem. But if you are listening on good headphones it is even more evident, and difficult to ignore once you have noticed it.
The budget price reissue has its pros and cons. The main pro is the price, and while this isn't the cheapest Ring cycle on the market, it is the cheapest one that is worth buying. It also significantly undercuts any Solti re-master, which may be a determining factor for some. The packaging has been designed to resemble some sort of metal briefcase or tape canister - they are obviously pushing the archive angle. Wagner's face appears on a postage stamp, which doesn't make much sense to me. Inside, you get a small booklet and the discs each in plain paper slip-cases. The booklet contains cast lists, synopses and an essay by George Hall. Impressively, and unusually even for historic reissues, the essay is about the recording rather than the work and is very interesting, although it could do with being at least three times as long.
So, what is the final verdict - Solti or Böhm? Most opera fanatics put the quality of the singing at the top of their list of priorities, and on that count I'd have to call a draw, not least because of the overlap in casting and the superlative performances that the singers give for both conductors. The orchestral playing and the audio from the pit is a significant problem, at least for listeners like myself who place Wagner's skills in orchestration above his many merits in other operatic fields. But then, if it is the orchestra you want to hear, you would be better off with Karajan or Haitink.
Dramatic and structural integrity are the qualities that set Böhm apart from his fellow Wagnerians, and that sense of tight cohesion is increased for the buyer of this set by the fact that it comes in such a small, streamlined box. I can't in good conscience favour this over Solti's landmark recording (even with the price differential), but I can commend it on its own merits. However many interpretations of the Ring Cycle you have already heard, this one is definitely worth hearing. And to be honest, if you are even considering buying this set, you almost certainly own the Solti already.
However many interpretations of the Ring Cycle you have already heard, the Böhm is definitely worth hearing.