My first experience of this Thielemann conducted Ring cycle was hearing the broadcast of its 2007 staging. I recall being very impressed by the playing of the orchestra, by the overall conception of the conductor and by many of the key scenes under his baton too. I was less impressed by the singing, however. Even the standout performances were a notch or two below the achievements of the best recorded from the past and there were certainly cast members who left a good deal to be desired. This CD recording on Opus Arte was made in Summer 2008 by the same Bavarian Radio team as the previous year’s broadcast and you will see that my conclusion on it is pretty much the same.
This is the first ever CD release by Opus Arte and so is a landmark in itself. Hitherto known only for DVD and Blu-Ray releases with an already starry roster of opera house and festival clients, their new long-term relationship with the Bayreuth Festival under its new regime must be behind their venture into audio only. Enthusiasts like me for DVD and Blu-Ray opera need not worry, however. This CD release is quickly followed by a DVD/Blu-Ray of the Marthaler/Schneider “Tristan und Isolde” from last year and there even seems to be a possibility of at least the “Walküre” from the current Ring emerging in vision later with future Bayreuth productions to follow on DVD and Blu-Ray over the next few years. A DVD of this cycle would have needed a completely different array of judgement criteria. Now we are truly in the era of “opera at home” I am firmly convinced that direction, design, acting and casting decisions weigh equally heavily with musical ones when dealing with releases we are going to experience over and over. In fact I even believe that when dealing with DVD and Blu-Ray a case can be made for considering the musical qualities below that of what we see on screen. But that is a subject for another day. This is a CD recording and so we are back in a previous era of evaluation and comparison. There are other Bayreuth CD Rings to tempt the buyer, after all.
This is blatantly marketed as Christian Thielemann’s Ring. Look at the box. The two names on the front are his and Wagner’s. The main cast members are listed on the side but one look at the booklets will leave you in no doubt that the great man is the one we are intended to keep in our minds as we listen - Thielemann that is, not Wagner. You will look through the booklets in vain for mention of the stage director Tankred Dorst, for example. They would never have been able to get away with that in a DVD release. So does Thielemann’s part deserve all the attention? On balance I think it does. In fact the main reason for buying this set must be cited as Thielemann. First of all he certainly has a grasp of the whole work as a symphonic entity. Impossible to point to examples to illustrate this because it only emerges as you experience the whole recording from start to finish. Suffice to say that at no point was I aware of lacunae or of scenes or passages that did not continue to lead me on to the next - scene to scene, act to act, opera to opera. I suppose to put it in literary terms, this interpretation by Thielemann is a real “page-turner”. To be able to realise that in “live” performance over the full fifteen hours is a great achievement. It speaks of deep knowledge of the score and how to realise it. As you will see, cast and especially orchestra follow him faithfully too. Thielemann is also very aware of the inner detailing of the scoring but never at the expense of that wholeness which is so evident. It is a fine balance but he pulls it off. There is a hint from time to time of Karajan’s much-vaunted “chamber-like” quality in that the score’s many layers are always there and taken care of. But Thielemann is always his own man not some imitator. There is excitement where needed - the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, the Immolation - but always within those symphonic bounds already mentioned; no one part ever overshadows another. He can do the “dirty end” of the scoring also, the magic, low register passages. The scene with Fafner in Siegfried is a good example of this. But then later in the same opera listen to the ecstatic light he lets in to the score for Brünnhilde’s awakening for complete contrast. Every base is covered and with confidence. Thielemann is a few notches below the Solti “shock and awe” landscape, but there are many who will have no complaints about that. There is more of the introvert to Thielemann. His overall tempi, whilst never hanging fire like Knappertsbusch so often does, do not ever tempt from me the epithet “quick” that you might conclude after Boulez or Böhm. He makes everything fit so well and to grow from top to bottom. Furtwängler could press forward when he needed to but he was a lot more plastic in his tempi bar-to-bar than Thielemann would ever dream of being; maybe that is an old-era way now anyway. Something that Thielemann shares with Furtwängler is the ability to accompany the conversational passages, investing them with equal importance. Take the first act of Siegfried as an example. He can make the orchestra into a third character, commenting on what is going on just as Furtwängler did. So am I saying that Thielemann is a “man for all seasons” Ring conductor? That you can hear in his interpretation aspects of everyone else? It’s not as simple as that. I am convinced that what emerges from him is something very distinctive and well-deserving of your attention, proving again that this work is inexhaustible for the great conductor.
As I have indicated, it is when considering the singers that doubts about the merits of this recording enter. Let me take the four core cast members first. Wotan is sung by Albert Dohmen. He is a fine musician and sings all the notes without strain or stress. In “Rheingold” I would have liked a more youthful vigour but he is always absorbing and involving. He changes well to the more experienced god in “Walküre” too and his great Act 2 narration is very moving. The big problem is with his Wanderer in “Siegfried” where he doesn’t appear to have changed at all. He is still the angry and disappointed god from the previous opera where something much more veiled and crushed is surely called for and that is disappointing. With Andrew Shore’s Alberich it is a case of the other way round. He starts off in Rhinegold as very disappointing. No Rhine maiden could surely be frightened of this wimp. But then in Siegfried he seems to have had a reboot and a driven quality enters his singing. It is, I think, a bad sign that I remember him best from his shortest appearance in “Götterdämmerung” rather than his longest in “Rhinegold”. Did something go wrong that night? With Stephan Gould’s Siegfried it is a case of ups and downs. In Act 1 of “Siegfried’ I was more aware of Mime. Maybe Gould was rationing his energies for the forging scene which is alright but not great. But when he awakens Brünnhilde in Act 3 he really does unbend and was a real pleasure to listen to, involved, lyrical and passionate. But then in “Götterdämmerung” he is under-characterised again. His death was not the great tragic fall that it should be. Finally there is Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde. This is very much an alright performance but in the presence of competitor sets that boast the greatest Wagner sopranos of all time she is up against it and “alright” cannot be good enough. First off I dislike her vibrato, but I am well aware that I may be in the minority here. Take also the scenes in “Götterdämmerung” where she believes that she has been betrayed by Siegfried. There is not enough of the wronged woman in her voice for me here. Don’t get the impression that her performance fails completely, though; quite the contrary. Like Dohmen she can be absorbing and moving. Her Immolation is certainly impressive. But there is more to this part than she gets. There are also some passages where her upper range deserts her and becomes a little sketchy.
The next division of characters do better. Eva-Maria Westbroek and Endrick Wottrich are Siegmund and Sieglinde. Maybe because they do not have to progress their characters across more than one opera, they fare better. Westbroek is genuinely moving in her plight and Wottrich sings a Wintersturme that is up there with the best. I also liked Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding very much. He has a plangency that ought to be wrong for Hunding but his portrayal sticks in your mind as bringing out the humanity in this wronged man. These three make the Walküre Act 1 one of the highlights of this cycle. Hans-Peter König is Hagen and in his case I think it is simply that he is miscast. He is a superb musician with a lyrical delivery but there is not enough evil in him. This is “black Hagen”, after all. Whether this is more to do with the production that we cannot see I have no way of knowing. He is a pleasure to listen to, but that’s not right and Ralf Lukas’s Gunther therefore doesn’t contrast strongly enough with his half-brother. However, as his sister Gutrune Edith Haller is absolutely superb. For such a small part in the whole cycle she pulls off the trick of making us remember her and sympathise. The other great standout in the cycle is Gerhard Siegel’s Mime. He does manage to progress his character throughout and in Siegfried he avoids the wheedling and whining we so often hear to emerge as a character of some authority. It is a fascinating portrayal that I would have liked to have seen. Likewise Michelle Breedt as Fricka who manages the balance between intelligence and rage very well especially in “Walküre”. As for Christa Mayer as Waltraute, it was like listening to an oratorio singer with little idea of what she was actually singing about.
There is some doubling up in the usual parts. The Rhinemaidens are nothing special and likewise the Norns. That said, there are no words high enough to praise the Bayreuth chorus who keep up a great tradition. The orchestra are one of the principal glories of this cycle too. Nothing is beyond them or beneath them. They can play all-out in the big set-pieces and then pare down for the chamber-like passages. Their brass are grand and golden, their woodwind full of character - a special pleasure in the conversational passages already mentioned. The balance between them and the stage is also just about right. If I have a problem with the sound it is that I feel as if I am little too far back in the theatre. I also have the impression that whilst this is a Bayreuth theatre balance I have heard better examples of it on disc. There is a very rich bass end which you don’t normally expect, for example. Listen to the Keilberth or Böhm cycles and you will hear what I mean. In this set you are never far from just missing a singer’s contribution. The feeling of being there is strong, though, and that is important when listening to a recording made in this of all theatres.
So it comes down to the singers. Had this been a DVD then I would have been far more tolerant of any perceived shortcomings. It may have been the case that some of what I found wanting was accounted for by what they had been directed to do. Also, as I said earlier, when it comes to seeing as well as listening to an opera I am prepared to accept a lower standard of singing provided the acting is up to the mark and the director’s concept is sufficiently compelling. To those who are considering buying this set I would say that on balance you can do better if you want a Bayreuth cycle in sound only. The two Bayreuth sets that compete directly with it are those conducted by Joseph Keilberth on Testament and Karl Böhm on Philips. Both stereo, both “live”, both documenting in sound two productions directed on the ‘Green Hill’ by Wieland Wagner. Their casts are real golden era generations caught on the wing. The Keilberth from the 1950s and the Böhm from the 1960s. Böhm is quicker, lighter, more dramatic. Keilberth more monumental but just as compelling. The sound on both is closer-in, leaner and less bass-end. Against these sets I am afraid that not even Christian Thielemann's many virtues can make me prefer this new release to those. If it ever came out on DVD, however, then I might have a different recommendation to make.