Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen - Explorations
Devised, presented and produced by Peter Bassett
CD 1: Das Rheingold [62:04]
CD 2: Die Walküre [55:10]
CD 3: Siegfried [70:25]
CD 4: Götterdämmerung [69:49]
Peter Bassett (speaker)
With musical illustrations from Der Ring des Nibelungen, soloists, Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti. ADD/DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 7311 [4 CDs: 257:28]
 
Bases on a series of pre-performance lectures by Australian Wagner enthusiast and author Peter Bassett, this is essentially a narrative commentary serving as an introduction to Wagner’s great tetralogy. This 4 CD set does not really duplicate the famous Deryck Cooke’s 2 CD “Introduction” (Decca), being somewhat less technical and concentrating more on the way events inter-relate rather than the equally illuminating but more specific analysis of Wagner’s “Leitmotiven” that Cooke provides. Indeed the two are complementary, although I would say Cooke’s scholarly survey is musically and intellectually considerably more demanding. The booklet for Cooke’s “Introduction” provides snippets from the score to illustrate his points whereas the booklet for Bassett’s contains brief essays on the composer and his Gesamtkunstwerken, the origin of the names of characters and places in them, “Drama and Reminiscence”, “Dramatic Irony”, synopses of all four operas and a biography of the speaker - so it is fairly comprehensive.
 
Bassett is a genial commentator, his soft, refined Australian accent being very easy on the ear. Although the more seasoned listener might become a little impatient with his - albeit succinct - summaries of the action, as well as giving an authoritative overview, he frequently provides interesting insights into the significance of characters’ behaviour. For example, he makes us think about how the outsider Loge is the only god who regularly suggests that Wotan return the Ring to the Rhine maidens - or more properly, as Bassett points out in the booklet, “the Rhinedaughters”; the confusion arose by conflation with the “Flower Maidens” in Parsifal. Again, he submits an excellent explanation of how the orchestral Prelude to the “heroic comedy” Siegfried is a kind of portmanteau piece that presents with extraordinary economy all the main themes of the action to come before a note is sung. He emphasises the fairy tale origins of the opera, unpacking the signs, symbols and allegorical aspects of a work whereby nothing is quite what it appears to be. An interesting observation, which I had certainly not really mentally formulated previously, is how spectacularly unheroic the hero Siegfried is. As Bassett, points out, he is a naive babe in the woods, manipulated by everyone and failing to achieve anything of note beyond killing Fafner.
 
However, Bassett also makes many musical points, particularly concerning Wagner’s use of instrumental colour and musical illustrations are judiciously selected. He, like Cooke, draws these from Solti’s complete pioneering Ring. He explains how Wagner’s music conveys things about which the text remains silent - for example, how it tells us that the Wanderer is Wotan - and adduces some apt biographical conjecture to illuminate musical points, such as how the heart-breakingly poignant cello motif that represents Sieglinde’s yearning for love might reflect Wagner’s infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck and how in depicting the unhappy marriages of both gods and men Wagner must have drawn upon the experience of his own unfortunate union with Cosima. He elucidates the meaning and origin of central symbols such as the Ash Tree. He debunks the too mechanistic interpretation of Wagner’s leitmotifs and considers how foolish critics and commentators such as Hanslick were to ignore the context of myth and voice outrage at the twins’ incest in Die Walküre, comparing it with the “Adam and Eve” biblical account and giving the modern listener plenty to think about.
 
There are a few niggles; Bassett’s constant mispronunciation of “Siegfried” as “Sig-fried” rather than “Seeg-freed” is irksome. There are a few slips in his narration that needed a re-take and his pronunciation of the word “scion” as “skee-on” is simply quaint.
 
This is an enterprise that springs from a deep love and familiarity with the music and a desire to communicate its richness accessibly to a wider public. Bassett places Wagner’s music in the context of a German Romantic historical tradition deriving from ancient folk-tales. He is careful to explain Wagner’s indebtedness to Beethoven and Weber. His focus is more often upon the lyrical and expressive side of Wagner’s score than the better-known, Big Bow-wow “bleeding chunks” like “The Ride of the Valkyries”, and is all the better for it.  

Ralph Moore 

Springs from a deep love and familiarity and a desire to communicate the richness of this music accessibly to a wider public. 

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