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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, 4, 9, 22 March, 4 April 1950, Teatro alla Scala, Milan.
Individual operas available separately
[13 CDs: 2:30:07 + 3:32:13 + 3:45:11 + 4:08:09]

Given that we have had over sixty years to debate the various comparative merits of Furtwängler’s two live, Italian “Ring” cycles, I should first acknowledge that received wisdom opines that this 1950 La Scala “Ring” is the more incandescent. It is a stage performance rather than a series of concerts, and is, on balance and by a narrow margin, better cast but worse recorded. 

This XR re-mastering from Pristine certainly puts paid to the that last objection; I soon found myself completely absorbed by the performance and quite forgetful of the sound problems in previous issues which have for many audiophiles rendered a great account almost unlistenable. I know that I first heard it in the 1970s on a set of LPs from the “Everest” label. The fact that I soon offloaded them speaks for itself. The LP issue from “Murray Hill” is by all accounts no better and both are wildly off-pitch.
Although Andrew Rose cannot compensate for the inevitable tape disintegration in the masters, he has been able to do a great deal of tidying and even reduce the odd percussive cough so we can now hear Furtwängler’s special gift of making the music really “sing seethe or melt” as Deryck Cooke so vividly described it. He is unmatched by any rival conductor in his ability to convey his deep understanding of how Wagner’s themes and leitmotifs interrelate and derive from each other. He confers an arcing, architectural, compositional intensity on the whole “Ring”, reflecting its unity as a true “Gesamtkunstwerk”.
However, no amount of fine re-engineering can eliminate one persistent irritation. This is the constant, relentless, pitiless coughing from a La Scala audience who were clearly all heavy smokers and so unacquainted with Wagner as to find the more demanding passages less than absorbing. They are especially bronchial during the orchestral introduction to “Zu neuen Taten”. By contrast, the invited RAI audience was angelically placid until the time came for applause. Obviously the La Scala recordings provide a broader, more theatrical acoustic whereas the RAI broadcasts are narrower with voices more forward. That said, comparison with Pristine’s own excellent re-mastering of the RAI cycle also reveals that Andrew Rose has been able to uncover a far richer, deeper, more rounded sound for La Scala from a master tape which was evidently recorded at considerably higher volume than the RAI one. You can even hear pages of music being turned in between the hacking. Neither orchestra will ever sound voluptuous but now you can properly hear Furtwängler’s intent to shape key phrases beautifully. Try, for example his exquisite moulding of the music which denotes the bond of love between the Volsungs in Act of “Die Walküre”. The climax to that act is stupendous, despite a blooper from the brass coming in a bar early on “Wälsungen Blut”. Similarly, he makes the “Magic Fire Music” dance in just the way Barenboim does not and the conclusion to “Götterdämmerung” becomes the overwhelming, cosmic experience it should be.
I should mention a further consideration for purists: Furtwängler sanctioned two sizeable cuts in the La Scala performances, one in Wotan's second-act monologue in “Die Walküre” and another in the Siegfried-Wanderer confrontation in “Siegfried”. Neither seems to me to be of great importance but those who care about such things should stick with RAI.
Apart from these two sets, the other cycle which deserves consideration is the often overlooked and excellent one directed by Rudolf Moralt. This was recorded in war-scarred Vienna between 1948 and 1949 and featured many of the singers heard in Milan a year later.
In my previous review of the RAI cycle, regarding Furtwängler’s conducting I wrote, “In Milan, he is more driven and even at times manic, whereas in Rome the mood is broader and more brooding. His tempi at La Scala are almost as fast as Böhm's at Bayreuth in the 1966-67 Philips recording; here at RAI the tone for the whole cycle is loftier and more deliberate, although never dull.” In that review, I was also minded to redress what I saw as somewhat unjust criticism of the RAI orchestra. I stand by that verdict but following my recent listening to this restored La Scala “Ring” I think it must now clearly be adjudged superior to the RAI; this especially as the singers, too, are inspired by the atmosphere of a live performance.
The great bonus of the 1950 “Ring” is the presence of Flagstad, here 54 years old. She is shorn of a few top notes but still hits all four top Cs in Act 2 of “Die Walküre” and both in the duet which concludes “Siegfried”, even if the second one is only touched on. She takes the optional low A flat in the closing note. By this stage, Set Svanholm, too, is understandably tiring, yelping a few top notes and inevitably playing second fiddle to a fresher Flagstad but that extended, half-hour duet remains thrilling. We are otherwise privileged to hear her only extant complete Brünnhilde sung in sovereign voice. The middle of the voice occasionally curdles into a matronly tone but she is rock-steady and for the most part the top still rings out nobly. Varnay for Krauss and Mödl for Furtwängler in 1953 were both great vocal actresses but for many, despite a certain marmoreal imperturbability, Flagstad’s vocal amplitude carries the day.
The other major singer common to both Furtwängler cycles and indeed to the Moralt set, is Ferdinand Frantz as Wotan. He had a big, grand, brazen bass-baritone but is in fresher and more expressive voice in 1950, wholly commanding and riding the orchestra at the end of “Die Walküre” but also softening his tone to bid his beloved daughter farewell.
For some, the tenors in the La Scala “Ring” jointly constitute a comparative blot on the set. Certainly by modern standards none is less than good and we would be happy to hear any of them. Treptow was a fine Tristan for Knappertsbusch and excellent throughout for Moralt. Here he undertakes an almost too virile Froh and a first-rate Siegmund. His tone can be metallic and his delivery sometimes percussive but he is credibly heroic. Set Svanholm copes manfully with Siegfried and shines in the forging scene. He is never really imposing but nor is he ever an embarrassment. Max Lorenz’s Siegfried is decidedly worn, despite his being only 48 at the time. The middle of his voice is hollow and he has largely lost the famous ring although the top notes, even the sustained top C on “Hoiho!”is still - just - there. On balance, Suthaus in 1953 is decidedly better than Lorenz and there isn’t that much to choose between Windgassen, Svanholm and Treptow.
For me, despite his fine voice, compared with Frantz, Josef Hermann is not very successful as the Wanderer in “Siegfried”. His neat, lightish baritone is simply miscast; his voice is not the kind to make us believe that it has the heft to summon Erda from the depths. Höngen is a bit unsteady as both Fricka and Erda but she is marvellously acute with the text. Likewise, Ludwig Weber is rocky but imposing in no fewer than four roles: Fasolt, Hunding, the Dragon Fafner and Hagen. Konetzni’s bell-like soprano creates a spirited Sieglinde who is no milksop. She is a little careful but touching as Gutrune. The Rhine daughters at La Scala are less starry than those for RAI, missing Jurinac, but still very fine. Both Donners are good but Mattiello has more ring to his tone than Poell. Sattler’s experienced Loge has less sap to his voice than Windgassen but he makes a plausibly wily intellectual. All Furtwängler’s singers were hand-picked by him, so none is less than good whichever performance you favour, although I still demur at his choice of Wanderer. 
Documentation is minimal and no libretto is provided. However downloads include full scores of each of the operas which can be either viewed on-screen or printed out as desired. There is one technical issue which is obviously an oversight: at 2:58 in track 16, CD 4 of “Siegfried” there is an editing jump which will need correction.
Wagnerians everywhere have reason to be grateful to Pristine for resurrecting these justly celebrated performances.
Ralph Moore 

Masterwork Index: The ring cycle

Performer list
Das Rheingold 
Wotan - Ferdinand Frantz (bass-baritone)
Donner - Angel Mattiello (baritone)
Froh - Günther Treptow (tenor)
Loge - Joachim Sattler (tenor)
Fricka - Elisabeth Höngen (contralto)
Freia - Walburga Wegner (soprano)
Erda - Margret Weth-Falke (contralto)
Alberich - Alois Pernerstorfer (bass-baritone)
Mime - Peter Markwort (tenor)
Fasolt - Ludwig Weber (bass)
Fafner - Albert Emmerich (bass)
Woglinde - Magda Gabory (soprano)
Wellgunde - Margherita Kenney (mezzo)
Flosshilde - Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo)

Die Walküre
Siegmund - Günther Treptow (tenor)
Hunding - Ludwig Weber (bass)
Wotan - Ferdinand Frantz (bass-baritone)
Sieglinde - Hilde Konetzni (soprano)
Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Fricka - Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo)
Helmwige - Ilona Steingruber (soprano)
Ortlinde - Marie Cerhal (soprano)
Gerhilde - Walburga Wegner (soprano)
Waltraute - Dagmar Schmedes (mezzo)
Siegrune - Margherita Kenney (mezzo)
Rossweiße - Margret Weth-Falke (contralto)
Grimgerde - Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo)
Schwertleite - Polly Batic (mezzo)

Siegfried - Set Svanholm (tenor)
Wanderer - Ferdinand Frantz (bass-baritone)
Mime - Peter Markwort (tenor)
Alberich - Alois Pernerstorfer (bass-baritone)
Fafner - Ludwig Weber (bass)
Waldvogel - Julia Moor (soprano)
Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Erda - Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo)

Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Siegfried - Max Lorenz (tenor)
Hagen - Ludwig Weber (bass)
Alberich - Alois Pernerstorfer (bass-baritone)
Gunther - Josef Herrmann (baritone)
Gutrune - Hilde Konetzni (soprano)
Waltraute - Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo)
Woglinde - Magda Gabory (soprano)
Wellgunde Margherita Kenney (mezzo)
Floßhilde - Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo)
1st Norne - Margret Weth-Falke (contralto)
2nd Norne - Margherita Kenney (mezzo)
3rd Norne - Hilde Konetzni (soprano)