This first attempt to produce a recording of connected sections of the massive Wagner Ring was made in the very earliest days following the introduction of electrical recording. It was originally issued as “a representative series of selected passages from the Music Drama”.
Under the new and slightly chattier title of The Potted Ring, this two-CD set is the first volume of a series of three which will include not only the contents of those original sets of 78s but also a number of other items previously unissued or only made available as supplements. John Culshaw in his Ring Resounding has a great deal of fun at the expense of the cobbling together of the selected passages from widely varied sessions with mixtures of singers, venues, orchestras and conductors. We get some fairly extended continuous passages from Die Walküre, including the whole of the final scenes from Acts One and Three.
It must be noted, however, that the ‘selected passages’ from Das Rheingold hardly serve to give even a cursory representation of the score. Two passages which were regularly featured on 78 rpm records – Alberich’s Curse and Erda’s Warning – are missing here. In fact the Rheingold excerpts were appended as a supplement to the issue of Siegfried. Of the five sides featured here one – Coates’s rather fine rendition of the Prelude, the earliest of all these recordings to be made – was never released as part of the original sets. It should also be noted that the singing casts featured here are highly variable. Howard Fry’s Wotan at the beginning of the Descent into Nibelheim fails even to deliver the right pitches. Kennedy MacKenna must be one of the feeblest Frohs on record ... and there is some competition in this department. The performance of the interlude itself is ridiculously fast to an extent that leaves the trumpets at the climax flailing to keep up, and with decidedly unatmospheric anvils right in the listener’s ear. We are given a weird concert conclusion drawn from somewhat later in Scene Three which jars horribly. Arthur Fear is interesting, in that he delivers Alberich’s laugh after the theft of the gold in the rhythmic form which Wagner wrote out in Siegfried, a precedent followed by Gustav Neidlinger but by very few others. One wonders how long this tradition extends back. The Rhinemaidens in their offstage passage at the end of the opera, sung by uncredited singers, are also very forward in the balance and do not blend well. Indeed, apart from Friedrich Schorr’s delivery of Wotan’s apostrophe to his newly built hall, there is nothing in these brief snippets that gives a very good impression of Wagnerian performance style at this period.
The much more extensive extracts from Die Walküre are more impressive, although Schorr’s delivery of his long Act Two narration suffers horribly from cuts throughout its length. These hustle the listener from one passage to another without the slightest chance to draw breath, and incidentally completely ruin the plot development. The scene between Schorr and Emmi Leisner’s matronly Fricka also suffers from the complete omission of Brünnhilde’s re-entry; the orchestra simply plays its way through the music. Otherwise we are given the individual sections of the score without too much internal butchery. The cuts made in various of the other excerpts from Acts Two and Three have clearly been made with a commendably careful eye to the maintenance of dramatic continuity as well as musical transition.
The piecemeal nature of the enterprise to which Culshaw objected is however noticeable in the contrasts between the recording venues, which Mark Obert-Thorn admits in his notes on this reissue. “The original recording quality is variable,” he remarks, and “some of the Berlin sides can also sound rather dim, depending on the engineering of a particular session.” Obert-Thorn quite correctly aims to preserve the continuity of the music wherever possible, and his joining of separate 78 sides is always skilfully managed. That said, there is, for example, a real jolt during the Walküre Act One love duet when Siegmund’s acknowledgement of his name is suddenly so much more clear and present than his voice has been in the immediately preceding bars - as the venue shifts from Berlin to London. On the other hand, one of the disadvantages of the 78 rpm record – the need for fast speeds to get the music onto a single side – is less in evidence here than in many other releases of this vintage. There is certainly no sense of Goodall-like expansion in the treatment of the score but there are only a few places where one experiences a sense of undesirable haste. I would cite the aforementioned Descent into Nibelheim, and the speed for Walter Widdop’s “Dich, seliger Frau” which is jaunty rather than heroic. The singers frequently make substantial ritenuti at the end of cadential phrases — sometimes authorised by the composer, but more frequently not — which would raise eyebrows today. This has the unfortunate effect of breaking up the music into individual ‘numbers’ and flies in the face of Wagner’s desire for maintaining the onward dramatic flow. The vocal entry in the Ride of the Valkyries, for example, slows down the speed just when the propulsive momentum should be maintained.
Of course the main point of reissuing these recordings is the opportunity to hear singers of the generation immediately following Wagner himself in music which they understood perfectly. Frida Leider, for example, is one of the few Brünnhildes who can manage the trill that Wagner asks for at the end of her Hojotoho. She also is rock-steady throughout without any of the sense of the strain or wobble which afflicts all too many modern exponents of the role. It is a pity that her part in the Todesverkundigung is taken over by Florence Austral, who sounds weak by comparison – or was not favoured by the microphone placement she was given by the engineers. Walter Widdop is a strong Siegmund with a properly heroic ring when he is not being hustled by his conductor. Göta Ljungberg who sings the part of his sister is similarly a pleasure to hear although her substitute at the end of Act Two is much less effective. The Valkyries in Act Three are a decent bunch, although not all of them are credited — there are clearly eight of them singing, but only four are named plus one other – “Alberti” – who is denied a forename. Emmi Leisner, as already mentioned, is rather contralto-ish in tone as Fricka - Wagner specifies the role for a soprano - but has plenty of dramatic impact.
In her scene Leisner is partnered by the Wotan of Friedrich Schorr, who is generally very well treated by the microphones. He is certainly the most impressive of the singers to be heard here. His tone, very baritonal, is rather a shock to listeners accustomed to the more bass-orientated voices of Hans Hotter and his successors, but he manages to encompass the low notes in his narration and elsewhere with plenty of body and delivers some stunning top Fs. Many critics have regarded him as the greatest exponent of the role of all time. John Steane remarks that he “performs that peculiar kind of disservice of which all great artists are guilty. No one who carries in his head Schorr’s singing of Abendlich strahlt … is likely to hear another performance without some yearning to get back to the gramophone, and listen again to Schorr.” Well, up to a point. His firmness, solidity of tone and adherence to the notes are all welcome but there is also an element of sentimentality in his singing of Der Augen leuchtendes Paar which singers of the next generations such as Hotter and Norman Bailey managed to avoid. His delivery of the final lines in Walküre somehow lacks authority, although this may be the fault not only of the rather distant Berlin recording but also of Leo Blech’s surprisingly slow speeds on the last two 78 sides. The strokes of his spear — which Wagner wrote rhythmically into the score at this point — are missing, but we are given a couple of production touches elsewhere such as Sieglinde’s unmarked scream of ecstasy at the point where Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree. Howard Fry, who unfortunately takes over the role of Wotan for the end of Act Two, positively shouts his final “Geh!” to Hunding – a role which, oddly enough, he himself has been singing a couple of minutes before.
These sets have been described as the “Old Testament” of Ring recordings, and the Biblical description is just. No attempt was made to set down studio readings of the scores to anything like the same degree of fullness until after the advent of the LP era. Mark Obert-Thorn, as always, has done wonders with the sound of these old 78s, bringing out orchestral as well as vocal detail which all too often goes missing in ‘period recordings’. I once listened to a set of the old 78s of Siegfried in this same series, and although that was many years ago I can’t remember them sounding anything like as exciting or realistic as this. There has also been a reissue — again engineered by Obert-Thorn — on the Pearl label, but I don’t know whether it included the supplementary set of the Wotan-Fricka duet. In any event it would not have had the advantage of modern noise reduction techniques which effectively eliminate the hiss and crackle from the 78 sides. Although Pristine do not provide full details of performers and matrix numbers with the discs — they explain that they would have been “illegibly small” — they are available online and are outlined in the header to this review.
Obviously not a set of the Ring for first-time buyers but the best opportunity yet for those interested in styles of Wagner singing and conducting in the first half of the twentieth century to become acquainted with these recordings. Despite their many failings they set a standard for some twenty years or more.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Track & performance details
Das Rheingold (1869)
Prelude1 [4.01]; Spotten nur zu!2 [4.44]; Wotan, Gemahl3 [4.46]; Zur Burg führt die Brucke … Abendlich strahlt4 [8.32]
Die Walküre (1870)
Act One Prelude5 [4.03]; Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater … Winterstürme6 [12.53]; Du bist der Lenz7 [7.51]; Siegmund heiss ich8 [3.12]; Act Two Prelude…Hojotoho!9 [4.14]; Der alte Sturm, die alte Muh!10 [13.35]; O heilige Schmach!11 [4.20]; So nimm meinem Segen12 [4.13]; Raste nun hier13 [8.54]; Siegmund! Sie auf mich!14 [12.43]; Zauberfest15 [4.38]; Wehwalt! Wehwalt!16 [2.31]; Geh hin, Knecht!17 [1.46]; Act Three Prelude…Hojotoho!18 [6.58]; Rette mich, Kühne!19 [3.45]; Wo ist Brunnhild’20 [8.46]; War es so schmählich21 [3.31]; Du zeugtest ein edles Geschicht22 [3.46]; Leb wohl … Loge, hör!23 [15.28]
Louise Trenton (soprano) – 2Woglinde, 15Sieglinde; 2Elsie Suddaby (soprano) – Wellgunde; 2Nellie Walker (contralto) – 2,4Flosshilde, 2Fricka; Arthur Fear (baritone) – 2Alberich, 3Donner; Walter Widdop (tenor) – 3Loge, 6-8,13-15Siegmund; 3Kennedy MacKenna (tenor) – Froh; Howard Fry (baritone) – 3,15Wotan, 14Hunding; 4,9-12,20-23Friedrich Schorr (baritone) – Wotan; 4Waldemar Henke (tenor) – Froh, Loge; Genia Guszalewicz (contralto) – 4Fricka, 18,20unidentified Valkyrie; Göta Ljungberg (soprano) – 6-8,13,19Sieglinde, 18,20unidentified Valkyrie; 9,11,12,19-22Frida Leider (soprano) – Brünnhilde; 10Emmi Leisner (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka; 14Florence Austral (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Elfriede Marherr, Lydia Kindermann – 18,20unidentified Valkyries; 1Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates; 2,3,5,6,8,13-17London Symphony Orchestra/Albert Coates; 3,9,11,12,18-23Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Leo Blech; 7Orchestra/Lawrence Collingwood; 10London Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. Queen’s Hall, London, 12 February 1926, 5,8,14-1723-26 August 1928: Kingsway Hall, London, 2,35 January 1928, 6,1327 May 1927: Singakademie, Berlin, 4,2317 June 1927, 5,623-26 August 1928, 9,11,1212 September 1927, 18-2229 October-1 November 1927: Abbey Road Studio 1, 10London, April 1932