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Richard WAGNER (1813-83) 
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Das Rheingold [143:44]
Die Walküre [219:10]
Siegfried [234:15]
Götterdämmerung [258:44]
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
rec. live, July 1953, Bayreuth Festival. ADD mono
DOCUMENTS LC12281 [12 CDs: 855:53]

I am a sucker for bargain recordings of Wagner’s Ring and have several on my shelves that would serve as a fair introduction to the novice even if ideally a top-quality recording in best stereo sound with a libretto, synopsis and notes is preferable. This one, in lurid primary colours on twelve CDs in cardboard sleeves with nothing other than track listings, a cast list and a one-paragraph mini-biography of conductor Joseph Keilberth on the back of the box, certainly doesn’t meet my first or second criterion – but the cast is arguably one of the finest, if not the finest, on record. It’s not perfect: Windgassen gets himself in a pickle several times as he did in Siegfried under Clemens Krauss a month later, but another chance to hear a complete Ring with Hans Hotter in his prime, this time singing with the Brünnhilde of Martha Mődl rather than Astrid Varnay, is irresistible to the dedicated Wagnerite. Apart from the change of conductor and Brünnhilde, the casts in July and August 1953 were identical. Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio did a splendid job in refurbishing the Krauss Ring into Ambient Stereo – but you certainly cannot acquire that set for a tenner, as you can this Documents set. The mono sound here is wholly unobjectionable and actually very good, if occasionally a tad over-reverberant; I find it best suited to listening on good quality headphones - although that does tend to amplify the audibility of the prompter. The clattering hammers of the toiling Nibelungen, for example, which open and close CDs 1 and 2 respectively, come over quite vividly and the balance between voices and orchestra is, as usual from Bayreuth, ideal; both are clear and detailed. Even the insensitive audience coughing is admirably distinct – and it is particularly fearsome during the lowering, glowering Prelude to Act 2 of Siegfried and there are times during this cycle when if I had been a singer I would have done a Jon Vickers: “Shut up with your damn coughing.”

Inevitably, given the uniformity of casting, much of what I had to say in my reviews of the Krauss Ring here (review ~ review) applies to this one; the main differences obviously lie in the conducting and the relative merits of Varnay’s and Mődl’s Brünnhildes. Keilberth is steadier and weightier than Krauss’ more febrile, stop-go approach and at times a bit dull, but I quibble. His timings are in fact overall similar to Krauss’ in the first three evenings, but he is rather more leisurely in Götterdämmerung.

In Das Rheingold, Hotter is splendid throughout even if no-one ever thrills me the way George London does when he summons his fellow-gods to cross the rainbow bridge into Valhalla in the Solti recording. I still find Erich Witte’s Loge elderly sounding – although was only in his early forties – and a bit of a trial but the rest of the cast is great; the quality of the Rhinedaughters’ singing immediately makes the listener sit up – but I do wish someone had said to them, “Enough with the forced, phony laughing already!” Paul Kuën gives us a vivid, neatly sing Mime and Gustav Neidlinger’s Alberich is already a tour de force. There is some exquisite orchestral playing here, too; sampling the instrumental passage beginning around 3’50” in track 7 on CD2 we might remember that this was the year following Karajan’s magnificently sung and played Tristan und Isolde – the orchestra was already a world-class ensemble. (Unfortunately, in the same track around the same time, an electronic buzzing increasingly intrudes and persists for a couple of minutes until the end of the track – but that is an isolated incident.) Hermann Uhde makes his mark in the cameo role of Donner with its one big moment when he wields his hammer. Maria von Ilosvay is steady, imposing and hieratic as the Ur-Earth-Mother, Erda. Goodness knows how she manages to forget herself so thoroughly as to permit Wotan to sire with her no fewer than nine progeny between the close of Das Rheingold and start of Die Walküre…but I digress…

Indeed, the first Act of Die Walküre delivers everything you could desire from that greatest passage in the entire Ring: pounding tension, beautiful singing from three great voices and rapturous string playing. Keilberth gives Vinay and Resnik ample time to fill their grateful phrases with ample tone but generates fist-pumping, air-punching excitement at its climax. This is just where Krauss fails and presides over the one weak spot in his direction of the work.

We hear Mődl’s Brünnhilde for the first time at the opening of Act 2; she has a powerful voice with a strangely grainy, throaty timbre and a catch in it that makes it very individual and instantly recognisable. Hotter and Malaniuk make a fine warring couple, their vivid word-painting adding real edge to their argument. There is no denying that for some Act 2 has its longueurs, but with the six voices here you will not hear it performed better, with the possible of Leinsdorf’s magnificent 1961 studio recording. The last Act is a triumph, the occasional sour tuning in the woodwind notwithstanding. Mődl is intensely moving in her plea for a more dignifies punishment and Wotan’s “Leb`wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind” gives me goose bumps; the combination of trembling emotion and vocal strength in Hotter’s voice is irresistible. I could wish for the Magic Fire Music to be played at more of a trot, but it has massive dignity and sonority.

Siegfried invariably presents the greatest challenge in any cycle and Windgassen’s first stab at the eponymous title role is not without its accidents and he gets completely lost for a while in “Zu neuen Taten” in Gotterdammerung but it’s a brave assumption by a singer who was never really the complete Heldentenor but husbanded then selectively applied his vocal resources very intelligently. His tone whines and he sometimes resorts to a guttural sound for emphasis but manages the Forging Scene without fading or ducking notes, even if he is rhythmically uncertain. It’s a pity there’s a break in that scene between CDs 6 and 7, which breaks the flow, but it’s not in the worst of places. Hotter is in especially mighty voice in "Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach!" at the start of Act 3 and in the ensuing tortured outburst in conversation with Erda; this is the legendary Wagnerian, not the faded wobbler of later years who recorded his Wotan for Solti in the 60’s. I find Mődl mesmerising in the last great, extended duet; she shirks nothing and wallops the last top C, while Windgassen rises to the occasion and keeps up with her. If you have just sat through nearly four hours of Siegfried, those ten minutes have to deliver, and, my goodness, they do here.

Paul Kuën continues to portray Mime with exemplary diction and depicts his character memorably while avoiding the whining caricature we too often hear. Neidlinger and Ilosvay are once again ideal in their roles and Rita Streich makes an attractive Woodbird, trilling neatly and charmingly.
Joseph Greindl underpins the whole cycle with his assumption of three bass roles of Fafner, Hunding and Hagen; he is sometimes a little clumsy and even rocky, but what a big, black, menacing noise he makes – ideal for portraying all three brutes. It’s a pity that in his final death-scene he is placed so far back from the microphone.

Gőtterdämmerung is even longer than its predecessor but is more varied in content, and if vocal quality helps it slip by, then Keilberth’s Ring has every advantage. Canny deployment of already available personnel means that we have three Norns of extraordinary pedigree: the singers who impersonate Erda, Fricka and Sieglinde transform themselves into the three Weird Sisters. Once Windgassen has got his mistake over and done with, his opening duet with Mődl is as thrilling as was the closing one in Siegfried, providing a sense of dramatic continuity. “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” is so energised that sometimes the audience even stop coughing long enough to listen to several uninterrupted bars but as soon as Gunther and Hagen appear, its tuberculosis as usual. One wonders how the Gutrune slipped past quality control to get a job in such distinguished company, as she is as much of a blot on Keilberth’s Gőtterdämmerung as she was on Krauss’ the following month, but we must live with it. It’s a pleasure to hear Hermann Uhde as Gunther, even if he sounds rather too virile for that craven personage. The crucial oath-swearing trio concluding Act 2, is scintillating.

The final Act is splendid; Mődl proves to be quite the equal of any other Brünnhilde, attacking her top Bs and B flats fearlessly and Keilberth drives his orchestra to a wholly satisfying apotheosis.

Of course, you can hear Keilberth’s Bayreuth Ring from 1955 in live composite recordings in stereo on the Testament label, but again, you will pay a great deal more for that privilege than you will for this box – and the casts are very similar without necessarily being noticeably superior; Hotter, for example is just beginning to develop a bit of a wobble in 1955 which wasn’t there two years earlier. Some also find the amount of stage noise from feet and hissing machinery objectionably intrusive.

Another super-bargain option is the Zyx set with Keilberth’s 1952 Bayreuth performances of the first and last operas in the tetralogy, the 1953 Siegfried reviewed here and Furtwängler’s 1954 studio recording of Die Walküre – a bit of a ragbag but well worth hearing, with many of the same Bayreuth stalwarts as in this Documents set but featuring Uhde’s Wotan, Varnay’s Brünnhilde (Mődl sang Gutrune that year) and Max Lorenz out of retirement to sing Siegfried.

All in all, this is much more than an historical document and it would be extraordinarily churlish not to welcome, praise and prize a Ring of this quality and provenance so competitively priced.
Ralph Moore

Cast lists:
Das Rheingold
Wotan - Hans Hotter
Donner - Hermann Uhde
Froh - Gerhard Stolze
Loge - Erich Witte
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger
Mime - Paul Kuën
Fasolt - Ludwig Weber
Fafner - Josef Greindl
Fricka - Ira Malaniuk
Freia - Bruni Falcon
Erda - Maria von Ilosvay
Woglinde - Erika Zimmermann
Wellgunde - Hetty Plümacher
Flosshilde - Gisela Litz

Die Walküre
Siegmund - Ramón Vinay
Sieglinde - Regina Resnik
Wotan - Hans Hotter
Brünnhilde – Martha Mődl
Hunding - Josef Greindl
Fricka - Ira Malaniuk
Gerhilde - Brünnhild Friedland
Ortlinde - Bruni Falcon
Waltraute - Lise Sorrell
Schwertleite - Maria von Ilosvay
Helmwige - Liselotte Thomamüller
Siegrune - Gisela Litz
Grimgerde - Sibylla Plate
Rossweisse - Erika Schubert

Siegfried - Wolfgang Windgassen
Mime - Paul Kuën
Brünnhilde - Martha Mődl
Wanderer - Hans Hotter
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger
Fafner - Josef Greindl
Erda - Maria von Ilosvay
Waldvogel - Rita Streich

Brünnhilde - Martha Mődl (soprano)
Siegfried - Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor)
Hagen - Josef Greindl (bass)
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger (bass-baritone)
Gunther - Hermann Uhde (baritone)
Gutrune - Natalie Hinsch-Gröndahl (soprano)
Waltraute - Ira Malaniuk (contralto)
Woglinde - Erika Zimmermann (soprano)
Wellgunde - Hetty Plümacher (mezzo)
Floßhilde - Gisela Litz (soprano)
First Norn - Maria von Ilosvay (alto)
Second Norn - Ira Malaniuk (alto)
Third Norn - Regina Resnik (mezzo)



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