Richard WAGNER (1813-83) Der Ring des Nibelungen Das Rheingold [149:29] Die Walküre [216:17] Siegfried [233:25] Götterdämmerung [245:29]
Siegfried - Wolfgang Neumann (Siegfried)/Edward Cook (tenor)
Brünnhilde - Carla Pohl (soprano)
Wotan - John Wegner (bass-baritone)
Alberich - Oleg Bryjak (bass)
Woglinde – Doris Brüggemann (soprano)
Badische Staatskapelle/Günter Neuhold
rec. live, 1993-1995, Badischen Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Germany BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99801 [14 CDs: 844:40]
It is sixteen years since fellow MusicWeb International contributor Christopher Fifield wrote an approving review of this super-bargain Ring, so it is perhaps not too soon to revisit it in the light of issues since, especially as it is still available absurdly cheaply on the Membran, Documents and Brilliant labels, licensed from Bella Musica. As such, it serves as a highly recommendable introduction to the tetralogy for the novice, or indeed as a supplementary recording for the incurable Ring collector like me. It is perhaps most comparable to another budget Ring conducted by Hans Swarowsky much earlier in the 60’s, still available cheaply individually on Weltbild Classics or as a set on Profil, and has similar virtues and disadvantages, in that no-one could reasonably expect star voices of the kind featured in more celebrated cycles, yet both are faithful to the spirit of the work and provide a genuine experience of its thrills. Furthermore, both conductors preside over swift, propulsive, no-nonsense accounts of the scores and the orchestra’s competence is never in doubt.
Listening to this digital recording of live performances made me newly conscious of how habituated I had become to the many classic live performances from the 50’s graced by great artists but nonetheless in muddy, or brittle, mono sound; the benefit of these recordings from the 90’s is the amount of vocal and instrumental detail discernible. For instance, Flosshilde’s lower, mezzo-soprano line in the Rhine-daughters’ trios is so often obscure but gratefully audible here and the better balance between orchestra and singers provides a much clearer and more complete sound picture, permitting the listener to recreate the drama vividly in the mind’s eye. There is very little audience noise.
A further similarity between this set and Swarowsky’s is the presence of singers who rival more famous names in key roles, especially Alberich, Wotan and the Giants. Beginning with Das Rheingold, Oleg Bryjak here and Rolf Kühne for Swarowsky both rival Gustav Neidlinger’s Alberich for Solti for black, incisive malice. John Wegner has a firm, focused bass-baritone; it is a tireless, hard-edged voice able to surmount the formidable challenges of the role of Wotan, and the Giants are neatly contrasted, with Simon Yang offering an attractive, sympathetic Fasolt against veteran American bass Malcolm Smith’s gruffer, more saturnine and threatening Fafner. The Rhein-daughters are fine, homogeneous team and Wilja Ernst-Mosuraitis makes a firm, impassioned Fricka. The Freia is adequate, if a tad wobbly but Mette Ejsing’s Erda is wonderfully steady and gnomic. Loge is very musically sung by an aptly oily, light-voiced tenor who also handles the text well. The only real blot on the first instalment of the tetralogy is the mercifully brief but painful contributions of the Froh; fortunately, Donner’s hammer-blow incantation is much more satisfactory, with Tero Hannula singing heroically and the moment of impact suitably impressive, even if nobody will ever top John Culshaw’s recreation for Decca.
I agree with Christopher Fifield that the opening scene of Die Walküre is the best in the whole Ring and crucial to the listener’s pleasure - and here it certainly passes muster. There is plenty of tension and dynamism in the opening pursuit music – the timpani are especially present; Edward Cook has an attractive, genuine Heldentenor reminiscent of James King without quite his heft, Gabriele Maria Ronge makes a strong, warm, feminine Sieglinde, as good as any I’ve heard anywhere. The orchestra plays their love music with real passion and feeling. Frode Olsen has almost too elegant and noble a tone for the brutal Hunding but is an imposing presence. The climax to the scene clearly stretches Cook; he has to pause and take a vocal running jump at the top A in his concluding phrase, but he gets there, while Ronge sails through her impassioned outburst – and her “Rysanek scream” when Siegmund pulls Nothung out of the Ash-tree is electrifying.
Zlatomira Nikolova is a dramatically alert, vocally secure Fricka, despite a little shrillness. The Valkyries are a fine brood. Wegner is not the most expressive of Wotans when it comes to delivering text, but he certainly comes alive in the scene where he tracks down and punishes Brünnhilde. She is the commendable South African dramatic soprano Carla Pohl, whose powerful voice is a bit “short” when it comes to her top notes; she sometimes has to stretch and occasionally just misses the mark, but is otherwise commanding, and makes her case to Wotan movingly in their long scene before her incarceration on the rock. Wegner’s “Leb wohl” and “Loge, hör!” are splendidly vocalised and the Magic Fire music dances winningly – conductors too often take that music too slowly for my taste. The work concludes in a blaze of golden sound, as it should.
For Siegfried, we have a new tenor, Wolfgang Neumann in the leading eponymous role and Hans-Jörg Weinschenk moves from Loge to become Mime, ensuring that we get a more restrained, musical account in the same manner as Julius Patzak for Furtwängler in Rome rather than the usual cackling psychopath. I was also pleased to see bass Simon Yang move from (the now deceased) Fasolt to Fafner, as he has a lovely voice. Sadly, there is no such advantage in the exchange of Edward Cook for Neumann, who has a dreadful, bleating wobble and an ugly tone, and whose performance is for me the weakest point of the whole cycle. It’s a relief when Wenger’s Wanderer heaves into view – or rather, earshot - for his riddling session with Mime. Neumann yells his way gamely through the Forging Scene and when he should be singing quietly he resorts to a kind of whining, droning Sprechstimme which is really irritating. Siegfried has so much music that he has to have an attractive voice if we are going to avoid boredom. For that reason, I enjoy Alberto Remedios, Jess Thomas, Bernd Aldenhoff, Set Svanholm and, to a lesser extent, Wolfgang Windgassen but, to quote a famous critical maxim from the “Gramophone” magazine, “It is time to complain when Mime outsings Siegfried”.
The Woodbird is adequate without being very ethereal but the best singing in the best singing on CD 3 comes from Fafner and in the opening of Act 3, from the exchange between the Wanderer and Ortrun Wenkel’s grave, steady Erda, although her top notes are a bit screamy. The orchestra plays beautifully in Brünnhilde’s Awakening Scene and Carla Pohl copes admirably, singing with warm, full tone and only occasionally pushing too hard but Neumann does not improve. At least he is consistent and stays the course in that horribly demanding music but compared with the finest recordings, the race to the finish is breathless.
There is no pretending that any of the singers has the “money notes” to give Götterdämmerung the glamour it assumes when the greatest Wagnerian singers tackle it, but it is nonetheless a dramatically coherent, decently sung account. The Hagen is lumpy and lacks the black bass sound required, but is suitably vicious, the Gunther has an obtrusive vibrato and yells, and neither lead singer can hang on to climactic phrases, yet the work still makes its impact, by virtue of the intensity of the orchestral playing and the evident sincerity and commitment of all concerned. Edwards Cook might have had a tenor one size too small, yet I was pleased to have him back as Siegfried, for the beauty of his timbre and the musicality of his delivery. Good singers, like the Rhine-daughters, whom we have already heard in the preceding instalments of the cycle, reprise their roles or, like the splendid Gabriele Maria Ronge, previously Sieglinde, return in two new ones, Gutrune and Third Norn – and she is excellent in both. Siegfried’s Funeral March is especially powerful; you would never guess that we are hearing a supposedly “provincial” German orchestra; they are first rate. Pohl makes a fine job of the Immolation Scene; she is clear-voiced, womanly and tireless. I suggest that anyone debating whether to acquire this set – although there is no need to hesitate given its current asking price – sample the concluding scene to gain a fair idea of its strengths.
Documentation may be sparse, but track listings and an English synopsis are provided, and how many super-bargain sets of the “Ring” are accompanied by a complete German libretto – admittedly without the English translation - and Arthur Rackham’s illustrations?
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