Wagner's The Ring: Das Rheingold / Die WalküreWagner's The Ring: Das Rheingold / Die Walküre

The Gramophone Choice

Das Rheingold 

John Tomlinson (bass) Wotan Linda Finnie (mez) Fricka Graham Clark (ten) Loge Helmut Pampuch (ten) Mime Günter von Kannen (bar) Alberich Eva Johansson (sop) Freia Kurt Schreibmayer (ten) Froh Bodo Brinkmann (bar) Donner Birgitta Svendén (mez) Erda Matthias Hölle (bass) Fasolt Philip Kang (bass) Fafner Hilde Leidland (sop) Woglinde Annette Küttenbaum (mez) Wellgunde Jane Turner (mez) Flosshilde Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim 

Teldec 4509 91185-2 (149' · DDD · S/T/t) Recorded live 1991. Buy from Amazon

Die Walküre 

Poul Elming (ten) Siegmund Nadine Secunde (sop) Sieglinde Anne Evans (sop) Brünnhilde John Tomlinson (bass) Wotan Linda Finnie (mez) Fricka, Siegrune Matthias Hölle (bass) Hunding Eva Johansson (sop) Gerhilde Eva-Maria Bundschuh (sop) Helmwige Ruth Floeren (sop) Ortlinde Shirley Close (mez) Waltraute Hebe Dijkstra (mez) Rossweisse Birgitta Svendén (mez) Grimgerde Hitomi Katagiri (mez) Schwertleite Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim 

Teldec 4509 91186-2 (3h 53' · DDD · S/T/t) Recorded live 1992. Buy from Amazon

These are enthralling performances. Tomlinson’s volatile Wotan is the most potent reading here. He manages to sing every word with insistent meaning and forceful declamation while maintaining a firm legato. His German is so idiomatic that he might have been speaking the language his whole life and he brings breadth and distinction of phrase to his solos at the close of both operas. Anne Evans has a single, important advantage over other recent Brünnhildes in that her voice is wholly free from wobble and she never makes an ugly sound. Hers is a light, girlish, honest portrayal, sung with unfailing musicality if not with the ultimate insights. Linda Finnie is an articulate, sharp-edged Fricka, and Graham Clark a sparky, incisive Loge. Nadine Secunde’s impassioned Sieglinde is matched by the vital, exciting Siegmund of Poul Elming, and Matthias Hölle as both Hunding and Fasolt is another of those black basses of which Germany seems to have an inexhaustible supply. The whole is magnificently conducted by Barenboim, a more expansive Wagnerian than Böhm. By 1991 he had the full measure of its many facets, bringing immense authority and power to building its huge climaxes, yet finding all the lightness of touch for the mercurial and/or diaphanous aspects of the score. He has the inestimable advantage of a Bayreuth orchestra at the peak of its form, surpassing – and this says much – even the Metropolitan orchestra for Levine. Similar qualities inform his interpretation of Die Walküre. Barenboim has now learnt how to match the epic stature of Wagner’s mature works, how to pace them with an overview of the whole, and there’s an incandescent, metaphysical feeling of a Furtwänglerian kind in is treatment of such passages as Wotan’s anger and the Valkyrie ride. The orchestra is superb. It’s backed by a recording of startling presence and depth, amply capturing the Bayreuth acoustic.

 

Das Rheingold

Hans Hotter (bass-bar) Wotan Georgine von Milinkovič (mez) Fricka Rudolf Lustig (ten) Loge Paul Kuen (ten) Mime Gustav Neidlinger (bass-bar) Alberich Hertha Wilfert (sop) Freia Josef Traxel (ten) Froh Toni Blankenheim (bar) Donner Maria von Ilosvay (mez) Erda Ludwig Weber (bass) Fasolt Josef Greindl (bass) Fafner Jutta Vulpius (sop) Woglinde Elisabeth Schärtel (mez) Wellgunde Maria Graf (mez) Flosshilde Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Joseph Keilberth

Testament SBT2 1390 (142’ · ADD · T/t) Recorded live 1955. Buy from Amazon

Here we are at the start of the revelatory Bayreuth Ring of 1955, and from the very first primordial sounds Joseph Keilberth establishes that this is to be a very special cycle. The opening scene is dominated by Gustav Neidlinger’s nonpareil of an Alberich, who in the third scene becomes a frightening incarnation of malevolent power. But the Rhinemaidens aren’t as steady as one might wish.

Scene 2 brings a kaleidoscope of authoritative interpretations, headed by Hans Hotter’s commanding Wotan, a thoughtful portrait of an overweening, troubled figure sung with a Lieder-like attention to verbal detail. Georgine von Milinkovič is a suitably imposing Fricka and a convincing nag. Ludwig Weber’s expressive, articulate Fasolt is partnered by Josef Greindl’s louring Fafner. Rudolf Lustig’s strongly sung Loge – no comprimario tenor he – is not the most fluent piece of singing but he gives the text real meaning. Among the minor gods, Josef Traxel stands out for his beautifully lyric Froh, luxury casting from one of the leading tenors then active in Germany. Maria von Ilosvay as Erda and Paul Kuen as Mime are just as characterful as in Siegfried. Overall you have once again a sense of a truly experienced ensemble, each member of which plays to the other.

Once again, one is astounded by the ideal capturing of the Bayreuth acoustics and by the superlative playing of the orchestra, stimulated by Keilberth’s astutely dramatic conducting. 

 

Die Walküre

Ramón Vinay (ten) Siegmund Gré Brouwenstijn (sop) Sieglinde Astrid Varnay (sop) Brünnhilde Hans Hotter (bass-bar) Wotan Georgine von Milinkovič (mez) Fricka, Grimgerde Josef Greindl (bass) Hunding Hertha Wilfert (sop) Gerhilde Hilde Scheppan (sop) Helmwige Elisabeth Schärtel (mez) Waltraute Maria von Ilosvay (mez) Schwertleite Gerda Lammers (sop) Ortlinde Jean Watson (contr) Siegrune Maria Graf (mez) Rossweisse Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Joseph Keilberth

Testament SBT4 1391 (3h 38’ · ADD · T/t) Recorded live 1955. Buy from Amazon

Very properly, Hans Hotter, as Wotan, dominates this utterly absorbing and exciting account of Walküre, the second instalment of the rediscovered Keilberth Ring at Bayreuth in 1955. There exist several other incarnations of his dominant reading but perhaps only that in the Krauss cycle of 1953 reveals him in such superb form. Whether arguing the moral toss with von Milinkovi∂’s harrying Fricka, sunk in deep desolation after his capitulation to his spouse (Wotan’s long narration so full of insights, not for a moment dull), his fury at Brünnhilde’s disobedience and his final relenting in an unforgettable account of the Farewell, Hotter commands every aspect of the role. His sonorous, wide-ranging voice is matched by his verbal acuity, text and tone in ideal accord. This, much more than his portrayal in the Solti cycle, when his voice often struggles with the part, is the performance to judge him by.

As ever, his longstanding stage partnership with the Brünnhilde of Astrid Varnay pays many dividends. She, too, is in prime form; she, too, melds words and voice into a well-nigh perfect unity. Not even a god could fail to respond positively to her appeals to be forgiven, and that follows a warmly sung and deeply considered account of the the Todesverkündigung in Act 2. That wonderfully moving scene also finds Ramón Vinay’s Siegmund in most eloquent form. As throughout the first two acts, his singing benefits from his attractively plangent tone and, in Act 1, his tale of his sad plight. That, of course, turns to ecstasy in the glorious love music that ends Act 1, where Gré Brouwenstijn’s womanly, vibrant Sieglinde is a fit match. She is properly distraught and guilt-ridden in Act 2 but – as so many lyrical sopranos have found – the taxing passages in Act 3 prove a shade beyond her.

In Act 1, Keilberth’s direction takes a while to catch fire. From the exciting start of Act 2 he is in his most persuasive form, he and his fine orchestra projecting the manifold events and changes of mood with a persuasively dramatic drive. The Ride of the Valkyries whizzes along, Wotan’s fury is frightening, the Magic Fire music elating. Once more, he proves that this was the year his Ring came into its own.

The recording is again amazingly lifelike, catching the excitement of a notable occasion on the Green Hill. The stage noises are hardly ever distracting, nor should one be too bothered by two or three moments when a singer forgets his or her words. Altogether we are here in the highest realm of Wagnerian interpretation.

 

DVD Recommendation

Die Walküre 

Johan Botha (ten) Siegmund Kwangchul Youn (bass) Hunding Albert Dohmen (bass-bar) Wotan Edith Haller (sop) Sieglinde Linda Watson (sop) Brünnhilde Mihoko Fujimura (mez) Fricka Sonja Mühleck (sop) Gerhilde Anna Gabler (sop) Ortlinde Martina Dike (mez) Waltraute Simone Schröder (contr) Schwertleite Miriam Gordon-Stewart (sop) Helmwige Wilke te Brummelstroete (mez) Siegrune Annette Küttenbaum (mez) Grimgerde Alexandra Petersamer (mez) Rossweisse Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Christian Thielemann 

Stage director Tankred Dorst 

Video director Michael Beyer 

Opus Arte DVD OA1045D; Blu-ray OABD7081D 

(4h 19’ · NTSC · 1080i · 16:9 · LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · S/N/s). Recorded live 2010. Buy from Amazon

For the current Bayreuth Ring the veteran Tankred Dorst came up with something close to the non-confrontational style of Wolfgang Wagner, and those opposed to such conventionalism have argued that Christian Thielemann’s conducting is the main reason for giving this version the time of day. When Opus Arte issued performances from 2008 on CD Gramophone concluded that even though ‘for Thielemann’s work alone, the set is essential’, it was inferior in vocal terms to the Bayreuth cycles conducted by Krauss (1953), Keilberth (1955), Böhm (1966‑67) and Barenboim (1991‑92).

Things might well have been better vocally in 2010 than in 2008. Edith Haller (replacing Eva-Maria Westbroek) is good as Sieglinde – especially in Act 2 – and Johan Botha (in place of Endrik Wottrich) is outstanding throughout as Siegmund. Wotan (Albert Dohmen) and Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) are the same as in 2008, and their commanding performances, particularly in Act 3, suggest that they have both grown into their roles. Dorst’s production, and this filming of it, are at their best in the later stages of Act 3 and the result is a powerful and affecting account of one of The Ring’s greatest episodes. Thielemann has been saving up his broadest tempi and most fervently shaped articulation for this conclusion and, even though faster speeds enable Wotans to sing with smoother phrasing than Dohmen can manage here, this is still an impressive demonstration of interpretative conviction, made even more absorbing by a staging in which Brünnhilde emerges as the dominant figure.

The first two acts are less well conceived for film, with both staging and setting (especially the appearance of spring in Act 1) understated to a fault. Seeing Walküre in the context of the rest of the cycle should explain some production details which are obscure (in both senses) here, but there’s nothing obscure or understated about Thielemann’s galvanising presence in the pit and seeing its effect on his singers in Act 3 makes these DVDs even more recommendable than the original CDs.

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