The Karajan Ring: the original reviews (1967-1970)

Gramophone Mon 19th June 2017

Alec Robertson's original reviews of Karajan's DG recordings of Wagner's Ring cycle offer a masterclass in critical listening

Wagner Die Walküre

Jon Vickers ten Siegmund Martti Talvela bass Hunding Thomas Stewart bar Wotan Gundula Janowitz sop Sieglinde Josephine Veasey mez Fricka Régine Crespin cont Brünnhilde Liselotte Rebmann sop Gerhilde Ingrind Steger mez Waltraute Daniza Mastlovic sop Helmwige Cvetka Ahlin mez Grimgerde Carlotta Ordassy sop Ortlinde Lilo Brockhaus mez Schwertleite Barbro Ericson mez Sigrune Helga Jenckel sop Rossweisse

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

In starting their complete recording of the Ring with Die Walküre DG begin where Decca ended. Their choice enables us to get the measure of Régine Crespin's Brünnhilde and Thomas Stewart's Wotan. Neither, so far as I know, have sung these parts in the opera house and so make their debut in them with this recording. We shall, also, I hope, meet Josephine Veasey again as Waltraute and Martti Talvela as Hagen. Jon Vickers is, of course, as well established a Siegfried as he is a Siegmund. Before coming to the main task I feel impelled to say how saddened I was by some harsh criticisms made of Hans Hotter's Wotan in the Decca Walküre. The greatest living exponent of the part, now near the close of a most distinguished career, deserved better treatment than this. I deliberately chose, in my review of the recording, to concentrate on his marvellous interpretation of the disillusioned, stricken god rather than on its vocal deficiencies. It might even be held that these, in a way, worked for him to some extent, although it would have been a different matter had he been singing Hans Sachs! A reviewer has to trust not only his ears but his gramophone equipment and these agencies revealed to me that, in spite of obvious vocal difficulties here and there, his voice - the voice of a man nearly sixty - rose splendidly over and over again to a great number of the big climaxes.

Thomas Stewart has a magnificent voice of ample power and range, as it comes to us in the recording. It is always dangerous to predict how such a Wotan would fare in the theatre. EG, reviewing excerpts from a DG recording of The Flying Dutchman in the April 1965 issue found Stewart's voice (in the name part) 'rather gritty and phrasing not particularly imaginative' in Act 1, but 'far finer in the Act 2 duet with Senta'. 'There the range of tone-colour is beautiful'. There is nothing 'gritty' in his Wotan and his enunciation and phrasing are excellent. I should not be surprised to learn that he had studied the part with Hotter, or had studied him closely in the opera house. It would be absurd to expect a thoroughly mature and integrated conception of the character in a young artist, but all the signs are that he may well become a truly great Wotan. His anger blazes out fiercely in Act 2 as Fricka departs, but he begins the long scene after with Brünnhilde in a whisper that is rather ineffectual. (I know Wagner directs the singer to use a 'Iow muffled voice'.) Hotter's critics have allowed that he is superb in this scene and there is no doubt that Stewart does finely in it, if without expressing the full impact of 'das Ende'. I am not sure it was wise to imitate the tone of Erda's warning in this scene, but it is a debatable point. In Act 3 Stewart is able to bring out the full musical beauty - if not, as Hotter does, all the sterness and sadness - of the phrases of Wotan's banishment of Brünnhilde from 'the heavenly host': but he misses the irony of the broken hearted god's words 'Be guided now by your light heart - you have broken with me'. Perhaps, also, he sentimentalizes a little the phrases of the kiss that deprives Brünnhilde of her god-hood. Here, then, is a performance of great promise and, in a number of passages, of fulfillment. He is already experienced in Wagner roles, and had a great success as Gunther in the Bayreuth Ring last summer.

It has been no easy matter to compare the Decca and DG recordings as Crespin's assumption of Sieglinde in one and Brünnhilde in the other means that one is always hearing the former in the latter. Crespin is too accomplished an artist to fail in her new assignment but her success is only partial because she is, I feel, vocally and temperamentally unsuited to an heroic role - and, of course, she comes into competition with Nilsson's incomparable performance. The crude application of the echo-chamber to Crespin's battle-cry does not disguise the strained quality on the final high B naturals, but the earlier phrases are well negotiated, slurs and all. She gives us, in the course of this and the next act, many treasurable moments, and there is one phrase in Act 3 I have never heard sung so beautifully and affectingly. This I can only identify on the vocal score - the page number is 278, in the Schott edition. It is where Brünnhilde speaks, simply and from the heart, of understanding at least one of Wotan's commands, 'to love all that thou had'st loved'.

One does miss, over and over again, Nilsson's dead-centred, ringing notes and her firmness of tone in the softest passages. Crespin fails, alas, to keep her tone steady in the glorious phrases, in this act, where Brünnhilde sings of the love the Volsung had taught her - an E, twice sustained, while the orchestra plays phrases derived from the Volsung Love motif - but she summons up considerahle dramatic and tonal power in her appeal to be surrounded by fire. However, at almost all points this is a very interesting performance with many good things in it.

Gundula Janowitz hegins well as Sieglinde, really sounding surprised, as Crespin did not, in finding a strange man in her house and later in the act her beautifully placed high notes give much pleasure: but her singing of 'Der Männer Sippe', slack in enunciation of the recitative-like sections and curiously clumsy over one phrase in Sieglinde's subsequent lyrical outpouring, was disappointing. She does not really catch fire from Siegmund, especially such a passionate Siegmund as Vickers, and undoubtedly Crespin was better in this act. In Act 2 she sings with more imagination and sense of drama, and is often really affecting. In the rapturous response, in Act 3, to the news that she will give birth to Siegmund's child who will become a glorious hero, the recording does not reproduce her voice clearly enough. It does not become a thrilling moment.

Jon Vickers's performance as Siegmund is superb. He now begins the 'Spring Song' truly poetically, and as he is in splendid voice the heroic moments are most exciting. As always his enunciation is admirable but occasionally he is apt to put emphasis on words that do not require it and so disturb phrases that ought to flow naturally. This rarely happens in Act 2 where his tenderness to Sieglinde, his dignified replies to Brünnhilde, touch greatness. One realizes how much James King - though I liked him more than some critics - missed in the part.

Josephine Veasey's Fricka has been justly admired at Covent Garden. Christa Ludwig was very good indeed in the part but it is true that her upper range has now become soprano-like and this makes Veasey's true mezzo-soprano better suited to the enraged utterances of the goddess. This is a finely sung and distinguished performance. Martti Talvela is a magnificent Bunding, as menacing as Frick and with as black a voice, but with the tonal power the latter cannot now so easily command. There is not much to choose between the two groups of Valkyries, but they are better recorded by Decca. The lovely quiet passage where the three top voices come in one after the other does not make its full effect because the start of each entry is muffled. Decca, in general, provide a firmer bass, but the DG is unquestionably a very good recording.

My score of the opera is covered with markings in red ink such as 'terrific', 'marvellous', 'most lovely' etc, made when reviewing the Decca performances and applying to the conductor's interpretation and the orchestra's playing and, of course, the excellence of the recording. On reviewing this DG set I found myself seconding nearly all these remarks. Solti and Karajan have two great orchestras under them and what they draw from them is absolutely thrilling. The Berlin Philharmonic, however, has the advantage of a principal oboe with more ample tone than the Vienna Philharmonic and Karajan tends to restrain his brass section more. In general, I did not at all agree with some comments that Solti's interpretation lacked warmth. I found it full of feeling. Karajan tends, especially in Act 1, when the orchestra is so beautifully painting the awakening love of Sieglinde and Siegmund, to become emotionally indulgent - and understandably so. Solti builds his climaxes with rather more subtlety perhaps, but not less excitingly than Karajan.

My first choice still remains the Decca. The Ring must have a heroic sounding Brünnhilde able to meet all the demands of the most testing part in opera, and Nilsson has so gloriously met them. But there are many reasons why one would wish also to possess the DG, for the sake of the magnificent orchestral playing under Karajan, for Jon Vickers's Siegmund, and the promise of Thomas Stewart's Wotan, and for Crespin's gallant attempt to reach the heights. She may yet surprise us.

I look forward to the succeeding issues of DG's complete Ring with the greatest interest. Alec Robertson (April 1967)

 

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Wagner Das Rheingold

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Wotan Zoltán Kelemen bass Alberich Josephine Veasey mez Fricka Gerhard Stolze ten Loge Erwin Wohlfahrt ten Mime Martti Talvela bass Fasolt Karl Ridderbusch bass Fafner Donald Grobe ten Froh Simone Mangelsdorff sop Freia Helen Donath sop Woglinde Edda Moser sop Wellgunde Anna Reynolds mez Flosshilde

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

It is DG's policy to record and release each opera of the Ring in the year of its first production by Karajan at Salzburg. We had Die Walküre in July 1967, now we have Das Rheingold and the last two operas will follow, in sequence, in the next two years.

As one would expect, Karajan interprets Rheingold in the style he adopted for Walküre - how this will suit Siegfried and Götterdämmerung remains to be seen. An essay, by Wolfram Schwinger, in the booklet labels it 'Lyrical Cosmos', referring to the fact that the conductor's 'present-day approach to the Ring music has been influenced to some extent by his work in the sphere of Italian opera, Verdi in particular...Despite his pleasure in the powerful unfolding of sound...this music to him is more in the nature of a lyrical cosmos'. The writer lists the virtues of the Karajan style as radiant clarity, virtuosity of sound, highly effective contrasts, cantabile quality, and noble vocal and instrumental beauty. However, with all respect to the writer, most of these virtues are present, if in some cases intermittently, in the interpretations of other leading Wagner conductors, such as Böhm and Solti: but what does especially stand out is the care Karajan takes to be always most considerate to his singers, and this he assuredly is.

To secure 'vocal and instrumental beauty', and the rest, needs commensurate forces and Karajan has these, of course, in the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and in his admirable cast of singers.

The 1959 Decca recording of Rheingold has been re-cut so as to match the levels of the later Ring recordings and the general effect is certainly brighter, though the 'ground tone' at the start of the Prelude, provided by eight double-basses, is now rather too prominent. DG's voices, as so often, tend to be too forward, at the expense of the orchestra; but otherwise in this recording the balance is usually good and in this Prelude the 'ground tone' sounds at just the right volume. 

The 'effects' used in John Culshaw's production of the opera, and then an exciting novelty, were for the most part those indicated by Wagner and some of them are used by DG. Donner's hammer gives the same high-clink as in the Decca. That Wagner expected a bass sound is clearly indicated in the score. There is an amusing difference between the Nibelungs shrieks - Decca uses trebles, DG tenors. I think the trebles are more effective in suggesting a bunch of small eunuchs. Both recordings fail to devise a way of making Erda sound really supernatural. She rises out of the earth in a bluish light and one wishes it could have been suggested in the recording - but perhaps for that we must await the audio-visual disc. Jean Madeira and Oralia Dominguez sing the warning solemnly enough but without any sense of mystery. Still, these are all small matters.

Both Wotans are young but that is all they have in common. George London (Decca) has a true bass-baritone, Fischer-Dieskau (DG) a light baritone. London cannot match Fischer-Dieskau's feeling for words, for the musical phrase, but in the scene with the giants one does feel that the DG Wotan is a bantam among heavyweights. Both artists have great dignity and suggest a god-like origin. A good example of Fischer-Dieskau's failure to fill out a great phrase with ample tone comes when Wotan stands enraptured at the sight of his glittering castle and ends his praise of it with 'sublime, lordly structure', set to a phrase which involves a leap up to a high F. Fischer-Dieskau sounds too effortful here. London gives the phrase its due volume. These instances are rare and with Karajan's sympathetic treatment of the artist we can fully appreciate his truly distinguished performance.

Gerhard Stolze (DG) gives what seems to me a superlative account of Loge which, as a characterisation, leaves Svanholm (Decca) at the starting post. Here is all the malice and guile, the contempt for the other gods, that inhabit this mercurial creature. Foreseeing the ruin that will come to Valhalla he intends to survive. As Martin Cooper says in the DG booklet, he is 'the only clear-headed and rational being in all the dramatis personnae of the Ring, the rest of whom are the slaves of their passions, their ambitions or emotions'. Stolze uses an extraordinary variety of tone from a mere whisper - sometimes almost inaudible - to the denunciatory, and manages the lyrical phrases given to him very well. This is a virtuoso performance.

To say that Zoltan Kelemen's Alberich (DG) can stand up to Neidlinger's (Decca) is to give him the highest possible praise. Neidlinger was persuaded by Culshaw to sing Alberich for the last time in the Decca recording. He thought it ruinous to a voice in its prime. Not all Neidlinger's diabolical intensity is conveyed to Kelemen but his younger voice enables him to fill out the climactic moments without strain. Robert Kerns (DG) is not weighty enough for Donner and in this part I prefer Decca's Eberhard Waechter. On the other hand Erwin Wohlfahrt's Mime (DG) is better sung than Paul Kuen's. No one today could equal Martti Talvela's huge bass as Fasolt (DG) and he is vocally more in character than Walter Kreppel, whose romantic approach suggests, as AP said, a romantic young giant more interested in Freia than in the gold. Honours are equal between the Fafner's.

Among the female singers Josephine Veasey (DG), also the Fricka of the DG Walküre, gives another excellent performance in Rheingold. There can be no basis of comparison with Flagstad's wonderful singing of the part (Decca), for that was something unique in the annals of Wagnerian opera. Decca's Rhinemaidens were a good team but DG's are even better and their Wellgunde is sung by a soprano and not as in the Decca by a contralto. My Schott score lists her among the 'high sopranos' though the vocal range of the part is that of a mezzo-soprano, and Flosshilde that of a contralto. Edda Moser's warm tones sound to me like those of a mezzo-soprano.

On balance I prefer Solti's 'ecstatic dynamism' as Schwinger describes it in the DG booklet. I entirely agree with AP's description of his interpretation as 'superb, extraordinarily faithful, never eccentric, never obtrusive, lyrical without ever becoming slack or sluggish, dramatic without ever being overbearing'. Others may prefer Karajan's more relaxed approach, the chamber-music like quality he gives to many passages, his preoccupation with tonal beauty and perhaps a more subtle gradation of dynamic levels, his revealing direction to the brass not to become aggressive when the gods enter into Valhalla. 'Strength alone is not enough', he says, 'it can be played beautifully as well'. A price has to be paid for this restraint and there are some rather dull patches, as for example in the orchestral passage (the Valhalla theme) just before Wotan begins 'Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge', in the last scene, which does not glow.

But it is the old story, both are splendid interpretations that have much to offer in their own individual ways, both have magnificent orchestral playing and wonderful singing. In a word, one wants both of them. Decca's booklet with the 1959 issue was a meagre affair compared with those which accompanied the other three operas and no doubt the reissue will be given a new one. DG's handsome production has the libretto in German, English and French. Alec Robertson (September 1968)

 

Wagner Siegfried

Jess Thomas ten Siegfried Thomas Stewart bar Der Wanderer Gerhard Stolze ten Mime Helga Dernesch sop Brünnhilde Karl Ridderbusch bass Fafner Oralia Dominguez mez Erda Catherine Gayer sop Waldvogel

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

In reviewing the Decca Siegfried I remarked that I had not fully realised before what a tremendous achievement the opera was, and I concluded, 'Its inspired, almost unceasing, flow of invention, its melodic and harmonic wealth, its supremely imaginative scoring, constitute one of the miracles of music'. In the opera house one is bound to miss much that a close study of score and recording reveal at home, free of productions that ignore or compromise over Wagner's stage directions - granting that the creation of a credible bear or dragon, or an anvil that cracks convincingly, and so on, is no easy task on the stage.

DG leave us to imagine the thunder claps that should accompany Wotan's striking his spear on the ground and when Siegfried shatters it with his sword in the last Act. They also omit some other aural correspondences Culshaw brought in - few though these rightly were - but the most important difference that emerges in comparing the recordings as such is, of course, the balance between voices and orchestra. DG favour, as we well know, forward placing of the voices whereas Decca have sometimes erred in making them too subservient to the orchestra. The balance in Decca's Siegfried, however, was remarkably good, and there was a sense of movement, as if on a stage in depth, that I do miss in the DG. But I do not want to exaggerate the matter as the orchestral detail remains commendably clear in this new issue.

The point is that Siegfried is an opera of nine dialogues, three in each Act, for the various pairs of characters, with a female voice - except for the bird - bringing tonal relief only in the final scene of the opera, and I must admit that I did begin to tire of the forward placing of the male voices by the time we had reached the last act. This brings me to the cast, which, with a few reservations, is absolutely first-rate.

I will take Gerhard Stolze's Mime first of all as he sang the part in the Decca issue. DS-T was greatly irritated by him and there were some grounds for this. He indulged in too much whining and some hamming but I did, and still do, consider that his characterisation was most imaginative. Wagner asked for a 'harsh and husky' voice, an impossible demand. Stolze's tone is certainly far from beautiful but not harsh or husky and it does convey the revolting malice of the evil dwarf more convincingly than I ever remember hearing in the opera house. I am glad to say that Stolze now sings all the notes in his part including the tittering laughs on the high notes indicated by Wagner; and his rhythmic precision is as notable as before. Karajan was well advised to cast him in the part and like a true artist he has clearly re-thought and subtilized his performance of it.

Thomas Stewart, as in DG's Walküre, is again an impressive Wotan and uses his splendid voice to great effect. There are moments that show he has closely studied Hotter's assumption of the part, notably in the last words Wotan utters to Siegfried before he disappears, 'in complete darkness', out of the Ring: 'Zieh' hin! Ich kann nicht hatten'. The intonations here are exactly those of Hotter. The Wotan of Siegfried is an old and weary god, who has lost his power to command, who is willing to let events take their course and is glad to opt out. Stewart's young and resonant voice cannot convey this as Hotter did but he shows himself dignified, often sensitive, and is, I am sure, on the way to becoming a great exponent of this part. Hotter had a bad vocal patch in the riddle scene in Act 1 but recovered his form at the answer to Mime's third question, 'What race dwells on cloud hidden heights?' Here he was superb, a god indeed, and at present Stewart cannot match up to him at such moments.

Keleman and Ridderbusch are, as in Rheingold, the Alberich and Fafner. Perhaps Keleman's voice is a little light for 'black Alberich' but his rage at Wotan's unexpected appearance in the forest is well and powerfully conveyed. The quarrel between him and Mime over the treasure in the cave is too much of a shouting match and is better done in the Decca set. Ridderbusch is a less terrifying Fafner than Boehme but still not a beast one would care to encounter! The Decca recording almost brings him into the room and here too, if not so vividly, he is frightening enough and, after being stabbed to the heart, pathetic.

Oralia Dominguez does not convey the mystery of Erda as well as Marga Hoffgen. Wotan consigns Erda to endless sleep and the part should have the hypnotic tone of one reluctantly awakened from a long slumber. This Dominguez does not quite succeed in expressing. Catherine Gayer, a rather tremulous Woodbird, is not as good as Joan Sutherland. This is a part that needs a very clearly drawn vocal line.

I liked Jess Thomas's virile Siegfried immensely. He lacks the sensitivity Windgassen brought to the part in such scenes as the 'Forest Murmurs' but he has all the weight of tone the more mature but elderly artist was not able to give to the 'Forging Song', and is excellent in his utter contempt for Mime.

I am glad Karajan did not cast Crespin as Brünnhilde for that admirable artist was not really suited to her part in the DG Walküre. Dernesch has a lovely voice, pure and even throughout its compass and with a warm lower register, but her Brünnhilde is not very convincing when she has fully awoken to human love. Nilsson managed this better. She sings the awakening beautifully and in 'Ewig war ich' produces as thrilling a top C as Nilsson's, and again at the close of the scene. Wagner's inspiration deserts him in the last part of the duet. His son was born about the time he composed this scene and, as Robert Donnington says in his admirable book 'Wagner's Ring and its Symbols', Wagner's and Cosima's personal elation evokes rather blatant music.

Karajan and Solti had at their disposal two splendid orchestras between whom I have no wish to draw comparisons, but the conductors vary considerably in their scale of dynamics. Solti has the 'brooding motif' at the start of the Prelude to Act 1 played mezzo-forte, Karajan pianissimo; Wagner marks it piano! In the Prelude to Act 2 I could barely hear, in the DG, the demisemiquaver runs on the double basses that lead to the entry of the timpani, but they came out clearly in the Decca. Both conductors unleash the full orchestra in the Prelude to Act 3 with thrilling effect and again in Siegfried's ascent of the mountain to where Brünnhilde lies asleep. Karajan is a little more sensitive to the poetry of the 'Forest Murmurs' scene whilst Solti gets greater clarity in the orchestral passage preceeding Brünnhilde's awakening, and so one might continue to the point of tedium.

One great difference must be stated between these two distinguished interpretations. As I remarked about the two Walküres, Solti has a rhythmic drive, a clear comprehension of the great design that I do not find in Karajan's interpretation. This is more relaxed and he savours more the beauty of the short lyrical phrases that often come unexpectedly into the marvellous score. Those readers who are investing in the DG Ring will not be disappointed with this admirable performance and - in the line of its tradition - its recording. Alec Robertson (November 1969)

 

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Wagner Götterdämmerung

Helga Dernesch sop Brünnhilde Helge Brilioth ten Siegfried Karl Ridderbusch bass Hagen Zoltán Kelemen bass Alberich Thomas Stewart bar Gunther Gundula Janowitz sop Gutrune Christa Ludwig mez Waltraute Liselotte Rebmann sop Woglinde Edda Moser sop Wellgunde Anna Reynolds mez Flosshilde Lili Chookasian cont First Norn Christa Ludwig mez Second Norn Catarina Ligendza sop Third Norn

Chorus of the German Opera Berlin, Berlin PhiIharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

Now that DG have completed their recording of the Ring it becomes possible to view Karajan's fine interpretation of the tremendous work from beginning to end. Much attention has been drawn to the 'chamber music style' that particularly distinguished his performance of Rhinegold but which, predictably, would become increasingly less suitable in the succeeding operas. Karajan's refinement and delicacy of texture, and the greater clarity given to the words are notable, but it is demonstrably untrue to suggest that nothing approximating to it all had ever been heard before. To go right back to 1908, great praise was given to Nikisch's poetic treatment of the Waldweben scene in Siegfried during his first performance of the Ring at Covent Garden - at which I had the good fortune to be present - and experienced Wagnerians will easily be able to recall numerous such instances, past and present, in the opera house.

However, it is all to the good that we have two such splendid interpretations of the Ring on disc, by two great conductors of widely differing temperaments, and a carefully considered and worked out comparison between them would yield fascinating results. This, however, is not the place to undertake any such task but rather to confine this review to Götterdämmerung with some comparative references to the Decca recording.

To begin with the Prelude to Act 1, I was rather sorry that Christa Ludwig was cast for the second Nom as well as Waltraute for her highly individual voice is unmistakeable, but in spite of this she fits well into the excellently sung and balanced trio. The forward placing of the voices, characteristic of DG, does rob the scene of mystery and, pace DS-T, I preferred the veiled acoustic John Culshaw devised for it in the Decca. In the second Norn's first narration there is a striking example, one of many, or Karajan's close observance of Wagner's dynamic directions, changing here in each of seven consecutive bars - p, cresc, poco f, p, dim, più p; and there is, at the end of the scene, one of his finely managed transitions, here from gloom to sunrise and daylight, ending in a glowing climax just before the succeeding duet.

This brings me to Helga Dernesch's Brünnhilde and Helge Brilioth's Siegfried. Dernesch's beautiful lyric soprano, ample in tone, even throughout its range and with a valuable rather dark lower register, her innate musicality, her warmth of expression, her high notes placed with unerring accuracy, if without sufficient variety of tone, make her an appealing Brünnhilde but the part imperatively calls for Nilsson's true dramatic soprano, the heroic ring in her magnificent voice. Brilioth's rather dry voice, no Heldentenor, is somewhat constricted at the top of his range, but he phrases well and sounds more youthful than Windgassen who, however, was in splendid voice in the Decca set. Karajan unleashes the orchestra in no uncertain manner in this scene but at no time overwhelms the voices as he was said to do, by some critics, in the Salzburg Festival performance last Easter.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra do not normally play in the opera house - that is the province of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra - and we are told, in Wolfram Schwinger's essay in the booklet, that Karajan 'explained each situation to them at the recording as they had had no previous operatic experience', whereas the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as John Culshaw reminds us in his book Ring Resounding, had the music in their blood. It is a great tribute to Karajan's explanations that they responded to him with such understanding. In 'Siegfried's Journey to the Rhine' they were on more familiar ground, as also in 'Siegfried's Funeral March'. There is much delicate detail in the 'Journey'. another of Karajan's fine transitions to the first scene of Act 1 and great splendour and nobility of sound in the March.

Thomas Stewart's excellent Gunther, is not of the stature of Fischer-Dieskau's in the Decca set, but he does convey something of the King's dignity, vanity and self-distrust. Karl Ridderbusch lacks the 'black' quality and incisive ennunciation of Gottlob Frick's Hagen. The man is not such an evil character as Alberich and the subtlety in Ridderbusch's smoothness of manner in his conversation with Gunther, in Act 1, may be concealed from the listener by the beauty of his voice. It was a curious idea to cast Gundula Janowitz as Gutrune and not a successful one. She is not really at ease in declamatory passages but, as one would expect, sings the lyrical ones with lovely tone. She sounds rather as if Pamina had strayed from The Magic Flute into this opera. Decca's Claire Watson, if less regal and more human, is more in the skin of the part. Janowitz sings 'Siegfried mein', after he has drunk the fatal potion, in a cool tone that, does not at all correspond with Wagner's direction that she goes to her apartment 'in lively agitation'. Watson is much better here. Ridderbusch's voice rings out strongly in Hagen's greeting to Siegfried and he is splendidly virile, with fine top notes, in the summons to the Vassals in Act 2, as also are the chorus of the German Opera. There is, in fact, little to choose here between the DG and the Decca - both are most exciting. In the scene with Alberich the gradual fading away of that evil character is not so well managed as in the Decca. In general Karajan makes little use of aural effects, rationing the thunder and so forth.

Ludwig is even finer in the Waltraute-Brünnhilde scene than in the Decca but I wish the orchestra had been more eloquent as she sings 'he remembered, Brünnhilde, thee!'. Dernesch is admirable in the great declaration of love for Siegfried which her sister understands as little as she did Siegmund's love for his sister. No gimmick is used, as in the Decca, to assist Siegfried to imitate Gunther's voice, Brilioth simply sings as brusquely and as tonelessly as he can. The great scene of the oath to bring about Siegfried's death is most dramatic and splendidly sung, though here again I miss Nilsson's more incisive and ringing tones and earlier on the full force of her anguished cry, 'Betrayed, shamefully betrayed!'

In the Prelude to the Third Act the Rhinemaidens make a better balanced team than their Decca counterparts, when Gwenneth Jones's voice was too prominent; and Karajan treats the scene very much in his 'chamber music style', that is, with great delicacy and refinement. It is very lovely. Brilioth is good in his conversational exchanges with the girls and also in Siegfried's long narration that follows when Hagen and the huntsmen come in. He sings the story naturally and interests one throughout, and he puts considerablc pathos into his death scene.

I must turn now to the closing scene and here, alas, Dernesch's inexperience in her part obtrudes and is not helped by Karajan's slow tempos. There is a constant loss of tension, up to the moment Brünnhilde takes the firebrand to light the funeral pyre. Up to this point I was not moved, recalling Nilsson's 'Alles, alles, alles weis ich' and 'Rube, du Gott'. Dernesch, also, is unable to bring the noble exaltation and authority of Nilsson into her rapturous greeting to Siegfried and sounds considerably strained towards the end. The orchestral peroration is magnificently played but cannot really compensate for what has been lacking before. I feel sure that with more experience, more variety of tone, more penetration into the soul of the character, added to her already great gifts, Dernesch may well become a great Brünnhilde.

I do not want to make comparisons between the two great orchestras, both of whom play gloriously, but the instrumental balance is better defined in the Decca. Only too often the DG bass, other than when the brass are playing, is weak or sometimes nearly in audible. The overall balance and tonal quality is certainly better in the Decca recording even though the brass, as in the astonishing Prelude to Act 2, sometimes sounds larger than life. In each recording there is a wealth of lovely detail, lyrical beauty and high drama, but I cannot greet Karajan's Götterdämmerung with the same almost unqualified rapture I expressed about Solti's, for the reasons given above and for one other of special importance. It lacks the vital onward-going rhythm, the sense of the unfolding of the great symphonic design which I value so much in Solti's interpretation: he is never episodic. Karajan's interpretation, nevertheless, remains, a notable achievement, a noble conception which every Wagnerian would wish to possess. Alec Robertson (November 1970)

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The Karajan Ring at 50

Revisiting the groundbreaking recording project that burst into life 50 years ago… Explore

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