Wagner (Der) Ring des Nibelungen

A wholly absorbing account of Wagner’s Ring cycle from a reborn Bayreuth

Author: 
Alan Blyth

Wagner (Der) Ring des Nibelungen

  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 1, '(Das) Rheingold'
  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 2, '(Die) Walküre'
  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 3, 'Siegfried'
  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 4, 'Götterdämmerung'

Archipel is to be lauded for unearthing what proves to be a thrilling traversal of the much-recorded Ring. In the second year of its post-war incarnation, Bayreuth turned to Joseph Keilberth as conductor of the cycle. Not highly regarded at the time, his reading proves in retrospect an exhilarating experience.

Always thought of as a kind of journeyman compared with the more famous conductors of the time whose names begin with a ‘K’ (Klemperer, Karajan, Krauss, Erich Kleiber, Kempe), he was very far from that, as most of his recordings confirm. We can now surmise that the much-admired 1953 cycle, conducted by Clemens Krauss, in many ways stemmed from Keilberth’s equally taut interpretation a year before. As with Krauss, it is fast, furious and immediate, with a marvellous feeling for a forward-moving pulse evident throughout, while the reflective passages are given with the proper sense of inner drama. With a well-equipped and obviously dedicated orchestra at his command, Keilberth proposes a wholly integrated, vital concept.

He is blessed with a wonderful group of singers, seemingly working as a true ensemble, headed by the 43-year-old Hans Hotter at the height of his powers. In his first Bayreuth Wotan, his portrayal of the errant god (except in Rheingold, where the reliable Hermann Uhde sings the young Wotan) is emotionally overwhelming and, in every respect, vocally commanding, with his oluminous bass-baritone in pristine condition and no sign of the unsteadiness heard in some of his later assumptions of the part. Above all, there is – as ever with Hotter – an innate feeling for the sense of key lines. There has never been, before or since, such a comprehensive interpretation of the part.

As his antagonist, Gustav Neidlinger, also singing at Bayreuth for the first time, is a quite formidable Alberich – fiery, intense, soaked in malice and envy, all conveyed by a secure and far-ranging voice. The Wotan-Alberich duologue, at the start of Siegfried, Act 2, thus becomes the mighty encounter it ought to be.

Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde, already heard on the Green Hill in 1951, under Karajan and Knappertsbusch – vide the EMI set of Act 3 under the former (10/93), the complete Götterdämmerung under the latter on Testament (10/99). Here, apart from moments of unwieldy vocalisation in the Siegfried finale, she is at her eloquent best, the voice warm and rich-hued, and her partnership with Hotter’s Wotan as moving as in the Krauss cycle the following year, and her Immolation scene is thrilling in every respect.

Another Bayreuth stalwart-to-be, Josef Greindl is magnificently secure and nasty as both Hunding and Hagen. With Ludwig Weber as a sympathetic Fasolt and Kurt Böhme as a lowering Fafner-as-dragon, there are three magnificent basses on hand of a kind impossible to emulate today. Ira Malaniuk, Mela Bugarinovic and Ruth Siewert (an overwhelmingly eloquent Waltraute), are almost as impressive in the three main mezzo roles. Uhde offer his unrivalled Gunther, Rita Streich her ethereal Woodbird, and there are three steady, clear-voiced Rhinemaidens. Wolfgang Windgassen, soon to undertake Siegfried, is here a lyrical Froh.

Inge Borkh, in her only year at Bayreuth, makes a properly radiant then anguished Sieglinde, her fevered outbursts in Act 2 reminding one how tremendous she was as Elektra around the same period. As Siegmund, Günther Treptow’s plangent tenor and his finely shaped phrasing makes one forgive the occasionally tight sound at the top of his voice.

Bernd Aldenhoff has sometimes been criticised for exhibiting the worst traits of the German Heldentenor. I find little to justify that view in his finely judged young Siegfried here. He is suitably uncouth in the opening scene, heroic in the sword-forging, poetic in the forest and approaching the sleeping Brünnhilde, and finds enough puff to match Varnay note for note in the love duet.

The veteran Max Lorenz, reigning Siegfried at Bayreuth in the 1930s, returned to the role for the cycle’s climactic work. Although the part now presses unduly on his reduced resources, the remnant of a noble portrayal can still be discerned in voice that is still a true Heldentenor. This complements his account of the part in Furtwängler’s La Scala cycle in 1950 (Music & Arts, 12/96).

The recording is for the most part acceptable and well-balanced, catching the sympathetic Bayreuth acoustics. There is a little rumble from time to time and some drop-out, most noticeable on the eighth CD (Act 3 of Siegfried), which really needs remastering. The booklet offers the cast lists, absolutely nothing else, but at the price this should nonetheless attract Ring addicts, or indeed newcomers who wish to sample a superbly sung, satisfyingly conducted, well-integrated cycle.

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