Wagner (Der) Ring des Nibelungen
Pleased as I always am to add yet another Ring to a shelf heaped with recordings of the cycle‚ I cannot wholly recommend this set simply because‚ despite several merits‚ it is too much of a curate’s egg‚ shot through with inconsistencies of casting and sound quality. Stiedry’s overview of the vast work is altogether too swift for the comfort of singers and listeners‚ suggesting superficial responses to Wagner’s deepest inspirations‚ although there is a basic vitality that also informed a cycle he conducted in London a year or two later‚ and he has a splendid orchestra at his command. The Met cycle‚ recorded over quite a number of days‚ saw changes of cast for the two longest roles‚ Brünnhilde and Wotan. Different singers also share Fricka‚ Alberich and Mime.
One opera receives a superior performance. That is Die Walküre. It marked the return to the Met‚ after 10 years and many political vicissitudes‚ of Flagstad. Now a veteran of 55‚ she still retains‚ as she also indicated at Covent Garden at the time‚ an amazingly fresh voice‚ hardly marked‚ except in the uppermost notes‚ by the passage of time. She offers what she always did: firm‚ unfettered‚ allenveloping tone that is at once warm and gleaming‚ a sustained psychological depth of Brünnhilde’s predicament. By her side she has three colleagues worthy of her. With Varnay as Sieglinde‚ so immediate and urgent in declamation‚ so rich of voice‚ it could be said that the two greatest Wagnerian sopranos of all time were‚ uniquely‚ sharing a stage.
As Siegmund‚ Treptow‚ much underrated as a Heldentenor‚ sings with unfailing musicality‚ feeling for the text and a fine line. Frantz is as always dependable and articulate as Wotan; today he would be treasured for the solidity of his singing throughout his whole range. It has to be said that Flagstad‚ Treptow and Frantz all take part in the legendary recording from La Scala under Furtwängler the previous year‚ where their conductor inspires them to even greater things (M&A‚ 12/96). Thebom is a spendidly vital Fricka‚ the Hunding indifferent. There are huge excisions in Wotan’s Act 2 monologue.
The preceding Rheingold‚ in mouldier sound‚ is a very patchy performance‚ perfunctorily conducted‚ notable mainly for Hotter’s commanding Wotan‚ but he is heard to far more convincing effect in Bayreuth performances of 1953 and later. Svanholm is a lively‚ intelligent Loge but surpassed by his reading here on Solti’s 1957 recording (Decca‚ 8/98). The veteran Branzell is an imposing‚ darktoned Erda‚ as she is in Siegfried. Harshaw‚ soon to be promoted to being a Covent Garden Brünnhilde‚ makes a satisfactory Fricka.
Siegfried suffers again from Stiedry’s fast pace and ungainly cuts. Svanholm‚ here and in the cycle’s finale‚ offers his rather roughedged hero. He has poetry and heroism in him‚ but it has often to battle against an intractable voice. Frantz is again authoritative. Traubel‚ nearing the end of her Met career‚ makes us regret Flagstad’s absence‚ but she remains a reliable performer‚ satisfying in her unaffected way if you’re not looking for profundity of interpretation. Klein’s Mime‚ so familiar at Covent Garden in the 1950s‚ is full of malevolent character. Berger is a still freshsounding Woodbird.
Branzell is again impressive as Erda‚ such eloquence of diction. Indeed the most exciting section in the whole performance is the start of Act 3‚ with her and Frantz giving this wonderful passage real Wagnerian heft‚ something seldom matched today. Stiedry is also at his best here‚ urging his orchestra to exciting feats as he does again in the final duet.
In Götterdämmerung‚ Svanholm‚ who rises above himself at the moment of Siegfried’s death‚ and Traubel are much as before. Ernster is no more than adequate as Hagen‚ wanting the granite bass the part calls for. Janssen‚ at the close of his distinguished career‚ remains a wellroutined Gunther. Resnik‚ then still a soprano‚ is an appealing Gutrune. Harshaw’s Waltraute is keenly sung‚ but lacks the interpretative weight and thought of the great singers in the character’s crucial narrative‚ partly because her German is unidiomatic. As a whole‚ in spite of some superb contributions from the orchestra‚ this is a rather ordinary account of a superb musicdrama.
At superbudget price‚ Wagnerian ‘completists’ will want to add this cycle to their collection for several moments of real enlightenment. They will have to cope with variable sound. At its best‚ it has some depth and immediacy; at its worst‚ as in Rheingold and part of Walküre‚ Act 1‚ the voices appear to emerge through a tube. I was glad to hear the set‚ but doubt if I shall return to it often.