Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen
It all depends what you want from a recording of Wagner’s cycle. Each of these performances offers a very different view both as regards interpretation and recording. The famous Decca set, which used to have the trademark, “Sonicstage”, remains a monument to John Culshaw’s imagination in creating a mind’s eye view of the work, complete with sound effects, changes of recording level and electronic enhancements. It has it own validity but set beside the true stage perspectives in the Sawallisch/EMI set, which originally came out in video and Laserdisc form (and won
These points are underlined when we compare the conductors’ readings. Solti’s often viscerally thrilling performance is lamed by a stop-go, vertical approach, but he does have the Vienna Philharmonic in superlative form, sounding even better in these latest transfers, for which the Decca engineers have managed to eliminate the tape hiss on the previous CD issues. Not unexpectedly, and as I found in my video review (5/92), Sawallisch, lays much more emphasis on secure line and unity over a whole act, speeds finely honed and an indefinable but irresistible sense of forward movement that eludes Solti, and his orchestra yields little or nothing to the VPO in terms sheer sound and surpasses it in matters of clear, precise articulation.
Above all Sawallisch conveys the love, violence and tragedy in the great work projecting live drama in a way that recalls Bohm’s classic Bayreuth recording of the 1960s, now at mid-price. Knappertsbusch is much more wilful. His heavy-going Rheingold and a tendency to exaggerate ritardandos or over-emphasize rhythms are mostly forgotten and forgiven when he gives to purple passages a grandeur and elemental power his two successors cannot match, and his Bayreuth forces respond with equally elemental playing. He is at his best in the final two dramas.
In some respects the casts reflect the work of their conductors. By and large, in the modern manner, Sawallisch’s singers are lighter in weight than their predecessors, but each has learnt, after working with their conductor over several cycles at the time, his overriding wish for legato singing. As Brunnhilde, though vocally she is seldom Nilsson’s equal, Behrens makes us, as ever, forget some inequalities in her singing for the sake of the radiance and feeling of her interpretation. Hale sings with consistently firm though not always commanding enough tone and fills phrase after phrase with a deep undertow of meaning. He isn’t the equal of Hotter, Wotan on the other two sets (except for the Decca Rheingold), in authority or in giving the text a Lieder singer’s detail of expression that noble singer is better heard at Bayreuth in 1956, at the zenith of his powers, than ten years later on Decca when his voice had lost focus and some strength. Indeed his 1956 reading is an absolute essential for anyone interested in Ring interpretation. In Act 3 of Walkure and in the whole of the Wanderer’s part in Siegfried, Hotter is here unsurpassed. Similarly Windgassen is better heard as Siegfried in the earlier performance, when he was in marginally better voice, and his reading of the part there has not been rivalled before or since either for security of conviction though his reading for Bohm runs his earlier one at Bayreuth a close second. Kollo, by comparison, sounds effortful at times, but his intelligence and lively delivery count for much.
Windgassen also sings a Siegmund at Bayreuth (where he took over at very short notice from Vinay) to ring one’s withers. By his side King sounds staid and uninvolved, Schunk a shade overparted, but Schunk certainly has the right timbre for the role and is inspired by his Sieglinde, the unique Varady, to great things by virtue of her wonderfully meaningful treatment of the text, though Crespin provides the more beautiful sound, Brouwenstijn the more consistent phrasing. There’s little to choose among three imposing Hundings.
In Rheingold, Knappertshusch’s singers provide the most interesting interpretations. His Loge (Suthaus), like Solti’s (Svanholm), was also a Siegfried and the voices and experience of both make Tear – for all his intelligence – seem rather small beer. Tear and a too insistent Fricka apart, Sawallisch also has a splendid team. Where Alberich is concerned, there is nothing to choose between Neidlinger (both Decca and Music & Arts) and Wlaschiha – both exude command. In the two final operas there are authoritative basses all-round. Pampuch and Kuen are less inclined to overdo Mime’s whinings than Stolze. Of the three urgent Waltrautes, Meier is the most urgent and articulate of all. The change of Erdas in the Solti set is unfortunate. Madeira sings the role complete, and with tremendous authority at Bayreuth, but Schwarz at Munich is not far behind. Uhde, at Bayreuth, is by far the most convincing Gunther.
Price is obviously going to play a part in making a choice among these sets and those others in contention. At the budget level, the Sawallisch is a satisfying experience at almost every level, even if the whole performance is just a trifle too recessed in sound. The rival Janowski, the first digitally recorded version (made in 1980-3 in Dresden) is just as vivid a performance, though without quite the Wagnerian heft of Sawallisch – and its Brunnhilde is no match for Behrens. The Solti, now at mid-price, will always have its admirers, and deservedly so for the consistency of Culshaw’s ideas, but at that price level the Bohm remains for me a more vital experience, with Nilsson in even more exciting form than for Solti. The Knappertsbuch is a very special event, at its best – and it’s often at its best – unrivalled by any of these other readings, especially when Hotter, Varnay and Windgassen are operating, but its mono sound may for some rule it out of contention. At least it is there as a historic document of the utmost importance. Decca provide full texts and translations, EMI a detailed summary, Music & Arts not even that.'