WAGNER Götterdämmerung – Knappertsbusch
The story has already been told of how this sleeping Brunnhilde of a performance has been awakened by the persistent vigilance of Testament after sleeping for 48 years in Decca’s vaults because of an age-old dispute over rights between that company and EMI. Now everyone, including Bayreuth, has relented, and a truly inspired performance – for that’s what it is – has been released for all Wagnerians to enjoy. It must rank among the most gratifying accounts of the work in existence, a fitting memorial, alongside the exactly contemporaneous Parsifal (Teldec), to the phoenix-like reincarnation of Bayreuth post-war and to Wieland Wagner’s genius and a producer and gatherer of all the talents to the Green Hill.
The other hero of the occasion, as with Parsifal, is of course Knappertsbusch. However flawed the earlier works in this cycle may have been, and we have only the word of those present, not aural evidence, on that, this final evening of the tetralogy was undoubtedly a triumph on Kna’s part (not to forget Karajan’s role in rehearsing the cycle). From the first bars of the Prologue he takes us right into the work, as concerned as three notable Norns (Modl the most arresting of the three when prophesying the conflagration to come) with the inevitability of the tragic events portrayed within. Then, in one of the opera’s, perhaps the cycle’s, most important but difficult transformations, he takes us from Stygian gloom to mountain-top ecstasy with a masterly touch few equal. There we meet Varnay’s youthful, vibrant, womanly heroine, ‘O bringe Grane’ and what follows given a lovely line and tonal warmth. Beside her is the not-so-lovely Siegfried of Aldenhoff, yet once you become accustomed to his aggrandizing, extrovert moments you hear a Heldentenor in the old mould, alive to every word and communicating with his audience. Later, before taking the fatal potion, he provides a most sensitive half-voice at the remembrance of his partner.
In the Rhine Journey music Knappertsbusch gives us the uninhibited energy that marks all his reading – you simply see Siegfried rowing against the current, horns against staccato strings. Arriving at Gibichung Hall you meet the most forthright, articulate Gunther of all in Uhde, also heard on other sets. If you listen to his greeting to Siegfried, ‘Begrusse froh, O Held’, you will realize why Uhde is pre-eminent in this role. Beside him is the louring, gloating, ambitious Hagen of Weber: at last this central interpretation is to be heard in full on disc. What intelligence there is in every bar he sings (try ‘Ein Weib weiss ich’ or the whole of the Watch) – and this is from an artist also undertaking Gurnemanz that year at Bayreuth. They don’t make them like that any more. Gutrune is more controversially cast. Modl is not your usual sweet-toned milksop but a women not afraid to show her deep emotions.
Knappertsbusch handles the long, brooding transformation back to the mountain-top as only a master of Wagnerian flow and development can. Once there we encounter yet another revelatory interpretation: Hongen’s Waltraute. The very epitome of urgent concern, she conveys, with amazing immediacy the whole of Wotan’s despair, the, with a shudder in her tone at ‘Da brach sich sein Blick’, the tenderness of his thoughts on his beloved Brunnhilde, possibly the most moving moment in the whole Ring. At least that is what this great mezzo, makes you feel it to be, consoling us for occasionally grainy tone. Varnay’s untroubled complacency, fooled by love, in the face of her fellow Valkyrie’s warning is just as eloquent.
Throughout Act 2, Knappertsbusch’s reading is trenchant in characterizing the tremendous conflicts depicted therein. Weber rouses the vassals with vigorous enthusiasm. Varnay is tremendous in her denunciations of Siegfried, Aldenhoff as vivid in his replies. Such immediacy can only be found in the opera house, and damn the momentary lapses in ensemble, the few distractions when scenery is being moved or the audience coughs. At the start of Act 3, the Rhine Maidens, led by Schwarzkopf, no less, are too backwardly placed, the sole blot on the sound picture. In Siegfried’s Narration, Aldenhoff captures the vitality of his earlier exploits, supported by gloriously rippling strings, and sings a fulsome death-song. Then Knappertsbusch, as throughout, eagerly supported by Bayreuth’s hand-picked orchestra (all individually named in the accompanying booklet), unleashes all the tremendous import of the Funeral March, nothing triumphant here, only a true climax to the tragedy, the weight of sound entirely appropriate. Finally Varnay carries all before her, in better voice than later at Bayreuth, in a visionary account of the Immolation that rightly crowns a noble interpretation of her role and the whole work.
The recording, the transfers done by Paul Baily, is superior even to that of the 1951 Parsifal, with only a few passages of uncertain balance to fault it, supporting an experience from the opera house nobody ought to miss. Thanks are due to Testament for making it available to us. '