Forgive me if my choice of German words above isn’t quite right. Not knowing the language well enough to speak it, I used an online translator and that’s what I got. But the essential crux of the title is that I absolutely detest opera singers whose voices have either a very pronounced flutter or, worse yet, an uneven flutter of the type uncharitably known as a “wobble.” I also hate singers with coarse, strained and ungainly voices.
And sadly, these are primarily the kind of singers we hear nowadays in most Wagner opera performances. Why? Those who don’t pay too much attention to the wide pool of singers who are actually available in the world nowadays claim that we simply don’t have the right voices to sing the music. This is partially true. Wagner’s music requires a type of singer that is not really very common in any era: one with a fairly strong, clear tone that can be heard over his generally thick orchestration, and voices that can hold up for the long stretches of time (although some roles in some of his operas, particularly Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger, only really require the stamina, not the volume). Indeed, the need for vocal stamina has been the ruin of more than a few singers who have specialized in his music, among them the sopranos Astrid Varnay and Martha Mödl, the tenor René Kollo and baritone Falk Struckmann. I hasted to point out that, in their prime, I was really quite enamored of Varnay, Mödl and Kollo, thus you will find some of their recordings high on my recommended list, but Struckmann’s period of non-wobble was so brief that there is scarcely much of his output to recommend. Still, if the singer is intelligent and has a good technique, he or she can negotiate the music for several years without detroying their voices in the least. If you listen to the recordings of soprano Lilli Lehmann, made when she was nearing 60 and had been singing Wagner’s music for nearly 40 years, you will hear this, and the same was also true of Johanna Gadski, Frida Leider, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Wolfgang Windgassen and Gottlob Frick, among others.
Now, there’s this guy up in Canada who owns his own record company, issuing old Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from the 1930s and ‘40s, and he is absolutely convinced that these performances are truly “immortal.” Honest! He really believes this. I tried telling him that some of them are not only far from immortal, they’re far from good performances despite the Big Name Singers. Very often the conductors slop the music up so much that you wonder how they got their big reputations, but more often than not the singers just don’t get into their roles. This is particularly true of Lauritz Melchior, who had a big, loud, beefy voice but was about as subtle as a Mack truck barreling down the highway. I admit that in the early part of his career as a tenor (1920 to c. 1939) he was really splendid to listen to strictly as a voice, and I really love those Wagner recordings he made in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, but from 1940 onward, when the bulk of his broadcasts were saved, his voice had become dry and percussive. His high notes, though still powerful, sounded squeezed through his nose. And more and more often, he sounded as if he didn’t give a damn. This is especially true of his 1940 Lohengrin broadcast, which this guy in Canada tried to convince me was immortal. I told him that even Placido Domingo, who I normally dislike, sang the title role better than Melchior. He practically had a coronary, called me an idiot who doesn’t know music, etc. etc. etc. But I hold my ground. Not only Domingo but Windgassen, Sándor Kónya, René Kollo (in the 1976 live recording with Karajan) and Sirgfried Jerusalem all sang Lohengrin much better than Melchior.
But there was some deterioration. During the late 1950s, it suddenly became OK for singers with vocal defects such as a wobble to be not merely accepted but lauded for their efforts. This was largely due to the high esteem in which bass-baritone Hans Hotter (1909-2003) was held. Hotter, who suffered from asthma all his life, slipped into an uneven wobble more and more as his career progressed, but he was such an exceptional stage actor and vocal interpreter that he was usually forgiven. You will find but a handful of Hotter’s recordings among my recommendations, most of them from the early-to-mid 1950s when his wobble was at its least annoying. Certainly, after 1957 it became a constant and not a variable in his singing, thus his performances of Wotan in the Georg Solti Ring cycle are almost impossible to listen to (for me, anyway) with any pleasure.
Well, Hotter begat Theo Adam, who was even wobblier from an even younger age than Hotter, and once those indomitable stalwarts Birgit Nilsson, Windgassen and Jon Vickers disappeared from the scene we had to make do with smaller voices pumped up to sound big, and if they actually sang those roles on the stage they ended up ruining their voices or, in some cases, getting out of the repertoire before the ruin set in.
But there are two other factors to be considered here. One is, as an acquaintence of mine once put it, every opera house in both America and Europe must now mount a complete Ring cycle at least every other year in order to be taken seriously, and there just aren’t that many high-quality Wagnerian voices to go around (in point of fact, there never were). The other is that, one former rock star Peter Hoffmann started singing Wagner in the Patrice Chéreau Ring cycle of the late 1970s, there has been an actual demand for coarse-sounding voices in this repertoire. Why? Because many of the new Wagnerian fans grew up listening to rock music, and they like that kind of voice. So Ben Heppner, Siegfried Jerusalem and others with excellent voices can just stay home. Audiences would just as soon hear straining pigs like Lance Ryan, because he sounds hip and cool like their rock singers. They also don’t seem to mind straining baritones and wobbly, infirm sopranos like Nina Stemme (who once had a wonderful voice but blew it), Deborah Polaski and the like.
Thus it’s very hard to pick your way through the minefield of Wagnerian recordings. Conventional wisdom tells you that the further back in time you go, the more sure you will be of finding consistent casts of great singers, and this is pretty much the case, but don’t go too far back or you’ll find yourself tearing your hair out with conductors who don’t hold the music together or casts who just blast out their notes and give you little real dramatic value. Let’s face it: Wagner is really difficult to pull off well, and all you need is one really awful singer in an important role to ruin the whole performance for you.
In addition to all this, I’m also partial to Wagner in stereo, not mono. Much moreso than Verdi, Bizet or any other opera composer except possibly Berlioz, the spatial qualities of stereo sound are very important in Wagner. Nevertheless, you will find a few (very few, but important) mono recordings listed among my recommendations, although seldom as first choices. I’m also partial to recordings made in Bayreuth, where the unusual sound qualities and rapid sound “decay” seems to enhance the musical experience.
RIENZI / René Kollo, tenor (Cola Rienzi); Siv Wennberg, soprano (Irene); Nikolaus Hillebrand, baritone (Steffano); Janis Martin, contralto (Adriano Colonna); Theo Adam, bass-baritone (Paolo Orsini); Siegfried Vogel, tenor (Orsini); Ingeborg Springer, soprano (Messenger); Peter Schreier, tenor (Baroncelli); Günther Leib, baritone (Cecco del Vecchio); Heinrich Hollreiser, conductor; Leipzig Radio Chorus; Dresden State Opera Orchestra & Chorus / EMI 63980
RIENZI (abridged) / Torsten Kerl, tenor (Cola Rienzi); Camilla Nylund, soprano (Irene); Ante Jerkunica, baritone (Steffano); Kate Aldrich, contralto (Adriano Colonna); Krzysztof Szumanski, baritone (Paolo Orsini); Heinz Holecek, tenor (Raimondo); Clemens Bieber, tenor (Baroncelli); Stephen Bronk, baritone (Cecco del Vecchio); Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conductor; Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra & Chorus / Arthaus Musik 101521 (DVD)
Rienzi is Wagner’s problem stepchild: at the time of its premiere, and for a few years thereafter, he was very proud of it, but by the time he got around to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin he became very weary of it, disavowing it as a derivative “Italian” opera and later blocking it from being performed at Bayreuth. Yet it was, up to the early 20th century, Wagner’s most popular opera, it was quite influential in its day, and in fact it was THE Wagner opera that most inspired and inflamed the young Adolf Hitler, who later owned the autograph score (and died with it when he, the score, and his bunker went up in flames in 1945). Another problem with the opera is that, like most of Wagner’s scores, it’s quite long, yet because of its unpopularity it is seldom performed complete.
The first recording listed above was the first and, to date, only commercial recording of the whole opera ever made. Readers who have gone through my screed above about wobbly singers, and particularly Theo Adam, may be wondering why the very first recording I recommend includes him in it. Well, because it’s the only complete recording of the opera, obviously. Also because Adam’s role isn’t a very large one in the scheme of things, and the other singers—particularly Kollo, Wennberg and Martin—are superb. All thing being equal, it’s not a bad performance despite the fact that conductor Heinrich Hollreiser is about as inspring as a bowl of cold oatmeal. And in the final analysis, that’s what is wrong with the recording: it’s a hothouse flower. Obviously this cast worked very hard on it prior to recording—there are some good moments in it—and the recording is extremely valuable for giving us all of the music, so in the final analysis, if you really enjoy Wagner, you need to have this recording. (I’ve heard Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, and they’re simply not very good…too long and rambling, not coherent enough.)
The second recording is a DVD production of an abridged performance of the opera. The stage production is interesting in that Rienzi really is presented as Hitler, including black-and-white footage of Rienzi giving “Sieg Heils” to his enthusiastic followers. It works, but to a certain extent it’s somewhat overdone and a bit silly. Nevertheless, the actual performance is everything the EMI recording is not: exciting, dynamic, and dramatically potent. Torsten Kerl’s voice isn’t nearly as lovely to listen to as Kollo’s, but he sings very well nevertheless, and Kate Aldrich is absolutely stunning as Adriano Colonna. You may wish to do what I did, which was to rip the audio from the DVD and burn it to CDs, but either way it is a performance you won’t want to miss.
DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER / Simon Estes, bass-baritone (Holländer); Matti Salminen, bass (Daland); Lisbeth Balslev, soprano (Senta); Robert Schunk, tenor (Erik); Anny Schlemm, contralto (Mary); Graham Clark, tenor (Steersman); Woldemar Nelsson, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus / Deutsche Grammophon 435709 (DVD) or conventional CDs, Philips 942702
I’ve heard five other recordings of The Flying Dutchman, but only Joseph Keilberth’s old 1955 Bayreuth performance with Astrid Varnay and Hermann Uhde comes close to this juggernaut. Estes is riveting as the Dutchman and Lisbeth Balslev, a terrific Danish soprano who seemed to disappear into the void after this recording came out in 1985 (though she did turn up as Gutrune in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1989 live Götterdämmerung), is absolutely the most terrific Senta I’ve ever heard in my life. Salminen is a warm if somewhat gruff Daland, a characterization well suited to the role, and Robert Schunk, though a little rough here and there, nevertheless sings the deceivingly difficult role of Erik with great passion and ringing high notes. Harry Kupfer’s staging is somewhat bizarre (the whole thing takes place in Senta’s fevered mind, therefore everything is seen through her eyes, including a “Doppelgänger” for the Dutchman during their duet) so if you are forced to acquire the DVD you might just want to rip the audio and burn it to discs. Either way, however, this is the performance to own.
TANNHÄUSER (Act I complete, Acts II & III abridged) / Sigismund Pilinszky, tenor (Tannhäuser); Ruth Jost-Arden, mezzo (Venus); Ivar Andrésen, bass (Landgraf Hermann); Herbert Janssen, baritone (Wolfram); Maria Müller, soprano (Elisabeth); Geza Belti-Pilinszky, tenor (Walther); Georg von Tschurtschenthaler, baritone (Biterolf); Joachim Sattler, tenor (Heinrich der Schreiber); Carl Stralendorf, bass (Reinmar von Zweter); Erna Berger, soprano (Shepherd); Karl Elmendorff, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus / Naxos Historical 8110094-95 (2 CDs, mono)
TANNHÄUSER / René Kollo, tenor (Tannhäuser); Christa Ludwig, contralto (Venus); Hans Sotin, bass (Landgraf Hermann); Victor Braun, baritone (Wolfram); Helga Dernesch, soprano (Elisabeth); Werner Hollweg, tenor (Walther); Manfred Jungwirth, baritone (Biterolf); Kurt Equiluz, tenor (Heinrich der Schreiber); Norman Bailey, bass (Reinmar von Zweiter); Sir Georg Solti, conductor; Vienna Boys’ Choir & State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Decca 414581
Both these recordings use the Paris edition of the score, which came to be Wagner’s favorite of the two. The first was once an extremely famous recording, available on LP for decades, made at Bayreuth by Columbia in 1930. It was the opera, and the production, of Arturo Toscanini’s debut at Bayreuth, but he balked at making the recording because he was loyal to Victor (and its British counterpart, HMV), which at the time did not own Columbia. One problem with it is that Columbia couldn’t afford to record the whole opera, so they asked the composer’s son Siegfried to abridge it. The first act is complete, but the second and third have several cuts. The second problem is that the tenor singing the lead role, Sigismund Pilinszky, was in very poor voice that year. During rehearsals, Toscanini was heard to call him “Cano!” (“Dog!”) several times. Ironically, his understudy for this production was none other than Lauritz Melchior, who was slated to sing Tristan at the same Festival, but contracts were contracts and Pilinszky didn’t cancel. Compared to many a modern Tannhäuser, however, Pilinszky come across on the recording as at least competent, undoubtedly thanks to his being coached within an inch of his life by Toscanini.
Karl Elmendorff, a very capable veteran conductor in his own right, was given the recording assignment, and he really did a wonderful job. His own tempo preferences were mostly faster than Toscanini’s—with the exception of a brisk piece like “Dich, teure Halle” or the majority of Die Meistersinger, most of his Wagner performances were actually much slower than that of other conductors—but the phrasing and particularly the extraordinary clarity of the orchestra are similar to Toscanini’s work, so in a sense this recording represents his view of the music to a certain extent. The other soloists are mostly exemplary, particularly Müller, Jost-Arden (a Toscanini protégé), Janssen and Andrésen.
The Solti Tannhäuser has been a classic since it was first issued on LP back in 1971, and remains to this day (in my view) the most consistently overwhelming performance. Everything clicks. This was one of the last recordings made by soprano Dernesch before her voice picked up a wobble (by the late 1970s she dropped to mezzo-soprano) and the little-known Victor Braun sings a splendid Wolfram. Similarly to Dernesch, Norman Bailey’s voice also picked up a wobble shortly after this recording, which is what made Solti’s studio performance of Der Fliegende Holländer a disaster.
LOHENGRIN / Eberhard Wächter, baritone (Herald); Franz Crass, bass (König Heinrich); Elisabeth Grümmer, soprano (Elsa von Brabant); Sándor Kónya, tenor (Lohengrin); Ernest Blanc, baritone (Telramund); Rita Gorr, mezzo-soprano (Ortrud); Harald Neukirch, tenor (Brabantian); Lovro von Matačic, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra / Orfeo d’Or 691063 (mono, live performance)
LOHENGRIN / Andreas Schmidt, baritone (Herald); Kurt Moll, bass (König Heinrich); Cheryl Studer, soprano (Elsa von Brabant); Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor (Lohengrin); Hartmut Welker, baritone (Telramund); Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano (Ortrud); Claudio Abbado, conductor; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / DG 4458692
I find it more than a bit ironic that the two finest recordings of Lohengrin—and make no mistake, no matter what you hear about the old Rudolf Kempe recording, these are the finest—are conducted by two men who were not really known for their Wagner performances. Moreover, although both of them do a good job in their respective recordings (von Matačic, in my view, a little better than Abbado), neither one of them grips your imagination the way a really seasoned Wagnerian like Keilberth could. But in the end it is the singing that makes Lohengrin work, and the orchestras on both sets play their hearts out.
The von Matačic, a live recording from 1958 that has made the rounds on LP and CD for decades, only received its “official” release from the original master tapes with this Orfeo d’Oro issue. The difference is enough to make me recommend this pressing. Only occasionally, while listening, is one aware of the sonic limitations of an in-house tape made in mono sound (why it wasn’t recorded in stereo is anyone;s guess, but unless the recording was intended for commercial release no in-house Bayreuth tapes were made in stereo until sometime in the 1960s…even Knappeertsbusch’s late Parsifal with Jon Vickers is in mono), but for the most part everything has a wonderful roundness as well as sheen. Perhaps the strangest bit of casting is that of Ernest Blanc—a French baritone better known for singing Valentine in Faust or the High Priest in Samson et Dalila—as the sneaky, sinister but (in the end) brow-beaten Friedrich von Telramund. His opposite number, Belgian mezzo Rita Gorr, was one of opera’s shining lights for about a decade until her voice just blew out one day. She is powerful and riveting here. Sándor Kónya’s singing of the title role, though containing one or two slightly throaty notes, is as close to perfection as one is likely to hear in this lifetime, and Grümmer is easily twice as good here as she was on the studio recording with Kempe. The whole performance has an almost magical feel about it that never lets up from start to finish.
Abbado does a very credible job, more impressive, I think, in the dramatic moments (e.g., “Entweite Götter!”) than in the lyric ones (like “In fernem land”), and Siegfried Jerusalem is just a bit less engaged in his role than Kónya, but by and large Jerusalem delivers a splendidly sung and nuanced performance. It really shocked me to hear this tenor, who in the 1970s and early ‘80s was a somewhat mediocre singer, suddenly blossom from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s into the finest Heldentenor of the late 20th century. The voice didn’t stay this good for a very long time, but while it lasted you held your breath listening to him sing. He was that good. Studer, who sang a pretty good Elsa in a DVD of this opera opposite Placido Domingo, surpasses even that effort here with the most limpid and ear-ravishing singing of her entire career. Meier, who in my opinion is the great Wagnerian soprano and mezzo of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, delivers a typically phenomenal performance as Ortrud, giving more bite (and almost Italianate ring) to the music than one is used to hearing. Welker sings a fine Telramund and Kurt Moll, as usual, sounds like the Voice of God.
It’s difficult to go wrong with either recording. If you wish to own both I can’t say you shouldn’t, but if forced to choose just one I’d have to recommend the Matačic even though it’s in mono and lacks a libretto.
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE / Helena Braun, soprano (Isolde); Margarete Klöse, contralto (Brangäne); Fritz Richard Bender, tenor (Seaman); Gunther Treptow, tenor (Tristan); Paul Schöffler, baritone (Kurwenal); Peter Albrecht, tenor (Melot); Ferdinand Frantz, bass-baritone (King Marke); Paul Küen, tenor (Shepherd); Hans Knappertbusch, conductor; Bavarian State Opera Orchestra & Chorus / Andromeda 9011 (mono, 1950 live performance)
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE / Waltraud Meier, soprano (Isolde); Marjana Lipovšek, contralto (Brangäne); Uwe Heilmann, tenor (Seaman); Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor (Tristan); Falk Struckmann, baritone (Kurwenal); Johan Botha, tenor (Melot); Matti Salminen, bass (King Marke); Peter Maus, tenor (Shepherd); Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Berlin Staatsoper Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Warner Classics 2564 67273-6
Many recordings of this opera to choose from, but only two clear winners. Furtwängler’s hoary old EMI version from 1952, greatly admired by old-timers (what I call the Little Old Lady Brigade), only has two things to recommend it, Furtwängler’s incandescent conducting and the superb Kurwenal of young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Kirsten Flagstad, then 57 years old, sounds tired and grey-voiced, not nearly as fine as in the abridged but classic Covent Garden performance of 1936 (with an equally fresher-voiced Tristan in Lauritz Melchior), while Ludwig Suthaus, a good tenor (I really enjoyed him as Siegfried in the Furtwängler Ring), sounds mercilessly earthbound. All his ascents above the staff sound labored. And neither one makes any impression in terms of characterization (well, in Act III Suthaus does a nice job portraying Tristan’s suffering, but then again, he sounded as if he was suffering in Act I too).
By contrast, my two recommended performances are full of character as well as stupendous singing and conducting. Knappertsbusch’s live version is simply miraculous, a performance in which everyone from the conductor on down to the Seaman sounds totally involved in the drama. For a mono tape from 1950, the sound is surprisingly good. This performance was also issued on Orfeo d’Or 355943, which probably has the best sonics, but at the ridiculously high price of $55 I wouldn’t bother. Both the Andromeda release listed here and the version on Gala GL-100651 have acceptable sound and are recommended. (For that matter, the last time I looked the whole performance was uploaded on YouTube for free streaming anyway.)
The Barenboim recording was followed a live performance of the opera at Bayreuth with almost the same cast (the difference being Matthias Hölle, who was not as good as Salminen, as King Marke) and both are stupendous performances, nearly identical in pacing, shaping and visceral excitement. As good as Jerusalem’s Lohengrin is, he outdoes himself as Tristan, giving a performance that in terms of vocal security, interpretation and sheer excitement comes very close to the Melchior of 1929 in his classic recording of the love duet with soprano Frida Leider. Meier is her usual superb self—in my view, she is the greatest Wagnerian soprano or mezzo of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—and together they provide a riveting, heartfelt listening experience. Lipovšek is magnificent as Brangäne, Salminen excellent as Marke (though not quite as good interpretively as Frantz), and Barenboim conducts like a man possessed. It all adds up to the #1 Tristan recording of all time, though I would personally not want to live without the Knappertbusch by my side.
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG / Henk Noort, tenor (Walther); Kerstin Thorborg, contralto (Magdalene); Maria Reining, soprano (Eva); Richard Sallaba, tenor (David); Herbert Alsen, bass (Veit Pogner); Hermann Wiedermann, baritone (Beckmesser); Hans Hermann Nissen, bass-baritone (Hans Sachs); Georg Maikl, tenor (Vogelgesang); Rolf Telasco, bass (Nachtigall); Carl Bissuti, bass (Schwartz/ Nachtwächter); Anton Dermota, tenor (Balthazar Zorn); Arturo Toscanini, conductor; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andante AND-3040 (mono, 1937 live performance)
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG / Ben Heppner, tenor (Walther); Cornelia Kalisch, contralto (Magdalene); Cheryl Studer, soprano (Eva); Deon van der Walt, tenor (David); Kurt Moll, bass (Veit Pogner); Siegfried Lorenz, baritone (Beckmesser); Bernd Weikl, bass-baritone (Hans Sachs); Michael Schade, tenor (Vogelgesang); Hans Wilbrink, bass (Nachtigall); René Pape, bass (Nachtwächter); Ulrich Reiss, tenor (Balthazar Zorn); Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, baritone (Kothner); Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor; Bavarian State Opera Orchestra & Chorus / EMI 09195
If you’re wondering where the Rudolf Kempe set is, I have relegated it to the scrap-heap of oblivion. Oh, but how could I? It’s just so magnificent! Well, yes, Kempe’s conducting is magnificent, as are the wonderful Eva of Elisabeth Grümmer, the fine Sachs of Ferdinand Frantz, and the splendid Beckmesser of Benno Kusche, but in the all-important—some would say the most important—role in the opera, that of Walther von Stolzing, the “mastersinger” of the title, we get the leaden, leathery-voiced Rudolf Schock who even has the temerity to go hoarse in his “Prize Song.” Sorry, but that, plus the mono sound, push this recording off its pedestal. Nice try but no cigar.
Another recording with legendary status was the 1967 Rafael Kubelik studio version for DG, which was not issued for many years because Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau wanted to record Hans Sachs (which he did, with Eugen Jochum, for the same label). Well, I’ve heard the Kubelik recording, too—in fact, as of this writing it too is available for free listening on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEn5RJdj208)—and for me it just doesn’t click. No one is really bad on the set: Thomas Stewart (Sachs), Sándor Kónya (Walther), Gundula Janowitz (Eva), Brigitte Fassbaender (Magdalena), Gerhard Unger (David) and Thomas Hemsley (Beckmesser) all do their level best to bring the characters to life, but somehow it just doesn’t work as a performance. It’s too much of a hothouse flower and somehow never gets off the ground.
The Toscanini performance, though in drier, tighter sound than the Kempe (it was recorded on long reels of paper by a device called the Selenophone), is just as lively as Kempe—in fact, in places livelier (particularly the magical Act 2)—and the virtually unknown Dutch tenor Henk Noort (he sang for decades but this was his only recording) is a splendid Walther. This performance was also available for free listening online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otyXRe9kxw4 (the whole thing) as well as at the Internet Archive (an act at a time), so your desire to buy the Andante pressing is up to you.
But saving the best for last, there is the magnificent Sawallisch recording, also as lively and pointed as Kempe but in modern digital sound and with a golden-voiced Walther who even sings the trill in “Am stillen Herd” (yes, there is a trill in there!). Bernd Weikl, too, sings his trills as Hans Sachs (even I didn’t know about those prior to hearing the recording because I hadn’t studied the score in detail and no one else sings them), and the whole performance is pointed and lively. Alan Blyth in the Gramophone carped about Lorenz’s Beckmesser not being as multi-faceted as Kusche’s. OK, you’re right but big deal. I can live with a somewhat underplayed Beckmesser. I’m not going to go crying into the night over it. This is so typical of these Little Old Lady Brit reviews, looking for leprachauns under every rainbow and bitching when they don’t find them. Oh, but Hermann Abendroth’s version is so full of life and love! Too bad he screws up the music…but who cares when the feeling is right? Well, I care, and the feeling as well as the letter of the score are prefectly served in the Sawallisch version, thank you very much Little Old Brit Lady.
DAS RHEINGOLD / Stella Andreva, soprano (Woglinde); Irra Petina, soprano (Wellgunde); Doris Doe, contralto (Flosshilde); Dorothee Manski, soprano (Freia); Eduard Habich, baritone (Alberich); Friedrich Schorr, baritone (Wotan); Karin Branzell, contralto (Fricka); Karl Laufkötter, tenor (Mime); Norman Cordon, baritone (Fasolt); Emanuel List, bass (Fafner); René Maison, tenor (Loge); Julius Huehn, baritone (Donner); Kerstin Thorborg, contralto (Erda); Artur Bodanzky, conductor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / Guild GHCD-2221/22 or unedited version with Doris Doe (Erda) on Naxos Historical 8.110047-48 (mono, live 1937)
DAS RHEINGOLD / Dorothea Siebert, soprano (Woglinde); Helge Dernesch, soprano (Wellgunde); Ruth Hesse, contralto (Flosshilde); Anja Silja, soprano (Freia); Gustav Neidlinger, baritone (Alberich); Theo Adam, bass-baritone (Wotan); Annalies Burmeister, mezzo (Fricka); Erwin Wohlfahrt, tenor (Mime); Martti Talvela, bass (Fasolt); Kurt Böhme, bass (Fafner); Wolfgang Windgassen, tenor (Loge); Gerd Nienstedt, baritone (Donner); Vera Soukupova, contralto (Erda); Karl Böhm, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Decca 001820702 (live, 1967)
DAS RHEINGOLD / Dorothea Siebert, soprano (Woglinde); Claudia Hellmann, soprano (Wellgunde); Ruth Hesse, contralto (Flosshilde); Elisabeth Grümmer, soprano (Freia); Frans Andersson, baritone (Alberich); Hans Hotter, bass-baritone (Wotan); Rita Gorr, mezzo-soprano (Fricka); Sándor Kónya, tenor (Froh); Fritz Uhl, tenor (Loge); Erik Sædén, bass (Donner); Theo Adam, bass (Fasolt); Josef Griendl, bass (Fafner); Gerhard Stolze, tenor (Mime); Maria von Ilosvay, mezzo-soprano (Erda); Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Walhall Eternity 246 (mono, live 1958)
A real embarrassment of riches here in regards to Das Rheingold, and if you’d like to toss in the famous 1958 Georg Solti set on Decca-London you’d have four. The first of these is in many ways the least listenable due to the scrappy 1937 radio sound and the fact that the singers, sometimes for inexplicable reasons, often go out of range of the microphone. It also features a rather painful performance by a once-revered baritone, Friedrich Schorr, as Wotan, and in some ways the conducting of Artur Bodanzky is a mess. Once highly regarded as a Wagner conductor—Toscanini thought very highly of him when they were contemporaries at the pre-World War I Metropolitan—by the 1930s he had deteriorated into a crabby, irritable old man whose goal was to rush the performance so he could go home, play cards and drink. This Rheingold survives in two entirely different pressings for two reasons. One is that the editor of the Guild edition replaced the rather pedestrian Doris Doe, who doubled as Flosshilde and Erda, with the great Kerstin Thorborg (from an RCA Victor commercial recording) to sing “Weiche, Wotan, Weiche.” The other is that, in the original performance, Bodanzky had the temerity to split Rheingold into two “acts” because he was tired and wanted a break in the middle. The Guild release has the spliced-in Thorborg as Erda in place of Doe, but also uses another Rheingold broadcast to replace Bodanzky’s break with the real music and maintain musical continuity. The Naxos release is the more honest of the two, but being a stickler for musical exactness I prefer the Guild set.
The performance is revelatory in the case of four singers: Habich as Alberich, who is much less a melodram villain and a truly pained individual who hates himself for being small and ugly; Laufkötter as Mime, who sings the role as written while still injecting a good amount of interpretation; Maison as Loge, shifty and wheedling, a much more complex character than anyone else has made of him; and Branzell as a wonderfully bitchy Fricka. The downfalls are Schorr and Huehn who are mediocre at best, as well as Bodanzky’s over-italicized and often “jumpy”-sounding phrasing, but for the reasons just mentioned it is worth having. Habich’s reading of Alberich’s “curse” has the inner depth and tone colors of a great lieder singer.
The second performance listed is my only stereo choice for this opera. Yes, I like the Solti recording but I don’t love it. I love this Böhm live performance from Bayreuth in 1967—it is, to me, the best of the operas in his Ring cycle. Theo Adam is our Wotan here and although he was at the beginning of his wobbly days he is very much an interesting and complex character—plus, Wotan really doesn’t have as much to sing in Rheingold as he does in the next two operas. You also have a fine Mime in Erwin Wohlfahrt, a good Fricka in Annalies Burmeister, an iconic Alberich in Neidlinger and possibly the finest of all Freias in Anja Silja. I’ve never been much of a fan of hers, but here, in this performance, she is absolutely perfect: the voice silvery and cutting and the interpretation frightened and whining in turn. Plus you get the wonderful Wolfgang Windgassen as Loge, not as richly characterized as Maison’s but fine nonetheless—and good, clear stereo sound recorded at Bayreuth.
The third Rheingold here is in some ways the finest of all. This was the opening of Knappertsbusch’s 1958 Ring, a cycle that has many admirers, myself among them, and except for the puzzling replacement of Frans Andersson as Alberich in place of Neidlinger (was he ill that season?) the cast is, on balance, the best I’ve ever heard in any recording of this opera. Hotter’s Wotan is perfectly characterized, and he wasn’t as wobbly in 1958 as he would become a couple of years later on, and you have some absoutely fantastic performances of Fricka (Gorr), Freia (Grümmer), Mime (Stolze), Loge (Uhl) and Donner (Sædén, an exceptional bass-baritone), with the young, wobble-less Theo Adam as Fasolt opposite Josef Griendl’s Fafner. To me, this is a much better Rheingold than any other and a great opener to the 1955 stereo Ring conducted by Keilberth. The reason I don’t list the Keilberth Rheingold is that this is the one performance of the four that is a complete mess: the orchestra makes mistakes, the tempos and phrasing sound dodgy, and there is some stupid stage machine that creates a loud hissing and whine effect behind the Nibelungs for a good 20 minutes. So why isn’t it my #1 recommendation? Because, like all live Bayreuth performances even up to 1964, it was recorded in mono, but if you’re not paying too close attention you could be fooled into thinking it’s early stereo, so clear is the sound profile.
DIE WALKÜRE / Gunther Treptow, tenor (Siegmund); Hilde Konetzni, soprano (Sieglinde); Ludwig Weber, bass (Hunding); Ferdinand Frantz, bass-baritone (Wotan); Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Brünnhilde); Elisabeth Höngen, mezzo (Fricka); Walburga Wegener, soprano (Gerhhilde); Ilona Steingrüber, soprano (Helmwige); Karen Marie Crkall, soprano (Ortlinde); Margherita Kenney, mezzo (Siegrune); Dagnar Schmedes, contralto (Waltraute); Margret Weth-Falke, mezzo (Rossweise); Sieglinde Wagner, mezzo (Grimgerde); Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor; Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra / Pristine Classical PACO-091 (mono, 1950 live performance)
DIE WALKÜRE / Ramon Vinay, tenor (Siegmund); Gré Brouwenstijn, soprano (Sieglinde); Josef Griendl, bass (Hunding); Hans Hotter, bass-baritone (Wotan); Astrid Varnay, soprano (Brünnhilde); Georgine von Milinkovič, mezzo-soprano (Fricka/Grimgerde); Hertha Wilfert, soprano (Gerhilde); Hilde Scheppan, soprano (Helmwige); Gerda Lammers, soprano (Ortlinde); Jean Watson, mezzo (Siegrune); Elisabeth Schärtel, contralto (Waltraute); Maria Graf, contralto (Rossweise); Josef Keilberth, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Testament 1432
Two truly great and riveting Walküres, both with strengths and weaknesses. The first of these is the second installment of Furtwängler’s 1950 La Scala Ring, in the opinion of many the best of the four performances. The microphone placement was all wrong for Das Rheingold; in Siegfried his otherwise superb Siegfried, Set Svanholm, goes unexpectedly hoarse near the beginning of the final love duet and never recovers(in fact, he just gets worse); and Götterdämmerung is surprisingly messy, with sloppy orchetsral playing and tempos far too rushed for their own good. But this Walküre was the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: when Furtwängler was good, he was very, very good, and this performance proves it. Everyone fits their role like a glove, though one may wish for a bit more subtlety in acting out of Frantz’s Wotan. The 1950 mono sound is surprisingly good, and Pristine Classical adds just the right amount of reverb to juice it up.
The second of these is the real and proper beginning of the great 1955 Keilberth Ring, the first recorded in stereo. Some British critics have carped about Gré Brouwenstijn’s “fluttery” vibrato. They can go and fornicate themselves. Brouwenstijn was one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century, an artist so highly admired by Wieland Wagner that when she decided not to return to Bayreuth he actually staged production for her elsewhere—an honor he accorded to no other singer. I have yet to hear a Brouwenstijn performance or recording where she was in poor voce; I don’t think they exist. Her Sieglinde is young, excited, and madly in love, all the things that some people hear in that stodgy old fart Lotte Lehmann that I don’t, so you can see that our tastes diverge quite widely. Hotter is simply magnificent here, both vocally and histrionically; Varnay, who left the Metropolitan because she wanted to sing Wagner and Rudolf Bing hated his music (he had to relent when that vocal sensation Birgit Nilsson stormed the Bastille gates), gives a superb account of Brünnhilde here. Georgine von Milinkovič, who doubles as Fricka and Grimgerde, is splendid in the former role, and Keilberth’s conducting has sweep, drama and color to spare. Truly, this is one of the most asotunding Wagner recordings of all time.
I mentioned earlier in discussing the Knappertsbusch Rheingold that his 1958 Ring was spectacular in every way excepting stereo sonics. I stand by that assessment: it’s even better than either of the Furtwängler Rings as a total experience, the Die Walküre in particular being one of the most incendiary experiences I’ve ever heard, with a young Jon Vickers as Siegmund opposite an equally young Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, Griendl as Hunding, Varnay as Brünnhilde and Hotter once again an incomparable Wotan, but honestly, if you do a side-by-side comparison with the Keilberth it comes up short in not only the sonics but also in the tautness and continuity of the musical conception. Keilberth, like Furtwängler and Toscanini, has the “long view” of the score mind at all times, letting it unravel like yarn from a skein, whereas Knappertsbusch phrases in fits and starts, nowhere more annoyingly than in “Wotan’s farewell” which sounds episodic when it shouldn’t. Clearly, Knappertsbusch was changing as he aged and his ability to hold a score together and not just pump up isolated moments was not as firm in his grasp as it had been a few years earlier. That being said, Hotter’s “farewell” has real pathos about it, something that you just don’t hear from most Wotans.
SIEGFRIED / Paul Kuen, tenor (Mime); Wolfgang Windgassen, tenor (Siegfried); Hans Hotter, bas-baritone (Wotan/Wanderer); Ilse Höllweg, soprano (Waldvogel); Maria von Ilosvay, mezzo-soprano (Erda); Gustav Neidlinger, baritone (Alberich); Josef Griendl, bass (Fafner); Astrid Varnay, soprano (Brünnhilde); Josef Keilberth, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Testament 1392
Three Rheingolds, two Walküres, but only one Siegfried. But why would you need another if you have this one? Every singer is perfect for their role and in their role. Windgassen, Hotter and Varnay were having a vocally “hot” night to boot. Keilberth conducts as if his life depended on it. And it’s in stereo sound with great natural reverb from Bayreuth. If you look over the cast listing you will see why I questioned the omision of Gustav Neidlinger from the Knappertsbusch Rheingold, as everyone else who starred on that recording—Hotter as Wotan, Griendl as Fafner and von Ilosvay as Erda—appear here as well. This is a recording for the ages.
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG / Maria von Ilosvay, soprano (1st Norn/Wellgunde); Georgine von Milinkovič, soprano (2nd Norn); Mina Bolotine, contralto (3rd Norn); Astrid Varnay, soprano (Brünnhilde); Wolfgang Windgssen, tenor (Siegfried); Gré Brouwenstijn, soprano (Gutrune); Hermann Uhde, baritone (Gunther); Josef Griendl, bass (Hagen); Gustav Neidlinger, baritone (Alberich); Elisabeth Schärtel, contralto (Waltraute); Maria Graf, soprano (Flosshilde); Jutta Vulpius, mezzo (Woglinde); Joseph Keilberth, conductor; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus / Testament 1393
In addition to the above, I also have a “potted” Götterdämmerung in which I inserted the great Frida Leider as Brünnhilde into a 1937 Metropolitan Opera broadcast feturing Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried. Surprisingly, Leider recorded every note of this role, although the famous duet in the Prologue was made acoustically with tenor Franz Soot. This is the only point in the performance where you can hear the splices, since Melchior’s voice is recorded electrically. Also, of course, there are different conductors: some of Leider’s scenes feature Furtwängler as the conductor, others Sir Thomas Beecham, while the rest of the opera is conducted by Bodanzky. Happily, these splices fit in a lot better and both Beecham and Furtwängler improve the musical style considerably. But I know that not many aficionados will want to spend the time it took me to compile this, nor will they want to hear a cramped old mono broadcast (for the most part) from the 1930s just in order to hear one of the most extraordinary Brünnhildes of the distant past, so let’s just leave it at that and move on to this splendid Keilberth performance.
PARSIFAL / Matthias Hölle, bass (Gurnemanz); Waltraud Meier, mezzo (Kundry/Alto voice); José van Dam, baritone (Amfortas); Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor (Parsifal); John Tomlinson, bass (Titurel); Marianne Rørholm, soprano (Squire 1); Annette Kuttenbaum, contralto (Squire 2); Helmut Pampuch, tenor (Squire 3); Peter Maus, tenor (Squire 4); Günter von Kannen, baritone (Klingsor); Edith Wiens, soprano (Flower Maiden 1); Constance Hauman, soprano (Flower Maiden 2); Daniela Bechly, soprano (Flower Maiden 3); Hilde Liedland, mezzo (Flower Maiden 4) Pamela Coburn, soprano (Flower Maiden 5); Sally Burgess, mezzo (Flower Maiden 6); Kurt Schriebmayer, tenor (Knight 1); Cornelius Hauptmann, bass (Knight 2); Daniel Barenboim, conductor; Chorus of Deutschen Staatsoper, Berlin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Teldec 9031-74448-2
Again, only one recommendation. Why not Knappertbusch, who was so famous for his Parsifal performances? Well, because the 1962 stereo recording has a somewhat defective cast and his 1952 performance, so much better cast (Martha Mödl as Kundry, Windgassen as Parsifal, George London as Amfortas, Hermann Uhde as Klingsor and Ludwig Weber as Gurnemanz), has unfortunately dry and tubby mono sound.
But more than that, Daniel Barenboim actually surpasses Kna as a conductor of this last and most problematic Wagner opera. The composer went out of his way to “deconstruct” the music to the point where he actually went out of his way to derail any sense of forward impetus and momentum. He was trying to portray an old, decaying social order (the Knights of the Grail) in music, and to that end he wanted to write music that held together organically but did not propel itself forward. To this end he succeeded, so much so that some critics actually complained that he “detroyed” music. But the score was a particular favorite of young, up-and-coming composers such as Mahler, Debussy and Scriabin, who based much of their aesthetic on this score.
Barenboim does the impossible: he follows Wagner’s directions to the letter but still nudges the music ever-so-gently forward from start to finish. For this reason, in addition to the spectacular digital sonics, I have to recommend it above all other performances. In the long and exhausting role of Gurnemanz, Matthias Hölle is just a bit infirm of voice, not as rock-solid as some other basses who have sung the role, but barring a commercial CD release of the fantastic Met Opera performance in which Jonas Kaufmann sang Parsifal this is the best I’ve ever heard. Even the distant bells are absolutely perfect in sound and texture. Everything flows and most of the singing is first-rate, particularly in the key roles of Kundry (Meier), Parsifal (Jerusalem), Amfortas (van Dam) and Klingsor (von Kannen). By the time the opera’s finale rolls around, one is immersed in a unique experience, a spell that one wishes will never be broken.
And so we have traveled through Wagner’s “Mighty Ten” plus the early stepchild, Rienzi. Of course you are free to explore other performances, but don’t come crying to me when the casts can’t come within a mile of the ones on these recordings.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley