The Best Integral “Ring” Cycle I’ve Heard

Ring

WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Hannelore Hammes [Rheingold], Christa Lehnert [Götterdämmerung], soprano (Woglinde); Ingrid Liljeberg [Rheingold], Ilse Gramtzki [Götterdämmerung]. soprano (Wellgunde); Ilse Gramatzki [Rheingold], Brigitte Fassbaender [Götterdämmerung], mezzo (Floβhilde); Zoltán Kélémen, bass-baritone (Alberich); Theo Adam, bass-baritone (Wotan/Wanderer); Janis Martin, mezzo (Fricka); Leonore Kirschstein, soprano (Freia/Gutrune); Herbert Schachtchneider, tenor (Loge); Hermann Winkler, tenor (Froh); Erwin Wohlfahrt, tenor (Mime); Gerd Nienstedt, bass (Fasolt/Hunding/Hagen); Karl Ridderbusch, bass (Fafner); Thomas Tipton, bass-baritone (Donner/Gunther); Oralia Dominguez, mezzo (Erda); Eberhard Katz, tenor (Siegmund); Hildegard Hillebrecht, soprano (Sieglinde); Nadéžda Kniplová, soprano (Brünnhilde); Lieselotte Rebmann, soprano (Gerhilde); Elisabeth Schwarzenberg, soprano (Ortlinde/3rd Norn); Irene Dalis, mezzo (Waltraute); Aili Purtonen, alto (Schwertleite); Danica Mastilovic, soprano (Helmwige); Jane Murray Dillard, mezzo (Siegrune); Cvetka Ahlin, mezzo (Grimgerde); Raili Kostia, mezzo (Roβweiβe); Jean Cox, tenor (Siegfried); Ingrid Paller, soprano (Waldvogel); Ruze Baldani, soprano (1st Norn); Helge Dernesch, mezzo (2nd Norn); Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI; Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor / Opera Depot OD 11129-2 (Das Rheingold, live: February 21, 1968), 11130-3 (Die Walküre, live: February 29/March 5, 1968), 11131-3 (Siegfried, live: March 13 & 16, 1968), 11132-4 (Götterdämmerung, live: March 22, 27, & 30, 1968), available FREE for the next five days ONLY

Cox 2

Jean Cox as Siegfried

Opera Depot’s latest free offering is one of the great undiscovered gems of the Wagner catalog: a complete Ring cycle with a superb (and mostly integral) cast from top to bottom. Among the surprises – and delights – you will encounter are Janis Martin as a top-notch Fricka, Jean Cox as Siegfried, Eberhard Katz as Siegmund, Leonore Kirschstein as Freia and Gutrune, Irene Dalis as Waltraute, Ingrid Paller as the Forest Bird, and the absolute best Rheingold Rhinemaidens I’ve ever heard in my life (Hannelore Hammes, Christa Lehnert and Ingrid Liljeberg). Among the strong cast members who are not surprises are the best Alberich (Zoltán Kélémen), Mime (Erwin Wohlfahrt), Wotan (Theo Adam), Fafer/Hunding (Gerd Nienstedt) and Erda (Oralia Dominguez) of their time. But saving the biggest and best surprise for last is the presence of one Nadéžda

Kniplova

Kniplova as Brunnhilde

Kniplová, a powerful Czech soprano with a beautiful timbre and unusual depth of interpretation, as Brünnhilde. Not since Frida Leider have I heard a Brünnhilde who had both a great voice and great interpretation. Kirsten Flagstad interpreted somewhat in her 1950 RAI Walküre, but nowhere else; Astrid Varnay was better than Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson (who just got by with her phenomenal voice), but still not as good as Kniplová. Others (particularly Flagstad, Lindholm and Nilsson) may have had more powerful voices, but for me Kniplová is now my favorite Brünnhildes. She did not sing the trills in “Ho-yo-to-ho,” but did so in the Siegfried final scene. She is in least good voice in Götterdämmerung, although once she warms up (this was, after all, a live performance) she’s pretty good vocally and still VERY interesting dramatically. A very human-sounding Brünnhilde rather than the steel-voiced belter we usually get.

Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch

But what pulls this Ring Cycle together, and makes it so special, is the conducting of Wolfgang Sawallisch and the absolutely stunning performances he drew from the RAI Rome Orchestra. I’ve also liked Sawallisch anyway, for the most part, because he had great taste in singers and a knack of relaxing his casts and orchestra enough to give their very best without losing anything in drama or forward propulsion (a very rare exception is his Elektra recording, which is a wet noodle), but here he absolutely outdoes himself. Everything has a natural ebb and flow the likes of which I’ve never heard anyone duplicate in a Ring Cycle, not even Furtwängler, Krauss, Keilberth or Böhm, superb conductors all. This entire Ring is a miracle in which the music spins out like wool from a skein of yarn, with every single facet and aspect of the singing knitted to the orchestra like sparking sequins. The only drawback is that it’s in mono rather than stereo, and there are a few sound problems in Walküre and Siegfried (more on that below).

Now for the good news. Until Saturday, March 14, this entire set is available for FREE download from Opera Depot. After that, you’ll have to pay for it, but it’s still worth it.

As for the sound problems, they are beyond Opera Depot’s control, but are inherent in the recording he obtained. In the second act of Die Walküre, which begins on CD 1, Track 15 becomes noisy and distorted about 2/3 of the way through, and this distortion continues on Track 1 of CD 2. My solution was to use Noise Reduction, then increase the treble end by about 3 db to compensate for the filtering. It’s not ideal—you really can’t correct it completely—but until RAI Rome turns up a master copy of the tape in pristine sound, it’s the best you can do. In Siegfried, the sound is rather dull and muddy until CD 2, Track 6, when it suddenly becomes brighter and louder. This is pretty easy to fix with a 3.5 db treble boost.

Theo Adam Wotan

Theo Adam as Wotan

But I guarantee that you’ll never hear a more musically perfect or integrated Ring in your life, and the best news of all is that Theo Adam, who, like his colleague Hans Hotter, suffered from asthma and thus went in and out of a bad wobble in the voice, is in excellent voice in the first three operas (he doesn’t sing in Götterdämmerung), as good as Hotter was in the 1955 Keilberth Ring.

Indeed, Sawallisch even makes the Norn scene sound exciting, as did Keilberth and Krauss, in part due to the exciting high soprano of Ruze Baldani and the surprise casting of Helge Dernesch, then still a rising star (though her stardom was just around the corner), as the Second Norn.

Katz

Eberhard Katz

As for the surprises, Kniplová aside: Cox, an American tenor who made but one commercial recording (the Silvio Varviso Meistersinger), is bright-voiced and secure, giving a nice rhythmic bounce to the Forging Song and able to withstand Siegfried’s exhausting demands; Martin is a surprisingly dramatic Fricka; Katz is one of the best Siegmunds you’ll ever hear, not only singing with a clear, bright tone but also in a conversational style that makes him a pleasure to listen to throughout; and Ingrid Paller, a name completely unknown to me, has a surprisingly large high soprano voice with not only a beautiful timbre but also clear diction.

Dominguez Erda

Oralia Dominguez as Erda

But just listen to the RAI Rome Orchestra. Everything is perfect from start to finish, and remember, these were ONE-TIME LIVE PERFORMANCES. No second chances to get it right, no inserts recorded in the studio, just play the operas and do the best you can. The horns are absolutely perfect in both Rheingold’s opening and closing pages, in fact throughout all four operas, and the string section plays with a combination of sheen and dark tone that suits the music perfectly. Nothing goes wrong here, as it did in Keilberth’s 1955 Rheingold. All is well.

Granted, I will still listen to the Keilberth set a bit more often because it is in stereo and it has the “Bayreuth sound,” but if you can accept mostly good mono sound, you’re in for a treat.

Grab this one while you can! And if you don’t get it for free, save up your pennies and buy it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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