Reassessing Rattle’s “Rheingold”

Rattle Rheingold cover

WAGNER: Das Rheingold / Mirella Hagen, soprano (Woglinde); Stefani Irányi, mezzo (Wellgunde); Eva Vogel, alto (Flosshilde); Tomasz Konieczny, bass-baritone (Alberich); Elisabeth Kulman, mezzo (Fricka); Annette Dasch, soprano (Freia); Michael Volle, baritone (Wotan); Herwig Pecoraro, tenor (Mime); Peter Rose, bass (Fasolt); Eric Halfvarson, bass (Fafner); Burkhard Ulrich, tenor (Loge); Christian Van Horn, bass-baritone (Donner); Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Froh); Janina Baechle, mezzo (Erda); Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Simon Rattle, cond / BR Klassik 900133 (live: Munich, April 24-25, 2015)

Being somewhat disappointed by the stereo Rheingold I had—Karl Böhm’s conducting was fine, as were the Loge of Wolfgang Windgassen, the Alberich and Mime of Neidlinger and Wohlfahrt, and the two giants (Talvela and Böhme), but Theo Adam was in very wobbly voice as Wotan and Vera Soukupová had a rather squally voice as Erda—I began searching around for a stereo/digital alternative to my beloved mono recordings of Rheingold. I rather liked Daniel Barenboim’s 1991 recording on Warner Classics/Teldec, but although his exciting moments are terrific, he lets the music sag pretty badly in the slow and semi-slow portions, which eventually drove me away from it.

Thus when I saw this recording pop up on the Naxos Music Library, I started listening—and couldn’t stop. Here was an excellent stereo Rheingold with generally excellent conducting and good singing from top to bottom. Granted, Janina Baechle’s Erda isn’t much of an improvement on Soukupová, but Michael Volle’s Wotan has it all over Theo Adam in that 1966 performance in terms of firmness of voice, and his interpretation of the role is fascinating. Elisabeth Kulman is a better Fricka than Annalies Burmeister, and Annette Dasch (Freia) has a much more attractive voice than Anja Silja. Tenor Burkhard Ulrich, generally known for lighter Wagner roles like the Steersman in Flying Dutchman, does not have as rich a voice as Windgassen, but he creates a more vivid character. The only really wobbly singer in this cast is Eric Halfvarson as Fafner—he and the bass singing Fasolt should have switched places—and although that annoys me, Fafner doesn’t get as much to sing as Alberich or Wotan. (As for Erda, the very best singer in this role on a modern recording is the little-known Silke Marchfeld with conductor Roberto Paternostro on Ars Produktion. I “borrowed” her “Weiche, Wotan, weiche” for this recording.)

Truth be told, despite the purely digital sound, this Rheingold shows only a slight improvement in sonics over the 1966 Böhm recording, which had terrific sound for its time, though Rattle is much better in the orchestral finale, where you can really hear the horns. More importantly, Rattle, like Böhm, keeps things moving along at a good pace—his two halves of the opera are only a couple of minutes longer than Böhm’s. Although the two live performances from which this recording was drawn were given in Munich and not in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, BR Klassik’s engineers captured a real “live” feeling with an ambience similar to that oft Bayreuth, but although they captured the voices clearly, for some strange reason they miked the orchestra at a bit of a distance, which makes some of the softest passages nearly inaudible (e.g., the soft string tremolos in “Weiche, Wotan”).

Despite this nitpicking on the orchestral sound, this adds up to a very satisfying listening experience. So why didn’t I review this recording when it came out? Easy answer. At that time, I was writing for a somewhat major classical CD review magazine, and the editor assigned different recordings to different writers, one or two of which had dibs on any Ring cycle operas. So I was never offered it to review, and in time I completely forgot about it.

I only give it five fish instead of six, however, because of Baechle’s somewhat infirm Erda. Had Rattle held out for Silke Marchfeld in this role, it would easily rate six fish.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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