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Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen [highlights]

Wagner / Fisher-dieskau / Berlin Phil / Karajan
Release Date: 04/16/2013 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4806977   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WAGNER Der Ring des Nibelungen: Highlights Herbert von Karajan, cond; Berlin PO; Helga Dernesch (sop); Gundula Janowitz (sop); Jon Vickers (ten); Jess Thomas (ten); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bar); Thomas Stewart (bar) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4806977 (2 CDs: 153:35)

Hearing these excerpts from Herbert von Karajan’s complete recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen reminded me what a high quality Read more style="font-style:italic">Ring it is. Because the producer, conductor, and singers took advantage of the fact that it was a studio recording, it has acquired a reputation, especially among those who haven’t actually heard it, as a sort of “miniaturized,” small-scaled Ring . In the real world, Karajan’s Fortissimo s are as loud as anybody’s and I assume most of the principals have sung their roles in actual opera houses, but much of the Ring , especially the first three operas, contains one conversation after the other between the characters and this is where the performance is somewhat unorthodox. Taking advantage of the microphones and Karajan’s sympathetic approach, the characters in the operas actually seem to be addressing each other instead of an audience. It’s extremely effective and when the “big” moments come, they are big moments—there is nothing small-scaled about them. As in any Ring , there are a few casting choices that I find questionable, but they don’t spoil the performances. In Das Rheingold , I don’t like a Loge (Gerhard Stolze) who sounds like he should be singing roles like Mime. In Die Walküre , I would prefer a Sieglinde with a less girlish sound than Gundula Janowitz but I have gotten used to her. I could wish for Melchior or Svanholm as Siegfried but Jess Thomas is one of several subsequent tenors (Hans Hopf, Wolfgang Windgassen, Siegfried Jerusalem, and the Met’s current Siegfried of choice, Jay Hunter Morris, come to mind) who figured out how to do justice to the role without losing their voices. In Furtwängler’s La Scala Ring , this nearly happens to Set Svanholm, who tires and starts to lose his top notes as the final duet progresses. Casting problems do some damage to Karajan’s Götterdämmerung , however, for Helge Brilioth is a game but underpowered Siegfried, Helga Dernesch, an underpowered Brünnhilde (her youthful-sounding, fresh voice pleases me in Siegfried’s love duet), and Karl Ridderbusch’s mellow, pleasant voice is just what a Hagen shouldn’t have. Karajan does conduct it superbly, though.

What you’ll hear on this collection of excerpts: In Das Rheingold , the scene where Alberich renounces love and steals the Rhine gold, the scene where the Giants depart with Freia and Loge comments on the changes in the gods’ appearance, and, of course, “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.” In Die Walküre , there is an extensive portion of the Siegfried (Jon Vickers)-Sieglinde scene, the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and “Wotan’s [Thomas Stewart] Farewell and the Magic Fire Music.” The selections from Siegfried are “Forest Murmurs,” the scene with Siegfried and the Forest Bird (Catherine Gayer), the opening of act III up to the point where Wotan summons Erda, and a small portion of the final duet, starting with Brünnhilde’s awakening (it’s quite frustrating when it abruptly ends). From Götterdämmerung , we hear Dawn, the Love Duet, and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” “Siegfried’s Funeral Music,” and the Immolation Scene. This set might serve as an introduction to the glories of The Ring for some listeners but for the already-initiated, it is more likely to provoke frustration. The booklet gives a list of the cues, cast lists, brief summaries of the operas, and some background on how the recordings were made. An interesting and unexpected tidbit; Karajan’s Ring was one of William Walton’s favorite recordings.

Over the years, I have heard 16 complete Ring recordings. For me, the two most satisfying ones are the first two complete studio recordings, Karajan’s and Solti’s. As far as I am concerned, nothing that followed has topped them. I prefer Karajan’s Rheingold and Solti’s Götterdämmerung but, on the whole, I’d call that “contest” a dead heat. After them, I admire three mono recordings—Furtwängler/RAI, Kempe/Covent Garden/1958, and Kempe/Bayreuth/1960. After that group, would come Furtwängler/La Scala, Sawallisch/RAI, Haitink, and Levine. Well conducted, these Ring s have some serious casting problem(s). For example, there are the aforementioned vocal problems Set Svanholm encounters in Furtwängler’s Siegfried (he does a terrific Forging Scene); Levine’s Siegfried, Rainer Goldberg, sings all the notes but is woefully lacking in testosterone; Eva Marton, a good Brünnhilde in Haitink’s Die Walküre, had entered the downward phase of her career by the time he recorded Siegfried and Götterdämmerung . If he could have completed his Ring , I expect that Christoph von Dohnányi’s recording would probably fit in about here. I can understand why Böhm’s busy, businesslike Ring , with its strong cast, might appeal to someone as might Keilberth’s weighty 1952 Bayreuth performance. Illegally issued by Allegro Records back in the early 1950s, this was actually the first complete Ring on recordings but was quickly withdrawn. I have also heard the Ring s of Knappertsbusch (Bayreuth/1957), Janowski, Boulez, Swarovsky, and Goodall with considerably less enthusiasm due to various vocal and/or conducting shortcomings.

FANFARE: James Miller
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