Notes and Editorial Reviews
A bonus disc within this box set contains an English libretto and synopsis.
A rich bass-up orchestral palette, cumulative architecture over large spans, rhythmic grip and narrative heart.
Perhaps Mario Labroca, head of Radio Italia’s (RAI) music division, was surprised to find that this Ring would be released commercially as it was only recorded for radio broadcast. It was also a dry run for a projected EMI studio Ring, of which only
Die Walküre was completed before Furtwängler’s death in 1954. Yet surely all those concerned must have appreciated the quality of the results and suspected that RAI’s tapes would surface on record? Cream comes to the top. Labroca matched Furtwängler, his finest RAI musicians and many of the greatest Wagner singers of the Vienna State Opera, taping both dress rehearsals and live concert performances, where audience members were vetted for coughs and noisy late-comers. As Mike Ashman explains in his informative booklet essay, whilst Furtwängler was to choose which recordings would be later broadcast,
Walküre Act III,
Siegfried Act II and
Götterdämmerung Acts I and III were in fact broadcast live. Following Furtwängler’s death EMI’s David Bicknell tried to license the RAI
Ring so a complete Furtwängler cycle could be issued. However contractual barriers prevented issue on LP until 1971 when critic Deryck Cooke famously declared Furtwängler’s Ring was the “greatest gramophone event of the century”. EMI remastered the cycle for a 1990 CD issue and now reissue the cycle in a slimline box set with improved cover design, presumably redolent of the industrious Nibelungs, for the 125
th anniversary of the great conductor’s birth. The transformative elements of Furtwängler's conducting bear upon the listener’s inner life through dramatic force. These are timeless and sound totally fresh after almost sixty years: a rich bass-up orchestral palette, cumulative architecture over large spans, rhythmic grip and narrative heart. This is all in the service of Wagner’s opera. Gone are concepts imposed upon the music, be they Solti’s upbeat excitability, Goodall’s beautifully blended longueurs or Böhm’s forward-leaning lightness. Furtwängler is probably closest to Keilberth in deserving the label ‘natural’ but is infinitely more exciting.
Furtwängler's studio recordings, many re-released recently in a 21 CD box set (EMI 50999 9 07878 2 9), are nearly all superseded by live broadcasts where Furtwängler is inspired to greater heights through communication with his audiences. This general rule also applies, for all its glories, to Furtwängler's 1954 studio Vienna Philharmonic
Walküre which does not match this RAI
Walküre for intensity. Only Furtwängler could say if this was due to studio confines or his health problems, sadly including some hearing loss. As Martha Mödl, quoted in the booklet, affirms: with this Ring Furtwängler "didn't pay attention to the radio microphones; he just lost himself in the score and the moment. You can hear that; that's what's great about this recording."
It is cruel to consider that within two years of the sonic limitations of this mono broadcast Decca produced the beautiful bloom of their stereo Bayreuth
Ring (Testament). Three years after that John Culshaw was in the studio of the Vienna Sofiensaal producing Georg Solti's
Rheingold, which in terms of both sound engineering and the conductor's artistry is the reverse of Furtwängler’s Ring. Oddly, EMI has not taken the opportunity to re-master the 1990 CD sound, which remains constricted and dry. If only EMI invited an engineer like Andrew Rose (Pristine Audio) to dust off RAI’s tapes! And voices can be balanced too forward whereby the Rheinmaidens are seemingly beside Wotan’s elbow at the end of
Rheingold and Mödl’s closeness to the microphone in the Immolation makes her sound more effortful than she probably was. Nevertheless, the orchestra has greater presence than the 1954 studio
Walküre. The RAI drums are more thunderous as Siegmund claims Nothung and the strings have greater body. However the RAI players can’t match the Vienna Philharmonic’s sheen as Wotan kisses away Brünnhilde’s godhead in Act III. There is also better orchestral detail than in the 1953 Krauss Bayreuth broadcast and, I was surprised to find in Act III
Siegfried, than the 1955 stereo Keilberth! Proof that Furtwängler was right in thinking Wagner should have trusted conductors rather than limit the orchestra using Bayreuth’s unique sunken pit?
Since 1971 there has also been much critical comment on the RAI orchestral playing which includes scrappy ensemble, missed entries and patchy tuning, the worst example being the final scene of
Rheingold where the brass notes are more negotiated, even raucous, than splendid. Perhaps the
Rheingold dress rehearsal tapes can be unearthed so such fluffs, including the cringe-inducing trumpet ‘blip’, where the trumpeter hits the wrong note before moving to the right one (CD2 track 22 3:45), could be edited out? On the whole, though, the orchestra’s limitations should not be overstated and Furtwängler’s inspirational presence clearly galvanises the players. In
Siegfried’s final pages tension ripples throughout the orchestra into huge rhythmic waves and the strings ignite in passion as in no other recording. The final note is smudged, but after such building excitement, many listeners will feel this is not the point.
Many Wagnerians will appreciate that Ferdinand Frantz’s sonorous and authoritative Wotan does not wear his heart on his sleeve. Others may prefer Hans Hotter’s 1953 Bayreuth Wotan for a more dramatic response to the text. Certainly there is subtle sadness underlying Frantz’s Act III Walküre Farewell but, for me, Frantz did not fully rise to the overwhelming intensity of his daughter’s pleas beforehand. Again, Julius Patzak’s Mime is beautifully sung, avoiding caricature; Graham Clarke in Barenboim’s Ring is the more vivid character actor. But really these are quibbles and there are no weak links in Furtwängler’s experienced cast. We have Windgassen’s youthful, sunny Siegmund partnering Hilde Konetzni’s dark-voiced Sieglinde, undoubtedly a woman with deep torments. There is also an exceptional Erda and Waltraute from Margarete Klose, both portrayals deep enough to portend the gods’ impending catastrophe. Ludwig Suthaus’s Siegfried benefits from several days rest between acts so he is still heroic for the Act III
Siegfried duet, always maintaining long singing lines. That Rita Streich sings the Woodbird and Elizabeth Grummer Freia typifies the legendary quality of the ensemble.
The standout ‘transformative’ singer is Martha Mödl in her only complete Brünnhilde on record. Mödl was generous in her support of this Ring being licensed and released, even offering, if needed, for her royalties to be shared amongst other artists who may since have fallen on tough times. This generosity, combined with a clear inner conviction, informs her warm, human portrayal, far from the implacable god-like defences of Flagstad or Nilsson. Yes, Mödl scoops and swoops, and her vocal production is chesty, but like the kaleidoscopic colours within Mödl’s dark mezzo-ish soprano, Mödl acts out a multi-faceted character. Here Brünnhilde journeys from the steady control of her opening “Hojotoho! Hojotoho!”, the thrilling abandon ending the
Götterdämmerung duets, more secure for Furtwängler than Keilberth in 1955, to the heroic last stand of the Immolation, all the more moving as Mödl makes it clear there is a rounded person about to make her ultimate sacrifice. Mödl’s finest singing is in Act II scene 5
Götterdämmerung where, underpinned by Furtwängler realising a slow nervous pulse, she digs deep within her soul to grapple with the extent of Siegfried’s betrayal, mixing stunned grief with emerging fury (“Ach, Jammer, jammer …”). Singer and conductor raise such drama to Shakespearian pinnacles.
I first heard excerpts from this Ring twenty years ago on LPs borrowed the Central Library in Christchurch, New Zealand. Rehearing this set weeks around the earthquake which killed hundreds and devastated much of that historic, well-kept city, I thought again of the issues Wagner raised.
The Ring is often explained as a parable, a kind of warning that human effort, power and energy are somehow all swept away and we are left in the end with love. This is not enough. Wagner himself, after all, was notably industrious and materialistic. The best aspects of these things are never wasted as Furtwängler and his fellow artists remind us of the adventure and nobility within the well-travelled creative journey itself.
-- David Harbin, MusicWeb International