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Friday, January 14, 2011

Recording Recommendations: Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

"What's the best recording of the Ring cycle?"
by Paul Pelkonen
Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Photo by Siegfried Lauterwasser © 1970 Bayreuth Festspiele
Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) re-tells the story of the Norse gods and heroes. The four operas (Walküre remains the most popular) have entertained listeners since 1876. Starting in 1927 at Bayreuth, the Ring has provided a challenge for recording engineers. The first attempt at a "complete" cycle was made on 78s. The result: a "potted" version of the cycle that left out some of the music and switched singers and conductors from opera to opera.

In the 1950s, two Wilhelm Furtwängler recordings of the Ring were made in Italy. And in 1951, engineers from EMI and Decca started recording complete Wagner operas at the reopened Bayreuth Festspielhaus. In 1958, Decca's engineering team embarked upon the first studio Ring cycle, an historic effort that set the benchmark for every opera recording that followed.

Over the three decades that followed, a number of complete Ring cycles landed on the market with the force of Wagner's giants. Here's a guide to the five best Ring cycles available. The order is determined by how much I like them. And yes, I'm pretty biased.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
Wotan: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Thomas Stewart
Alberich: Zoltan Kelemen
Brünnhilde: Regine Crespin/Helga Dernesch
Siegfried: Jess Thomas/Helge Briloth

Worth hearing for the Berlin Philharmonic. Period.

Made before the conductor's descent into digital Nibelheim, these performances sparkle with clarity and exceptional playing from this famous orchestra. Say what you want about his personality, Karajan was a masterful conductor--he makes the Valkyries fly, the Rhinemaidens swim and the Nibelungs scream as only a great Wagner conductor can.

There's one caveat: Karajan splits the roles of Brünnhilde, Wotan, and Siegfried between multiple singers. This "fantasy football" casting may seem like a strange idea, but it ultimately works. Having the youthful-sounding Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Wotan in the first opera lends extra weight to Thomas Stewart's tragic performance in Die Walküre and Siegfried. Karajan's choice of "light" singers (Regine Crespin as Brünnhilde, Gundula Janowitz as Sieglinde) for Die Walküre results in a lyric approach to the opera. It would never work on stage but sounds great here.

Bayreuth Festival 1967 cond. Karl Böhm
Wotan: Theo Adam
Alberich: Gustav Neidlinger
Brünnhilde: Birgit Nilsson
Siegfried: Wolfgang Windgassen

"New Bayreuth" at its peak.

This set was made at Bayreuth in the salad days of the late 1960s, when Birgit Nilsson ruled the stage in the theater Wagner built. She is simply incandescent in all three operas. Windgassen, who had been singing at Bayreuth for 16 years when these recordings were made, gives a very fine performance as Siegfried. The rest of the cast is a strong one.

By the way, this set includes the famous "orgasmic scream" at the end of Act I of Die Walküre, delivered by Sieglinde (Leonie Rysanek) as her brother Siegmund (James King) pulls the sword from the tree. That alone makes it worth hearing.

Veteran conductor Karl Böhm conducts with a quicksilver touch, and the operas move briskly along. The best recording made at the Bayreuth Festival in front of a live audience. And since this is a fairly static Wieland Wagner production (which means the singers don't move around much onstage) there is little stage noise to interrupt one's enjoyment of the music.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti
Wotan: Hans Hotter
Alberich: Gustav Neidlinger
Brünnhilde: Birgit Nilsson
Siegfried: Wolfgang Windgassen

The (Rhein)gold standard.
In 1958, Georg Solti and John Culshaw embarked on the first in-the-studio, stereo recording of Das Rheingold. Siegfried (1960) and Götterdämmerung (1962) followed. Six years later, the Decca team finished Die Walküre. This cycle, recorded with an all-star cast and the Vienna Philharmonic, remains the best-selling opera recording of all time.

Each opera features inspired playing by the Vienna Philharmonic and an all-star cast of singers. Even the minor roles (Fricka, Loge, the Forest Bird) are sung by great opera stars: Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm and (unbelievably) Joan Sutherland. Solti is better in the "outer" operas--and at his most inspired in the white-hot second act of Götterdämmerung. Superbly engineered and executed, the Decca Ring is one of the finest opera recordings ever made.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink
Wotan: James Morris
Alberich: Theo Adam
Brünnhilde: Eva Marton
Siegfried: Siegfried Jerusalem

A good modern studio Ring.
The rise of digital audio and a glut of record labels led to a whole slew of competitive Ring cycles being released in the 1980s--including three major studio recordings of the operas. This one is led by the underrated Bernard Haitink, a sensitive conductor with a strong grasp of Wagner's architecture. Its arrival as a 14-disc bargain box makes it a welcome option for those looking to explore owning their first Ring cycle--at a lower price.

Haitink has a good cast. Reiner Goldberg and Cheryl Studer enjoy a brief Wagnerian limelight as the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. Matti Salminen is a menacing Hunding, and a young Waltraud Meier sings Fricka. Siegfried Jerusalem is fine as his namesake hero. Eva Marton is an unsubtle Brünnhilde, but stellar in the last pages of Götterdämmerung. This isn't the best Ring, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it, and Haitink's approach to the score bears repeated listening.

Bayreuth Festival: 1991-92
cond. Daniel Barenboim
Wotan John Tomlinson
Alberich: Gunther von Kannen
Brünnhilde: Anne Evans
Siegfried: Siegfried Jerusalem

Live from Bayreuth--without an audience.
This recording was made during the filming of the Harry Kupfer production of the Ring over two Bayreuth summers in the early '90s. Daniel Barenboim's rubato-drenched approach to conducting Wagner may not appeal to everybody. But he makes his (sometimes middling) cast excel themselves. Gunther von Kannen is a force of nature as Alberich. British diva Anne Evans' is a sweet but light-weight Brünnhilde. Her performance which would be drowned out anywhere but in the perfect acoustics of Bayreuth.

John Tomlinson (who sings Hagen on the Haitink Ring) graduates to Wotan here, a full, black bass that resonates with authority even if it isn't always a pretty sound. The gem here is the fully mature Siegfried Jerusalem, in his cups as the big blonde lummox of a hero. Superb sound--this was recorded at a series of Bayreuth run-throughs, in the Festspielhaus without an audience present.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.