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Friday, August 28, 2015

Recording Recommendation: The Shoe-String Ring

Valhalla on just $6 a day.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The original cover of Die Walküre. Clearly not marketing the music.
All Photos by Christopher Whorf © 1968, the artist.

Hans Swarowsky's recording of the complete Ring Cycle was made in 1968 in Nuremberg. The sessions were a by-product of the Soviet invasion of Prague, which forced most of the Czech Philharmonic to flee to southern Germany. Under Mr. Swarowsky, the so-called "South German Philharmonic" dashed off these recordings quickly, releasing the entire cycle on the budget Westminster Gold label as a bargain-basement alternative to the Decca Ring with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Nothing says Deutschen oper like nackte Frauen.

This cycle still sits on the shelves of some record collectors, in memorable white sleeves that include the image of a crumbled cookie to represent Götterdämmerung. In the digital age, the Swarowsky Ring got a brief CD reissue, (on the Denon label, without the cool album covers) but fell by the wayside next to posh packagings (and endless re-packagings) of the Levine, Haitink, Karajan, Solti and Barenboim recordings of the operas. But now it has risen, like a really loud phoenix, in the form of a download from Amazon.com.

Read that sentence again. Go ahead. Take your time.

The Solti cycle sells for about $100 on 14 discs. The Karajan is even more, as much as $150 in some record stores. Other sets (Levine, Böhm, Janowski) sell for about half that. But this is the whole Ring: all four operas, in a stereo, studio recording, for the cost of a fast-food meal or two gallons of gas.

Boy meets girl. Who says the '60s weren't fun?
This was only the second complete Ring to be recorded in the stereo, and it's pretty damn good. Tenor Gerald McKee doubles Siegmund and Siegfried. He is better in the later role, singing with force in Act I and surprising tenderness in the forest scene. Details come out, like when Siegfried mocks Mime's cradle-song in Act II of Siegfried. Mr. McKee even navigates that nasty, tenor-killing octave drop in Act II of Götterdämmerung. Bass-baritone Rolf Polke is a forceful, authoritative Wotan, passionate in the Farewell and at his best in the Wanderer scenes from Siegfried.

Naděžda Kniplová may not be a household Valkyrie name like Birgit Nilsson or Hildegard Behrens, but she is a competent, entertaining Brunnhilde, who sang the role for Herbert von Karajan at Salzburg in 1967. The Czech soprano brings it all to the table, with firm high notes and only a little vibrato. She finds the poetry in "Heil dir Sonne" and soars through the Immolation Scene. Better yet, the lady knows how to act and convey pitch-perfect emotion with her instrument. The Gods, Nibelungs and Gibichungs are stocked with solid talent from a roster of German and Czech singers.

Possibly the best visual representation of
The Twilight of the Gods, ever!
Swarowsky finds lyric poetry in Wagner's string tremolos and woodwind writing that so many other conductors miss. All the harmonic complexity of the Ride of the Valkyries comes out, with the bass trumpet and trombones forward in the mix, right next to the shrieking warrior maidens. He also knows how to control tempo and flow, urging the orchestra forward in the prelude to Act III of Siegfried, but slowing down to reflect in Wotan's Farewell, the Magic Fire music (played with great clarity) and Siegfried's Funeral Music.

There is one small technical hitch. (Isn't there always?) Amazon.com's MP3 database shuffles the three orchestral interludes in Das Rheingold, so the first scene ends with an unexpected journey down to Nibelheim. The same thing happens in Götterdämmerung: Hagen's Watch (track 138) gets switched with the orchestral interlude from Act II (track 145) With a little help from ITunes, it is pretty simple to set a playlist to play the tracks in their correct places, with no sonic diminishment.

And hey, it's six bucks. What have you got to lose?
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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.