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Monday, January 19, 2009

Recordings Review: The Return of the Big Wagner Box

All Bayreuth, all the time.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Back in the '90s (I seem to be starting a lot of articles with that sentence these days) the then-record-company Philips released a gigantic 18" long 32-CD box set called the "Richard Wagner Edition", consisting of live recordings of all ten of the major Wagner operas. (Höllander, Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Meistersinger, the whole Ring and Parsifal.

It was an expensive set, featuring only recordings made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Unfortunately some of these recordings, made in conjunction with video productions of Wagner's operas, were of mixed and middling quality. Most notably, the Pierre Boulez-led Ring from the late '70s featured grade-A conducting and a grade-C cast. At the same time, older, "historical" recordings of better quality were issued at premium prices, some of them only available as imports.

This new box set, clunkily titled Wagner: The Great Operas of the Bayreuth Festival (weighing in at 33 discs!) is a welcome arrival. Reasonably priced (given its size), this yellow cardboard box eliminate librettos, essays, booklets, jewel boxes and slipcases in favor of simple white envelopes for the discs. Tannhäuser, Tristan, Meistersinger. and Parsifal are the same as the earlier set. Let's look at those first.

The 1962 Sawallisch recording of Tannhäuser features great performances from Wolfgang Windgassen and Grace Bumbry, the mezzo who broke the color barrier at Bayreuth. It is an odd mix of the "Dresden" and "Paris" editions of the score. The 1966 Karl Böhm Tristan pits Windgassen's fiery tenor against the icy power of Birgit Nilsson's soprano. She is not to be messed with. He ain't bad either. Each act fits on a single disc, and was recorded on a separate day. This enabled Windgassen and Nilsson to sing at full blast.

The 1974 Meistersinger under Silvio Varviso is a muddle, with a mediocre Walther (Jean Cox) and Eva (Hannelore Bode), and lots of clattery stage noises. However, it boasts a great Hans Sachs from underrated hausbariton Karl Ridderbusch and fine comic timing from the ensemble cast. The final recording to reappear from the old set is the 1985 Parsifal, led at a snail's pace by James Levine is also a mixed bag, capturing an early performance from Waltraud Meier as Kundry (which is good) and a late one from Peter Hoffmann (which is not.). Able support is provided by Hans Sotin (Gurnemanz) and Simon Estes (Amfortas) and the choral singing is excellent. However, the best Bayreuth Parsifal remains the 1962 live recording under Hans Knappertsbutsch.

Now for the good stuff. This set flanks the 1962 Sawallisch Tannhaüser nicely by including his generally excellent recordings of Der Fliegende Höllander (1961) and Lohengrin (1962). All three feature Swedish soprano Anja Silja, who was still a teenager when she sang the leading roles of Senta, Elisabeth and Elsa at the Festspielhaus. (It didn't hurt matters either that she was the girlfriend of Festival co-director Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson.)

Silja is incandescent in the Lohengrin, just one jewel in an amazing cast that features Franz Crass, Ramon Vinay, supersoprano Astrid Varnay (the scariest Ortrud ever!) and Jess Thomas as Lohengrin. Best of all, this is one of those "just stand there" Wieland Wagner productions, so there is almost no stage noise, just great singing.

Finally, the new Wagner box includes the complete 1967 Karl Böhm Ring. Once again, the set features Nilsson and Windgassen as Brunnhilde and Siegfried. And yes, their chemistry is real, and even better here than on the studio-recorded Solti Ring with the Vienna Philharmonic. But the real treasure of this excellent, energetic Ring is the performance of Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. This Walküre sets the gold standard for this opera, complete with the famous, theatrically orgasmic scream (a Wieland addition) at the end of the first act.

The Siegfried is one of the best readings of Wagner's fairy tale. Windgassen's unflagging energy a wonder to behold. Böhm, a Strauss protege and a man of the theater, shows his bespectacled brilliance on the podium, bringing the final bars of Götterdämmerung home in a blaze of orchestral color. By the way, this is the same controversial production of the Ring in which Wieland cut Gutrune's short scene out of Act III of Götterdämmerung. However the performance on these discs includes the missing scene, restored to its proper place.

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