June 7, 2011

The Ring on Record: The Pure Gold Winners

By Janos Gereben

Ask 10 music lovers about performances of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, and you'll get 20 opinions. Now ask about favorite recordings of the Ring, and the number of warring responses will double or triple.

And so, when asked for an article about Ring recordings, I "went wide," with an impromptu survey of friends among Classical Voice readers, knowing that all I have to do is ask. Responses ranged from the involved/passionate to the casual, but all interesting.

Of course, it's not the end of this hot topic (in the context of the approaching San Francisco Opera cycles), only the beginning. You are welcome to add a comment below.

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring Cycle) / Sir Georg Solti Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.comPurchase this recording at iTunes
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For my own 2 cents, the gold standard of Ring recordings is the landmark 1958-66 Solti-Vienna Phillharmonic -Decca Ring, with a historic cast, including Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, James King, Christa Ludwig, Regine Crespin, George London, Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Helga Dernesch, Claire Watson, Joan Sutherland, Gwyneth Jones, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ... and the list goes on.

The impact of this project was such that documentaries sprang up about the making of it, including the Golden Ring, and recording producer John Culshaw's book, Ring Resounding.

Perhaps the best way to experience the "Solti Ring," especially for Wagner newbies, is through the wondrous Ring Disc. This is an amazing technological achievement: the entire Ring of the (unnamed) Solti performance, along with the score, German and English text all scrolling together on the computer screen automatically, and a wealth of explanations and cross-references. All of this fits on a CD-ROM (700 MB capacity) because it was made before widespread introduction of DVDs (4.7 GB capacity, or five to six times that of a CD); the super-compressed sound is pretty good. For PCs only.

In any case, the Solti Ring is the clear first choice for complete recordings, as you will see in the following responses. That it has maintained this status for almost 50 years is nothing short of extraordinary.

David Gockley, General Director, San Francisco Opera

My desert island Ring recording would have to be the Decca Solti, produced with the participation of one of my predecessors at San Francisco Opera, Terry McEwen. What a magnificent cast, led by Nilsson, Hotter and Windgassen. Berit Lindholm and Helga Dernesch as Valkyries — wow! The Levine DGG set features my favorite all-round Brünnhilde, Hildegard Behrens, who performed the role here in San Francisco in 1990.

The Pierre Boulez-Bayreuth Festival recording on Philips captured the greatest Volsung twins of my experience, Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer, whom San Franciscans enjoyed in the fabulous Lehnhoff/DeWaart/McEwen 1985 production. The Herbert von Karajan's DG set featured my all-time favorite Wotan, Thomas Stewart. What a mensch! And then there's Anna Russell ...

Opera In English - Wagner: The Ring Cycle / Goodall, Et Al Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.comPurchase this recording at iTunes

Lisa Hirsch, SFCV Contributing Writer/ Blogger

I'm fond of far too many Ring recordings to choose a single favorite. There are the great standards: Hans Knappertsbusch-Bayreuth, 1956; the Solti-Vienna recording; Wilhelm Furtwängler with either the RAI (Italian Radio) or Milan's La Scala Theater; Clemens Krauss-Bayreuth, 1953.

A personal favorite is Reginald Goodall's magnificent/eccentric cycle, recorded live in the 1970s. It features outstanding vocal performances from Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios, and Norman Bailey. Because it's in English, this recording has far more immediacy for Anglophone listeners than those in the original German.

I rather like Marek Janowski's Ring, the first digitally recorded cycle, made between 1980 and 1983 as well. Marred by Theo Adam's poorly sung Wotan, it nonetheless has superb work from Jeannine Altmeyer, Jessye Norman, Siegfried Jerusalem, Kurt Moll, and many others, as well as great sound and a great orchestra.

For many of the pre-war greats, there's the so-called "Potted Ring" on HMV — extensive excerpts recorded between 1927 and 1932, with three conductors, in two locations (London and Berlin), and singers such as Frieda Leider, Florence Austral, Lauritz Melchior, Walter Widdop, etc.

There is also Artur Bodanzsky's heavily cut Met cycle from the 30s, but particularly Götterdämmerung, featuring Melchior in his only known live recording of the work.

Michael Strickland, photographer and blogger

I am not a Wagnerian, but sometimes I've been swept away by great live performances of his operas. I can't imagine sitting around at home listening to recordings of those operas, though some friends with great musical taste do.

There was one recording of Das Rheingold, conducted by Reginald Goodall and sung in English, and it was sensationally good. [See above.] The descent into the realm of the Nibelungen with the anvils clanking away is so perfect that the scene has been a disappointment live ever since.

David Littlejohn, arts journalist/ author of The Ultimate Art

For me, it's the Solti/Decca gang of 1958-66. One can argue forever about conductors and orchestras (although Sir Georg and the Vienna Philharmonic were good enough for me), but where else can you get both Flagstad and Nilsson, plus Hotter, Svanholm, Windgassen, Crespin, King, London, Dernesch, Fassbaender, Fischer-Dieskau, Gwyneth Jones, Frick, Ludwig, Niedlinger — and a Woodbird named Sutherland?! Two generations of great Wagnerian singers in one album.

Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wilhelm Furtwangler) Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.comPurchase this recording at iTunes

Martin Bernheimer, music critic and opera commentator

Probably one of the old Bayreuth live performances, with Astrid Varnay conducted by Joseph Keilberth, or the Furtwängler-RAI recording.

Tony Duggan, Contributor, Music Web International

I opt for the Keilberth-conducted Ring from Bayreuth in the 1950s on the Testament label. For audio only, you must have a winning combination of singers, conducting, and sound and this has all three. The singing team was THE best ever assembled for the Ring, all at the height of their powers. Keilberth was a theater man to his fingertips and he can lay the drama out in the music like no one else. These recordings were done live on the night, no retakes, no patching, no editing by a Decca team, which was using stereo for the first time, and it sounds real. You could be there.

For DVD, I prefer the Copenhagen Ring on Decca, directed by Kasper Bech Holten and conducted by Michael Schonwandt. On a DVD, directing, acting, costumes, design all must be at least equal to musical values. Also a stage production must knock your socks off and, being on DVD, must do it over and over again. Don't go for safety, don't go for "tradition," go for impact. This one is brave, bold, novel, and moving all at the same time. Like the Ring was always meant to be — stunning. Here is my full exploration of the topic.

Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen / Patrice Chéreau - Pierre Boulez, Bayreuth Festival (Complete Ring Cycle) (1980) Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.comPurchase this recording at iTunes

Fredric Lieberman, Professor of Music, UC Santa Cruz

My favorite remains the Pierre Boulez/Patrice Chéreau video from Bayreuth. I also own the Levine-Met video, but don't watch it as often — perhaps it's the casting, since I really like Gwyneth Jones's Brünnhilde, and most of the rest of Boulez's cast, and don't enjoy Hildegard Behrens' singing and acting as much. But I don't own any later videos with some of the more recent and quite marvelous singers such as Waltrud Meier, etc.

When it comes to audio recordings I enjoy parts of many different ones — Karajan, Solti, Goodall all have their strong points, but I haven't heard a wide range as many of your operaphile friends have. I just watched the re-released video of Tony Palmer's documentary The Wagner Family, which has put me off Wagner for a while, though wishing I could see a video of a complete Wieland Wagner minimalist Ring; the few scenes apparently still extant seem quite wonderful.

Die Walküre 1955 Bayreuth Festival featuring Joseph Keilberth Purchase this CD at ArchivMusic.comPurchase this recording at iTunes

Terri Stuart, Wagner Society of Northern California

I like the Keilberth-Bayreuth recording on Testament because it was a hidden treasure for so many years. It's not a studio recording, so it has that lively quality. I think it was a closed rehearsal, and not a "live, live" recording. Varnay has that Old World sound. Hotter, in his mid-40s, sounds fresh.

Max Paley, vice president Apple Inc., longtime music fan

Favorites:

Solti-Vienna Philharmonic Conducting that's exciting but precise, superlative orchestral playing, 50-year-old engineering that still sounds state of the art, a cast that allows for some preferred alternatives but has no clear-cut "betters."

James Levine-Metropolitan Opera: Masterful conducting, superb orchestral playing and engineering, a cast that has strengths and weaknesses, but always manage to outdo themselves and therefore greater than the sum of its parts.

Furtwängler-La Scala: Majestic and expansive conducting that maintains extraordinary cohesiveness and continuity of line, overall good cast with superlative Brünnhilde (Flagstad), decent orchestral playing, sound that varies strikingly according to which remastering you get.

Knappertsbusch-Bayreuth 1957: All elements had jelled into full maturity (Varnay, Windgassen, Kna), broad and powerful conducting and playing, sparkling Sieglinde from young Nilsson, and decent mono sound (Music & Arts version).

Less favorite:

Karajan-Berlin Philharmonic: Mesmerizingly beautiful orchestral playing, musically beautiful and sensitive singing, but performers and engineering never seem to quite deliver when it comes to the big moments.

Thielemann-Bayreuth: Superb conducting, generally excellent sound, very good cast, marred by a crude, unmusical Siegfried and an otherwise excellent Brünnhilde who struggles with her highest notes.

Karl Böhm-Bayreuth: Some superb singing, Nilsson and Rysanek at their best, unpleasant-sounding Wotan, often unbelievably bad playing from orchestra, often flaccidly conducted.

Boulez-Bayreuth: Swift and gripping conducting, good playing, hit or miss singing from a cast that generally looked better than they sounded.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at janosg@gmail.com.

Music News is supported in part by Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C.      Schoenberg Family Law Group



Comments

June 7, 2011
Keilberth Ring

Neither Terri Stuart nor Tony Duggan quite gets it right with regard to the Keilberth Ring. That there are edits is clear from listening to any of the operas on headphones. There's an obvious patch during the second appearance of the Rheinmaidens in Das Rheingold and a minute or more of monophonic sound in Act III of Die Walkuere.

Here's what the notes to the set say about the circumstances under which the set was recorded:

Two complete cycles of the Ring were given in Bayreuth that summer under Keilberth. The roles of Brunnhilde, Siglinde and Gunther were double cast. Decca's main aim was to capture the first cycle with Astrid Varnay, Gre Brouwenstijn and Hermann Uhde. Material from the second cycle could be used as back-up in scenes where those characters were not involved, but in principle the record team only had some experimental tapings at the orchestra/stage rehearsals, one general rehearsal and one performance to make up a finished master for each of the four operas. The low number of tape edits in each performance (just 21 for Siegfried) - and those mostly for technical reasons, such as joining the tapes from the two recoding machines, rather than to correct musical or other imperfections) shows how successful their work was, and how well played-in was the ensemble that they were recording.

June 8, 2011
The Ring Disc

I have to second Janos Gereben's "ringing" endorsement of the Ring Disc. It is simply invaluable for familiarizing oneself with something as formidable and complex as the Ring cycle, and to feature the legendary Solti recording makes it even more of a must-buy for anyone wishing to study the Ring and all its leitmotifs and other intricacies. I was first introduced to the Ring Disc by my teacher, when the orchestra I was a violinist in was preparing a concert of 90 minutes' worth of highlights from the Ring. Knowing nothing about the Ring at the time except for Ride of the Valkyries, I received an amazing crash course on the entire cycle with the assistance of the Ring Disc. Without it, I don't think I would be as enthusiastic a fan of the Ring as I am now!

June 8, 2011
Recorded Ring Cycles

Dear Janos,

I don't think anyone has mentioned the shamefully overlooked Moralt Ring cycle recorded in 1949 with the Vienna Symphony, with I think even greater singers than either of Furtwangler's two sets. Ferdinand Frantz is the Wotan, Helena Braun is the excellent Brunnhilde in the WALKURE with the miraculous Gertrude Grob Prandl taking over in SIEGFRIED and GOTTERDAMMERUNG. Hilde Konetzni is the wonderfully expressive Sieglinde opposite the excellent Gunther Treptow as Siegmund. Elisabeth Hongen is the riveting Fricka. I found this in New York where it made a brief appearance in record shops (not any of them around these days) sometime in the 90s. Rudolf Moralt deserves his place in the pantheon of great Ring conductors. Not to be missed.

I learned the Ring via Solti and still love it and find the old argument that Solti slams the music about violently to be absurd. Karajan does bring out the chamber-like qualities inherent in the score, but there is power when the Maestro needs it. The '53 Bayreuth Ring with Clemens Kraus is indeed very special with Varnay and Hotter at their zenith and more listenable than they would be in the future.

Bohm's Bayreuth cycle from 1966 often gets overlooked, but it is often well-sung and Bohm never dawdles, which is something that often happens in Goodall's eccentrically slow ENO Ring, but I wouldn't pass up the chance to hear Hunter's rock solid and radiantly voiced (all the way up to high C) Brunnhilde, and Alberto Remedio's lyrically focused Siegfried, or Norman Bailey's deeply human Wotan.

There's almost always something to enjoy in every Ring. I don't often care about the singing on Levine's DG Ring cycle from the Met (Jessye Norman's Sieglinde excepted). And you'll never get me to love Gwyneth Jone's squally, pitch-challenged and wobbly Brunnhilde (even that early). But Boulez always amazes.

Enjoy every moment of the SF Ring.

June 8, 2011
Recorded Ring Cycles

Dear Janos,

I don't think anyone has mentioned the shamefully overlooked Moralt Ring cycle recorded in 1949 with the Vienna Symphony, with I think even greater singers than either of Furtwangler's two sets. Ferdinand Frantz is the Wotan, Helena Braun is the excellent Brunnhilde in the WALKURE with the miraculous Gertrude Grob Prandl taking over in SIEGFRIED and GOTTERDAMMERUNG. Hilde Konetzni is the wonderfully expressive Sieglinde opposite the excellent Gunther Treptow as Siegmund. Elisabeth Hongen is the riveting Fricka. I found this in New York where it made a brief appearance in record shops (not any of them around these days) sometime in the 90s. Rudolf Moralt deserves his place in the pantheon of great Ring conductors. Not to be missed.

I learned the Ring via Solti and still love it and find the old argument that Solti slams the music about violently to be absurd. Karajan does bring out the chamber-like qualities inherent in the score, but there is power when the Maestro needs it. The '53 Bayreuth Ring with Clemens Kraus is indeed very special with Varnay and Hotter at their zenith and more listenable than they would be in the future.

Bohm's Bayreuth cycle from 1966 often gets overlooked, but it is often well-sung and Bohm never dawdles, which is something that often happens in Goodall's eccentrically slow ENO Ring, but I wouldn't pass up the chance to hear Hunter's rock solid and radiantly voiced (all the way up to high C) Brunnhilde, and Alberto Remedio's lyrically focused Siegfried, or Norman Bailey's deeply human Wotan.

There's almost always something to enjoy in every Ring. I don't often care about the singing on Levine's DG Ring cycle from the Met (Jessye Norman's Sieglinde excepted). And you'll never get me to love Gwyneth Jone's squally, pitch-challenged and wobbly Brunnhilde (even that early). But Boulez always amazes.

Enjoy every moment of the SF Ring.

June 8, 2011
The RING on record

After all of this discussion, I may have to get the 'Volkswagen Ring', on Westminster, out of storage. This was recorded in (then-West) Germany during the summer of 1968 with many singers from Czechoslovakia . . . as their country was being invaded by the Russians.

And yes, the Rudolf Moralt RING from Vienna, which I have on tape, with Grob-Prandl among others, is one that I should locate for a re-listen. I believe it is slowly being transferred to CD, a step long overdue.

June 8, 2011
Moralt Ring on CD

"Slowly being transferred"? The Moralt Ring has been available on CD for years. I have Gebhardt's transfer.

June 8, 2011
Note from Mike Richter

"Easy answer for me: the 'best' Ring on video is from Aarhus. I've too many audio favorites, each with limitations and virtues, to call any 'best'." Mike