Richard Wagner’s thrilling four-opera Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), has only increased its hold on the hearts and minds of opera lovers worldwide since its completion in 1874. For music lovers (including our own Paul McGowan) who cower at the thought of sitting through hours upon hours of Wagner’s music and drama, this two-part survey of great Ring recordings on CD and DVD/Blu-ray will to provide a sonic entryway into Wagner’s surprisingly human, emotionally gripping mythical universe of gods, giants, dwarfs, dragons, maidens, and mortals.
Despite Wagner’s deserved reputation for talkiness, his libretto (story) for The Ring, which he drew in part from Norse mythology, speaks to listeners on the deepest and most personal emotional and spiritual levels. Those who take the time to focus on the emotions conveyed by music and words, and allow them to wash over them, soon discover that Wagner’s stereotypical reputation for writing “dark” and impenetrable music falls by the wayside in the face of prolonged passages of thrillingly sensual and passionate beauty.
In the first part of this two-part survey [Insert hyperlink to Part I], which alsovies for Wagner’s Ring Cycle in length, I discussed the two top stereo Ring recordings of all time. The survey continues with four other near-contemporaneous sets, a brief look at more modern recordings, sound clips from not-to-be-missed recordings from the first so-called Golden Age of Wagner on Record, and a glance at select DVD and Blu-rays sets.
Wilhelm Furtwängler, undisputedly the greatest Wagner conductor of his or perhaps any period, has left us two live recordings. The first, recorded during staged performances at La Scala in 1950, remains essential, and not only for the sensational conducting.
Furtwängler’s major vocal draw is the Brünnhilde of the great Kirsten Flagstad. The Norwegian soprano created an international sensation when she debuted as Sieglinde in Die Walküre on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera on February 2, 1935, a few months before her 40th birthday.
Flagstad may have been 55 at the time she joined Furtwängler at La Scala, but she was still capable of hurling out her high Cs with aplomb. Most important, her beauty of tone remains supreme.
Beyond Flagstad, Furtwängler’s 1950 cast is hit or miss. Max Lorenz, Hitler’s favorite heldentenor (despite being homosexual) in the 1930s, sounds less than stellar as the Gotterdämmerung Siegfried. Thankfully, Set Svanholm sings Siegfried in the opera named after him. A few of the other cast members are familiar from other contemporaneous recordings. The sound quality, certainly in the libretto-less bargain issue from Allegro’s Opera d’Oro, is quite good.
EMI has also managed to release the Furtwängler live concert version from 1953 with the Orchestra Sinfonica della Radio Italiana (RAI). Mödl replaces Flagstad, Suthaus’ Siegfried replaces those of Svanholm and Lorenz of 1950, and the Wälsung twins are Windgassen and Hilde Konetzni (also Furtwängler’s Sieglinde in 1950). I wish this CD mastering hadn’t been done so early, because the sound is less than it could have been. You get detailed plot summaries, but no libretto.
From 1956, a year after the Keilberth stereo Ring, comes a live Ring from Bayreuth conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. Best purchased in the Orfeo transfer, which bears the Bayreuther Festspiele Live imprimatur, this libretto-less set includes a lot of familiar names: Varnay, Hotter, Browenstijn, Windgassen, Suthaus, Neidlinger, Greindl, Kuën, etc. There are people equipped to compare this recording bar-for-bar and voice-for-voice with the ’55 Keilberth Ring. (I even know one critic who uses frequent drives between the Bay Area and Los Angeles to play and compare complete Ring recordings en route).
Perhaps as testimony to my sanity, I am not (yet) versed in the pros and cons of Kna ’56 vs. Keilberth ’55. Nor, I must confess, have I yet to listen to the 1953 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss. Many swear by this libretto-less mono recording, not only for the marginally fresher-than-Keilberth examples of Varnay’s Brünnhilde and Hotter’s Wotan, but also for a cast that includes Vinay and Regina Resnick as the Wälsung twins, Windgassen as Siegfried, and the familiar Kuen, Neidlinger, Greindl, and Weber. With the marvelous Rita Streich as the Forest Bird, and a bargain price from Allegro’s Opera d’Oro, it is definitely worth your consideration. Then again, if sound quality is a major consideration, stereo efforts from Solti and Keilberth win hands down.
Every conductor and orchestra has their partisans. Herbert von Karajan’s Ring excels in tonal sheen, for example, and efforts from Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, James Levine, and (most recently) Christian Thielemann from Bayreuth are also strong in the conducting department. The sound, too, is far more modern.
Certainly those who wish to form a fully informed opinion of Wotan will want to access performances by Thomas Stewart (Karajan), James Morris (Levine), and one of today’s frequent Wotans, Albert Dohmen (Haenchen on SACD and Thielemann on CD and, in the case of Die Walküre, DVD and Blu-ray). Similarly, Brünnhilde adorers will want to hear Eva Marton (Haitink and others), Hildegard Behrens (Levine), Rita Hunter (Goodall), Anne Evans (Barenboim), Linda Watson (Thielemann and De Billy), and Iréne Theorin (Schonwandt’s Copenhagen DVD).
In the Siegmund/Siegfried department, you will certainly want to hear rock star Peter Hofmann.You may also wish to hear the Wälsung twins King and Rysanek on the Böhm set from Bayreuth, which also features Nilsson. For comments on DVD and Blu-ray Rings from Boulez, Levine, and others, please see the video section that follows.
Many swear by the famed Reginald Goodall Opera-in-English Ring, whose Brünnhilde is Rita Hunter. I wish I owned a copy, so I could talk about it at length. Unfortunately, Chandos has grown exceedingly small-minded, and will not release copies of classic recordings to critics. With every complete Ring set comprised of 14 or so CDs, I have reached my expense limit.
Still awaiting issue in any format is the Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme. After you read my reviews of her recent performances in San Francisco Opera’s 2011 stand-alone Siegfried [http://www.sfcv.org/reviews/san-francisco-opera/siegfried-a-glorious-prelude-to-collapse] and Götterdämmerung [http://www.sfcv.org/reviews/san-francisco-opera/out-of-the-ashes-a-goddess-emerges], as well as one of my two interviews with her [http://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/frank-talk-from-nina-stemme] – the second interview awaits publication in the U.K.’s Opera Now – you may find yourself contacting San Francisco Opera, begging for release of the complete 2011 cycle on DVD and Blu-ray. The production is quite wonderful, and some of the supporting singers exceptional.
If you’re an audiophile fundamentalist, you may be tempted to skip this section. Don’t! The finest Sieglinde, Siegmund, and Siegfried of the 20th century were recorded well before 1950. Equally essential, the woman many consider the finest Brünnhilde of the post-195 electrical era was in her prime at the start of her Wagnerian recording career in 1935.
The single most indispensible recording of the first two acts of Die Walküre is the composite commercial recording of 1935/1938. The set stars, in 1935, the Sieglinde of soprano Lotte Lehmann, the Siegmund of the equally unique heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, and the superbly idiomatic, intentionally boorish-sounding Hunding of bass Emanuel List, all supported by the marvelous Bruno Walter and incomparable Vienna Philharmonic.
At their side are the less memorable Wotan of Alfred Jerger and the Brünnhilde of Ella Flesch. But that matters not in the face of Lehmann, Melchior, and List, three of the prime singers of the first Wagnerian Golden Age of Recording. Walter, as well, is one of the indisputable greats.
When Walter and Lehmann both fled Germany due to the ascendency of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialists, and Melchior soon followed, Bruno Seidler-Winkler and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra stepped in to complete Act II in 1938. Their sections of the composite recording include snippets of the Wotan of a young Hans Hotter, the Fricka of Margarete Klose, and the Brünnhilde of Marta Fuchs.
It is for Lehmann, Melchior, List, and Hotter that you must own this recording. There are many transfers, including from masters owners EMI, but far and away the best sound comes from Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos. Only available outside the United States, it is well worth the effort. Not only is the sound astoundingly clear and present, but the performances are also like nothing you will hear these days.
Simply put, Melchior is the most heroic, indomitable Siegmund and Siegfried on record. Lehmann, in turn, is the most heart-rending, intensely human, and poetic Sieglinde. And Walter, who knew the two intimately, conducts as if heaven and hell are both on fire. Here’s Melchior, in supreme form, singing triumphant at the end of Act I.
Although Lehmann was 47 at the time of this recording, five years past her peak, and not sounding like a spring chicken, her Sieglinde is so exalted in conception, nuance, and tonal beauty as to surpass all other interpretations before and since. Singing with complete abandon, her performance haunts the memory.
I confess that I cannot listen to any other soprano in the role without hearing the voice of Lehmann singing alongside her in my head. The woman was revered by Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, and Walter, and greatly admired by (of all people) Giacomo Puccini. You simply must hear her Sieglinde, and more than once. Here she sings with Melchior at the start of the magical Act I love scene.
Equally indispensible, albeit in less-than-ideal sound, is Act II of Die Walküre, live from San Francisco in 1936. The great Fritz Reiner conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The cast is extraordinary: Flagstad, Lehmann, Melchior, Schorr, List, and in the role of Fricka, Kathryn Meisle. Not even the Met was able to assemble all these singers onstage in the same production. Last available on Music & Arts, this recording is well worth seeking out.
If ever a dream cast existed on disc, this is it. Wait until you hear Lehmann at age 48, singing her big scene of exhaustion and terror in Act II.
Then contrast her fright and hysteria with what she recorded in studio the year before with Walter at the podium. Take a listen:
Finally, for a stand-alone Act III of Die Walküre, do not miss the 1951 live from Bayreuth, post-war Festival re-opening with Karajan leading a cast that includes Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde and a young Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde. The rest of the cast is not as memorable, but these two are supreme. Your only choice may be EMI.
Melchior’s Siegfried has already been lauded. Although he was by all accounts a horrible actor, prone to error, and gained more and more weight as time went on, his every tone is heroic. If Lehmann set the standard for Sieglinde, Melchior did the same for Siegfried.
For Melchior’s Siegfried there are two choices. Between 1928 and 1932, he participated in what is often called the “potted Ring.” Recorded in different locations with different orchestras and conductors, this incomplete Ring has been issued both in bargain sets from Gala (often with ringing sound) and in an infinitely better sounding two-disc set of Siegfried excerpts from Naxos.
Transferred by the famed Ward Marston, and available only outside the U.S.A., the Naxos transfer pairs Melchior’s Siegfried with two Mimes, three Wotans (in the guise of the Wanderer), two giants in one, and others for the Forest Bird, Erda, and Brünnhilde. Once you hear Melchior, virtually every other Siegfried will make you weep for the sound we have lost.
Here he is in Act I, Scene 3, singing Siegfried opposite the Mime of tenor Albert Reiss. Albert Coates conducts the London Symphony Orchestra:
There is also a live complete Melchior Siegfried from the Metropolitan Opera in 1937. Artur Bodansky conducts, and enlists the indispensible Flagstad, Schorr, and List in other key roles. The Wanderer/Wotan is Friedrich Schorr, at the end of his great period as one of the finest pre-Hotter Wotans on record. Ward Marston has done all he can with the tapes obtained by Naxos, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sound is sub-standard.
She sang the blues like a born-to-sing-the-blues master, and musical theater classics as if she were the chosen one. Known most for her work in opera, she never sang a complete Wagner role onstage, and only performed a limited number of scenes from Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and Tristan und Isolde in studio and concert performance.
We have no idea what she might have sounded like singing the repeated high Cs of Brünnhilde’s “Hoïotoho,” because she never did so in studio or public. Nor did she wish to, preferring to preserve her voice for other things.
Yet, to those who have heard her Brünnhilde excerpts, she is a goddess. Her name is Eileen Farrell. Only the voices of Flagstad, Christine Brewer, and Stemme can equal hers in sheer tonal beauty, evenness of emission, and warmth. Here she joins Svanholm and conductor Erich Leinsdorf with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at the start of Brünnhilde’s rapturous awakening scene. As glorious as Farrell sounds, the excerpt also gives you an idea of how most tenors since Melchior must struggle with the role of Siegfried.
Between searches on arkivmusic.com and amazon.com (U.S., Canada, and the U.K.), you’ll find most of Farrell’s Wagner discography. It’s pathetically small. Some of her finest and most nuanced work, from a 1970 New York Philharmonic concert with Leonard Bernstein, is only available (to my knowledge) in a ten-CD deluxe set of Bernstein’s work with the NYP. I’ve got it, and it’s superb. Equally superb is the early live Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with de Sabata.
Regardless, for what Wagner did leave, you must hear her. When you check her out, be sure to also take a listen to her two-CD set, I’ve Got a Right To Sing the Blues, and the late career, audiophile grade recordings of popular repertoire from Reference Recordings. They’re all wonderful. Once you hear her, you won’t forget her.
Finally, do check out Gala’s four-volume sets of historical recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Yes, the transfers are often second rate. But you can find so much here from Flagstad, Melchior, Lehmann, Farrell and other greats at their peak. It’s a treasure trove, and a starting place for building a historical collection. Others praise the Ring
This survey is already much too long. Let me be brief. Besides three iconic sets on DVD from Pierre Boulez (the history-making Chéreau Ring from Bayreuth), James Levine (the Schenk production from the Metropolitan Opera), and Herbert von Karajan (with the Berlin Philharmonic), you must see the incredibly lavish, often outrageous Valencia Ring staged by La Fura dels Baus and conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Available in both DVD and Blu-ray formats, Valencia’s opening scene of Das Rheingold, featuring three quintessentially flirtatious Rhinemaidens swimming around in individual tanks of water, must be seen to be believed. Some of the subsequent staging is so futuristically over-the-top as to induce paroxysms of laughter. Nonetheless, the entire set won the German Record Critics’ Award of 2010 and the Choc de Classica, with Das Rheingold also scoring France’s Diapason d’Or and DIAMANT d’Opéra Magazine. Your life will never be the same.
Also available on DVD and Blu-ray is Christian Thielemann’s 2010 Bayreuth Die Walküre – different from his 2008 Bayreuth performance on CD – with Botha, Youn, Dohmen, Haller, Watson, and Fujimura. Gramophone endorses this recent release, but I find the production by Tankred Dorst quite conservative. The projections pale in comparison to those in Francesca Zambello’s 2011 “American Ring” production for San Francisco Opera (not yet slated for release, although there is hope).
The singing, too, is a mixed bag, with Botha and Dohmen the best of the lot. But if you want to hear one of the better casts of today, topped in the case of Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Wotan only by the Metropolitan Opera’s recent trio of Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Bryn Terfel (not yet available, except in movie theater encore performances), do take a look. As wonderful as these singers are – certainly Kaufmann and Terfel, although Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde is attempted much too late – it will help you understand why, for so many of us, the most recent stereo recordings we wish to return to were set down between 1955 and 1965.