Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring Cycle) / Sawallisch, Bayerischer Staatsoper Box set, Limited Edition
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Those without access to video disc players can now enjoy this 1989 Ring production, although stage noises and singers husbanding their resources come off less forgivingly in an audio-only context. But the recording is surprisingly crisp and vibrant, save for distortion in loud tuttis. Wolfgang Sawallisch has a sixth sense for pacing, proportion, and keeping singers secure. A bargain worth considering, but no texts are included. --Jed Distler
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Although it is rather fast, you don't notice it. However , it would have been nice if Walkuere and Siegfried could have been put out as one act/disc as could easily have been done., thereby achieving the only unbroken recorded Ring.
I have nearly all recorded Rings and have been listening since 1957. The ones I have listened to most before Sawallisch are Solti, Karajan,Janowski,Haitink and Barenboim (the only other live recording with good sound).. Keilberth is also ok but also too fast.
I have found it interesting that the best introductory lecturer on Wagner at Bayreuth (Roland Bauer from Stuttgart) always uses Sawallisch Munich recordings if possible in his very detailed music/text analyses..
There are several truly great performances in this set, not least of which is Sawallisch's conducting. He fell under the shadows of Solti and Karajan and was dismissed more often than not as a capable kapellmeister.
This is a great disservice to one of the finest, most experienced opera and symphonic conductors of his age.
This Ring cycle is a towering monument to his art and you shouldn't hesitate to consider its purchase if you are not familiar with Wolfgang Sawallisch. His Ring is well-upholstered but not over-stuffed. Similar in approach to Karl Böhm at Bayreuth or, more recently, Marek Janowski in Berlin, though, I think, more profound than the latter and less fleet-footed and spiky than the former.
The Bavarian State opera chorus and orchestra are the equals of the finest musical organizations in Vienna, Bayreuth and Berlin, the EMI sound is beautiful, with a perfect balance between stage and pit. Voices are never lost in the maelstrom nor do they dominate at the expense of detailing in the orchestra. And the audience is utterly silent, so no worries about coughing and rattling in all the quiet spots, an occasional flaw with the Böhm set, and something that absolutely ruins some of the older Bayreuth live recordings when most of the audience were chain-smoking unfiltered cigs at every intermission, often making the Festspielhaus sound like the tuberculosis ward in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.
There are several splendid singing performances that are the equal and perhaps the greatest of all in some of their roles. First of all there is Hildegard Behrens who never made a finer recording. I first encountered her Brünnhilde on radio broadcasts of her premiere performances in Bayreuth with Solti in 1983. She was the great revelation of that cycle and some day someone should release that cycle for commercial sales, it is really very good, though the cast was largely inferior to Sawallisch's and certainly not a patch on Solti's Vienna cast, but it was Solti live at Bayreuth, his ONLY season there, and Behrens who became the great Wagnerian star during that summer's events. She was always better live than in the studio where the microphones captured the rather strangulated sounds that sometimes emanated from her middle voice and the hootings in her lower register. Her top was always glorious, beautiful, and never wobbly. And she had power and most importantly great intelligence. Her Brünnhilde for Sawallisch is magnetic and deeply involved dramatically. The grief in her voice after Siegfried leaves the Gibichung terrace with Gutrune on his arm is heart-breaking. Her following transformation into murderous, vengeful rage, in the great trio of Act 3 of Götterdämmerung, is all the more shocking. From betrayed love to retributive, hateful rage has rarely been so vividly conveyed by any singer, not even Nilsson. And Behrens has more subtlety in her voice than the great Swede could muster. Nilsson's voice was so steely and brilliant, yet she could be subtle, up to a point. Behrens could almost be Mozartian at moments, then blaze into towering flames the next. A magnificent Brünnhilde. You should buy this set if for no other reason to hear what all the fuss over Behrens was about. Don't be put off by her first appearance, in Die Walküre. The opening Ho-jo-to-hos have been the downfall of many great sopranos. It's a beast of an entrance, cold-voiced and nervous no doubt. Behrens does it rather better than most but resorts to shrieking the last high note a bit. But from there on she is masterful in that opera.
The Siegfried Brünnhilde is the highest tessitura of the three roles and fits Behrens like a glove. Fortunately, her Siegfried, René Kollo, is amazingly strong and sure-voiced to the very end of that grueling role making Behrens shining platinum-voiced Brünnhilde all the more wonderful. Kollo makes a fine hero in this set, though probably sings more beautifully in Janowski's first set recorded in Dresden in the early 1980s, in the studio. Kollo's roughest moments are in the first act of that opera, another beast of an opening gambit, where he has to shout a bit in lieu of going flat or missing the high notes altogether until he got warmed up. He's in very strong voice and his forging scene is exciting. I also noticed he no longer suffered from the intrusive aspirates he had to resort to almost 20 years earlier when he made his recording of Walther von Stolzing (Meistersinger) with Karajan. The heavier roles seems to have knocked that bad habit out of his singing, or perhaps it was just something that happened when he sang softly in the more legato roles, like Stolzing, Lohengrin and Parsifal. His soft singing in this cycle reveals not a trace of that bad old habit, fortunately. His quieter scenes are quite fine as well. His meditations in the forest in Act 2 of Siegfried are lovely, and he is partnered by one of the most beguiling and gorgeously sung Woodbirds in Julie Kaufmann, enchanting! Kollo's death scene is under-stated and moving, no milking the lines for every ounce of pathos, just uncomplicated, lovely and deeply felt singing. His is one of the better Siegfrieds around, and the fact that it is a live recording is amazing. He doesn't seem to tire at all.
Perhaps the greatest all around performance comes from Robert Hale as Wotan/Wanderer. This man also fell under the shadows of more publicity powered singers, especially James Morris, a fellow American who reached the pinnacles of the world's stages in the same repertoire, but not to as great an effect as Hale if you ask me.
Hale could ACT with his voice and it was as beautiful and more powerful an instrument than Morris's. I like Morris very much as well, having seen his first Wotan's in San Francisco in 1985. But Hale is a stage creature, Morris is a singer.
I am a fan of live recordings, especially Wagner, because the extra adrenaline and audience pizzazz gives a certain PING to the performance that is utterly missing in controlled studio environments where technical perfection is the goal, rather than the conveyance of a drama. Robert Hale is note-perfect on these discs. He surpasses even the great Hans Hotter in many of the high points. His Abschied at the end of Walküre induces sobs equal to that of towering Hotter's performance for Keilberth at Bayreuth in 1954, not part of the famous commercially available cycle from 1955 as released on Testament. That 1954 has to be heard to be believed. Hotter and Varnay may never be surpassed in that scene, at least on record. But Hale and Behrens are almost as devastating, and the sound is that much finer than the the monophonic from Bayreuth at that time.
Time and time again Hale reveals new or clarified facets of Wotan's complex persona. His last line in Siegfried is a case in point. It's quiet. Siegfried has broken the spear and the Wanderer utters his last lines with a strange Mona Lisa smile in his voice that is unique in my listening memories of other singers in this scene. He has a deep bass-baritone with an amazing top extension. Going out on a limb, for me, Robert Hale's Wotan is the most satisfying portrayal of all Wotans, and there are several great ones on record. His performance is another reason to buy this cycle without hesitation. He recorded the first two roles for Dohnanyi in Cleveland on Decca's ill-fated uncompleted cycle in the 1990s, and he's fine there as well, but, again, the studio circumstances lends a slightly refrigerated tone to his singing. But those too are very fine recordings worth collecting, with a very interesting cast of singers, including Anja Silja's only recording of the Walküre Fricka and the sumptuously voiced Alessandra Marc's only Sieglinde recording.
Hale's scenes with Robert Tear (Loge) in Rheingold are fascinating. Both sing beautifully and lyrically yet convey the text with biting intensity and much humor. Tear is of the larger-voiced lyric school of Loge's as contrasted with the sardonic character tenor assumptions by singers like Graham Clark and Gerhard Stolze.
The most fascinating performance in Sawallisch's cycle comes from Julia Varady's Sieglinde. I was familiar with her beautiful voice singing Strauss roles like the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten (Solti), the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos with Jessye Norman's Ariadne (Masur) and Arabella, with Sawallisch. I was a little taken aback by her Sieglinde. Adjectives like feral, hysterical, even insane, kept coming to mind as Act I of Walküre progressed. She has a quick vibrato which adds a febrile and agitated note to her portrayal, and at first I thought Oh, No, she's going to do a Gundula on us. By that I mean Gundula Janowitz's under-powered and prettily bland Sieglinde for Karajan in his famous, but occasionally miscast, set. Varady surprised and amazed me. Her voice has POWER and she easily rides over the tidal waves that emanate from the pit. Her Siegmund is the very fine and under-used Robert Schunk. His short stature harmed his career. I call it Stature-ism! But being only 5'7" is fatal for a Wagnerian heldentenor, no matter how fine a singer he is. William Johns suffered from this as well, but he was singing in America at a time when there was NO ONE ELSE, Jess Thomas having retired and died young. Johns had a good career as a result. Schunk was up against Peter Hofmann, Siegfried Jerusalem and René Kollo in Europe. He suffered by comparison. Anyway, he is a terrific, ardent and romantic Siegmund. But it has to be said Varady's she-wolf of a Sieglinde makes her Siegmund appear a little reticent by comparison. To coin an old phrase her Sieglinde is balls-to-the-wall and she gets more and more wild and mad in Act 2. Her final peroration 'O, herstes Wunder!' is very powerful, and is the most feminine moment in her performance, soft even. Sawallisch does not lapse into over-egged turgidness and stretch every single note out beyond all reason like, for instance, James Levine who encourages his rather hide-bound singing machine, Jessye Norman, to milk it for all its worth to the detriment of the musical impetus and dramatic impulse. I prefer Sawallisch and Varady by far. Hers is an amazing performance of this part, totally revelatory and somehow I felt that at last I'd met Sieglinde. Even Rysanek could not muster the primal animal magnetism inherent in this part as Varady does here. Yet another reason to buy this cycle!
Finally there are two more splendid performances. Matti Salminen's Hagen (which is mistakenly listed as being sung by Kurt Moll who never sang this role in his life) and Ekkehard Wlaschiha's hair-raising Alberich. This is the third Hagen Salminen recorded, to be followed by the latest one with Janowski, and he was, up to the Sawallisch set, the most malevolent, terrifying villain I've heard in any Wagner opera. The voice is beautiful into the bargain but has a raw edge that makes him sound utterly barbaric and deadly. His call to the vassals is monumental, he often sings with a menacing subtlety, as in the great trio and at the start of Act 2 when his contacted in his dreams by his daddy Alberich.
Ekkehard Wlaschiha's papa Alberich is perhaps the most multi-faceted performance out there on record in a role that has been taken by many great baritones, most notably Gustav Neidlinger (Böhm, Solti and many others), Zoltán Kélémann (Karajan) and Theo Adam (Haitink). His big role is in Das Rheingold and his curse at the end of his contribution raised the hairs on my arms. He may not surpass Neidlinger but he equals him, and he has the benefit of superb modern sound. His performance for Levine on DG is also very fine, but again, it's a studio environment and DG's sound on those sets is so glassy and fake that I find them unlistenable.
Negatives? Yes, one only. Well, the Ride of the Valkyries is so very smoooooth, nothing brittle or bumptious, that I found myself longing for Solti. And Sawallisch's Stabularium of Valkyries are a mixed bag vocally.
But in ensemble they sing in tune and stay together in this notoriously difficult ensemble singing, it's just individually some of them are less than top drawer, but it's a very minor quibble and doesn't really matter. Over all it is a good set of singers, led by the indefatigable steady-steely-voiced Nancy Gustafson and bolstered by some solid lower voices. And I pretty quickly fell under the spell of Sawallisch's flying horses. His Ride buzzes like a bee hive and doesn't roar steadily like a battalion of B29s (except when it is supposed to). I like the bees, but it has to be admitted that Solti's scarifying fleet of helicopters (as heard in Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now) is pretty unbeatable for raising the blood pressure and shooting the adrenaline levels way up.
No, the only really under-par scene is the Norn Scene in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung.
Even the normally awesome Marjana Lipovsek lets the side down by singing consistently flat. The other two weird sisters are okay but one really wants three of the best singers you can get, but more often than not they are second string singers. These three are just vocally out of sorts, and Lipovsek's rhythmic sense seems to have abandoned her. Her Fricka in Rheingold and Walküre is of the stentorian Margaret Dumont school of Frickas, but her voice is awesome. Her First Norn is way off her best work. They don't wobble at least, but their ensemble singing is almost a rhythmic shambles at the close of the scene, and Lipovsek's flatness made me glum until an ecstatic Love Duet and then the very buoyant and spray-washed Rhine Journey.
The arrival at the Gibichung Hall starts off an amazing bit of story telling and all the singing is superb.
It is good to hear Lisbeth Balslev's Gutrune. She is known mainly for her Senta in the famous Bayreuth film with Simon Estes from 1985. Gutrune is a rough part, thankless yet indispensable in the drama. She actually creates a very clear picture of a very complicated woman in a very tight spot. Hers is a great performance in a secondary part that is mostly over-looked by commentators.
I think the most telling highlight test for me is Donner's call to the clouds in Das Rheingold. Bodo Brinkmann was one of those guys who could descend into hopeless wobbles, even on studio recordings. But he is solid as a rock here and creates a very credible version of The Mighty Thor in this brutal, almost erotic and thunderous
arietta. A pass! Eberhard Wächter (Solti) is the Everest in this role, followed closely by... no one. Brinkmann is well-established in the pack of fine but not IT Donner singers.
Two big test scenes for me are the two with the three Rhine Daughers. Sawallisch has a splendid, mellifluous trio, with well-differentiated voices that also blend beguilingly. Julia Kaufmann is again a great Woglinde.
She has a beautiful soft grained edge to her voice but it has more than enough power to ride all those high soaring lines above a very loud orchestra. Angela Maria Blasi possesses a totally beautiful voice and her Wellgunde (middle voice) is the lynchpin of the perfect intonation of their performances both in Rheingold and Götterdämmerung. Birgit Calm is a solid low voice, a little tremulous at first, probably nerves, but then settles down and turns in a fine Floßhilde.
Special mention goes to the great bass Kurt Moll's Fafner and Hunding. What a magnificent voice that man had! I can see why he never sang Hagen. His voice was just too beautiful and plush and soft-edged to fully portray the raging evil of that character. His Fafners are baleful and malevolent, like Smaug in The Hobbit, and his Hunding sounds a romantic lover type who has gone savage as a result of his pistol of a wife, Varady's Sieglinde.
Waltraud Meier is her usual seemingly dramatic and vocally monumental self. The scene between her and her sister, Brünnhilde, is one of the greatest dramatic scenes in any opera. My favorite performance will probably always be that from Brigitte Fassbaender with Behrens and Solti at Bayreuth in 1983. I really hope those performances receive public release someday. Solti in that acoustic was mind-blowing, and this particular scene with these two great singers is up there with the Hotter and Varnay at the end of that 1954
Walküre. The kind of scenes in Wagner that one is gifted with perhaps once or twice in a generation.
Waltraud Meier is in prime voice here. Her tremulous vibrato more noticeable for the role lying a little low for her. She kept this role in her repertoire but she is more effective in the cross-over vocal fachs like Kundry, Ortrud and Venus. I always thought Isolde was too high for her, but her acting skills make up for any vocal deficiencies at the top of her voice.
Other excellencies in brief; Hanna Schwarz's mysterious and glamorous-sounding Erda, Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Fasolt), Nancy Gustafson (Freia), Josef Hopferwieser (Froh), and Helmut Pampuch's Mime. It's good to have Pampuch's Siefried Mime on record. He had recorded and filmed the Rheingold Mime for Boulez but was always denied the complete role at Bayreuth.
He resorts to a little Gerhard Stoltz-like sprechstimme, perhaps a little too often, but he also can sing a beautiful legato line without clownish exaggeration in a role that can easily descend to vaudeville schtick.
This set is worth the $124 being asked for it by Amazon. I can't vouch for the quality of the other recordings in the alternative big compendium it is also available within. I don't like to add superfluous recordings that I won't ever listen to just to get one particular performance. I say buy this original EMI set while it's available.
It is something very special and every Wagner addict should have this set in their library.
There is no libretto included so this won't be a first choice for the newcomer who doesn't have the Solti or one of the other sets with a complete libretto plus musicological essays, which all Ring cycle releases SHOULD possess but alas.... EMI strikes again with its mindgy re-releases, unless it's a Callas set which always get new release treatment.
If you are steeped in and devoted to the legendary Rings from roughly 1953 to 1967, it can be refreshing to hear a quality alternative. Sawallisch’s conducting seems to me to be of the highest order. Nobody has done to/for this music what Furtwängler did, so that must be put to one side, but apart from that, I don’t think there’s anyone better. Sawallisch is in the camp of the more direct and quicker conductors (Krauss, Keilberth, Böhm), and he equals their very best, plus I think that to a degree more than other non-Furtwängler conductors (including Knappertsbusch), Sawallisch conveys the sense that the orchestra as a participant in the drama, at which Furtwängler was without peer. He also obtains superb execution from his players and has the benefit of modern sound, with an acceptable balance between voices and orchestra.
In a similar vein to the conducting comparisons, regardless of how great you might find Hotter, Varnay, Mödl, Nilsson, Windgassen, Neidlinger, Greindl, etc., if you’re inclined to listen to this work from time to time, different voices and expressions can be welcome (in making this comparison I’m leaving out the great era of Melchior, Flagstad,Leider, and Schorr, due to sound quality and the absence of a complete, uncut alternative recording, but clearly they were in a class of their own). Taking it from the top, I don’t think Robert Hale’s Wotan takes a back seat to anybody. He has a terrific voice, with a wide range, a burnished tone, solid technique and compelling phrasing. For me, he is in his own way every bit the vocal actor that Hotter is, and while the voice isn’t as huge, it falls more agreeably on the ear. Behrens was the leading Brünnhilde of her time. It’s quite right that she didn’t have the equipment of the great Wagnerian dramatic sopranos that preceded her, but taken on her own terms she is deeply satisfying, a true singing actress. So was Varady, who delivers an intense Sieglinde, and Schunk is a quite good Siegmund: it’s true that he’s not as heroic sounding as many of his famous predecessors, but that doesn’t mean that he’s overparted, and he has the virtue of a tone that sounds appropriately young for the part, produced cleanly and securely. Wlaschiha (Alberich), Moll (Fafner & Hunding), and Salmimen (Hagen) are as fine in their roles as anyone has been. And while one may have preferences in many of the smaller roles, in this set I think it’s fair to say that they are all well taken.
That leaves us with the hero, Siegfried, and I’ll suggest that this should be the only real point of controversy about this very considerable Ring. Even a fan of René Kollo would have to admit that he is past his best here, particularly in Siegfried Act I. Kollo was blessed with a lovely, bright voice for a heroic tenor, but as other commentators have noted, his singing was often marked by aspirates, and he started developing a “beat” in his voice at a relatively early stage (after his participation in Solti’s great Tannhäuser recording, which nonetheless suffered from his aspirates). I’m generally not one to make excuses for purely vocal shortcomings, and I won’t do so here, but after Act I of Siegfried, I think Kollo has a lot to offer. First of all, he still has the smile of youth in his tone (contrast Windgassen, who for all his virtues sounded old when he was 40). In addition, Kollo has the character in his bones and projects it successfully through his voice, not least because of his extremely clear, natural diction and phrasing. Like virtually everyone else in this Ring, Kollo fully acts his part and that reaches out through the loudspeaker.
So to sum up, this to me is a great Ring. I won’t say it’s the “best” Ring, and I’m probably in the camp of many who don’t think that award can be given, but I can see how this one could be someone’s favorite.