A Historical Ring that Thrills Musically and Dramatically
The Cultural Observer | 02/12/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Joseph Keilberth was one of the most underrated conductors of Wagner. While he contributed little to the recording studio, he did much in Europe as a conductor to bring transparency, clarity, beauty, and propulsion to Wagner's music dramas with his own brand of Germanic philosophy. With Keilberth, you get a complete package from beginning to end--you get a bit of Solti's bombast and histrionics, Bohm's drive, and Knappertsbusch's gravity. At the same time, you get a superb story teller who never fails to point out the underlying drama that makes Wagner's Ring such a challenging work to conduct. In fact, among all the Ring Masters outside Daniel Barenboim and Clemens Krauss, he perhaps gets more out of his orchestra by his amalgamation of insight (and he really does still retain a personal stamp). Keilberth really should have been known better as a Wagner conductor. In fact, he died conducting Tristan und Isolde--a tragic death somewhat befitting any great musician on the podium, if that kind of end was one's cup of tea. Walkure is conducted with urgency, lyricism, and transparency. Keilberth, too, captures the high drama that Bohm provides in spades in his seminal recording more than ten years later. The Siegfried here is probably the best live version on disc. Keilberth's orchestra creates the perfect foil to the drama while precisely capturing the atmosphere and the moment of the score. For once, Siegfried is not the boring day of the Ring. The forging song, for example, is followed word for word by the Bayreuth players with the precision of a Swiss watch. Rheingold is another gem, but the sound is somehow not captured as optimally as in the other operas. One can complain by the poor orchestral sound that Barenboim would hone to perfection decades later, but for the most part the Bayreuth band is up to the task of making the Ring live through sound.
The cast is perhaps the jewel in this recording. While Astrid Varnay's Brunnhilde is a known commodity, it has never been captured in better form, sound, and beauty than in this recording. The full harmonic range of her voice is effectively heard in this recording without the distortion that would later affect Nilsson's vocal interpretation in the Solti Ring. Those Decca engineers really did a splendid job. Her Walkure Brunnhilde has everything that the character needs and more. She truly was an artist that should be experienced onstage, but this recording more than suffices for those who came too late to hear her. Her Siegfried Brunnhilde is sung with all the notes and dynamic markings on check, and it is wonderful to hear her secure voice sailing through music of such a high tessitura. The Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde though, is perhaps what delineates her from all other Brunnhildes. Her first act duet with Siegfried and the confrontation between the Gunther-clad hero is frighteningly real. Her second act is a powerhouse of rage, and only she would perhaps have the freshness to get through the last act immolation scene while at the same time imbuing the music with the nervous energy that made her Brunnhilde so famous.
Hans Hotter's Wotan is probably the other reason to buy this recording. His magisterial voice, so perfect for the part, is captured here in stereo sound while imparting a youthful vigor and firmness absent in his studio recording with Solti. His Rheingold Wotan is also heard for the first time in good sound. The sensitivity of this artist has never been more exposed. While Solti's recordings caught him at the end of his career, even when he had much to offer, the Keilberth Ring gives us a freshness that never quite takes off by the mid-1960s. His "Dir Unweisen Ruf dich ins Ohr" is the masterpiece of a Lieder singer, and his farewell to Brunnhilde has never been more painfully beautiful.
Wolfgang Windgassen's Siegfried is captured in its prime. When it was heard in both the Bohm and Solti Rings years later, it had already lost some flexibility and had begun to sound leathery. In this recording, Windgassen sounds as fresh as Siegfried should. His energy is an asset to the first Siegfried in the opera of his character's namesake. Listen to the forging scene and the awakening act if you want to know what I mean. And yet, this man is one of the most outstanding artists ever to sing Wagner. His Gotterdammerung Siegfried is the best exponent of this. Has Siegfried ever died more beautifully?
The Walsung twins in this recording are assumed by Ramon Vinay and Gre Brouwenstijn. A far cry from King and Rysanek more than a decade later, but this is still first class singing if the two singers were around today. I just find Vinay's voice a bit too baritonal, but that's just me. Maria von Ilosvay is a fantastic Erda and Waltraute. Her voice has the necessary leaden weight to give her characters the wisdom and the mystery that is so often missed by many a modern singer. Georgine von Milinkovic may not have the vocal glamour or artistry of Christa Ludwig, but she more than makes up for it with good singing and characterization. Hagen is played by the malevolent Josef Greindl, Bayreuth's bass of choice for almost two decades. The giants are well cast too, and the Norns, Rhinemaidens, and Valkyries are an endearing piece of casting from Wieland Wagner's legendary Bayreuth team.
And of this set? Since Testament has decided to release it in a slightly cheaper box set, I recommend that you buy it now and savor what a Bayreuth Ring in excellent sound from a bygone age of singing was truly like. I assure you that you won't be disappointed.
I wanted to love this...
A. Maus | New York, NY | 05/05/2008
(2 out of 5 stars)
"But the truth is that it's inferior in every way but the audio to the '53 Krauss. While Keilberth manages some thrilling moments, even making some familiar passages sound fresh, these are far outnumbered by the times the orchestra lacks direction, the miracle sound quality only heightening the disappointment when the notes come unstrung from one another and turn the music into noise. One can hardly blame the singers, mostly the same ones for Krauss, when they lose their way in this haze of mediocre conducting.
The Krauss Ring, by contrast, sounds fearless, vigorous and nimble, Wagner written in lightning. Its praises are sung by a previous reviewer here, although I disagree strongly that the Keilberth's sound quality closes the gap.
The fans who've decided that this is now the "Reference Ring" are guided by considerations that have nothing to do with the music: Because of its discographical value as an unearthed treasure and now the "true" first stereo Ring, because the audio is utterly fantastic and even awe-inspiring for 1955, and - more importantly than the first two - because the price tag is extortionate, this MUST be the greatest Ring there is.
More generally, few are comfortable with speaking ill of something so completely and unanimously celebrated by all the critics. What the Joyce Hatto scandal revealed about many fans of classical music is that they're not only obsessed with dragging extramusical considerations into the debate of whether a recording is viable, but they'd rather read blow-hard professional reviews all day before ever trusting their own ears.
Bear in mind, it was this recording that filled Culshaw with a (misguided) conviction that a live Ring recording could never reproduce the experience the way a studio one could. The booklet included discusses the tangled web of reasons why this recording took fifty years to see the light of day, but I really believe that if Decca had been at all impressed by it, it would have appeared long ago."
The Best Ring Ever!
Ralph J. Steinberg | New York, NY United States | 02/21/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Ring of the Nibelung was one of the two earliest pieces of music I ever heard; I remember a Met broadcast from when I was six (!). It has never left me and I remember the thrill of hearing "Das Rheingold" back in 1959, in the Solti recording, bringing back old memories and associations. Since then, I have heard and purchased the Solti, as well as hearing the taped Bayreuth Rings over WBAI from 1961 until they ceased the Bayreuth transmissions back in the Seventies. I aso own and treasure the 1960 Kempe Ring from Bayreuth, the Furtwaengler RAI from 1953 (great conducting, but poor orchestral playing and recording), the Krauss from 1953 Bayreuth (my first choice were it not for the one under review) and lastly and pershps most significantly, the 1955 Keilberth, under review here. Readers will note that I had purchased the 4 operas separately when they were first released in 2007. Seeing the beautiful cover of the new integral set, I could not resist buying it. I plan to give the four separate albums to a friend. I think it makes good sense to package the Ring in a complete set, as one should own the whole cycle. And what a performance this is! First of all, despite the real achievements of the studio Solti version, there is nothing like hearing the Ring in a live recording from Bayreuth. Every Bayreuth recording which I have eer heard has this thrilling tension and atmosphere which simply cannot be captured anywhere else. The balance between singers and orchestra is absolutely perfect, and on this recording, made in genuine and superbly natural stereo sound, it emerges in all its glory. Decca has created a sound with the orchestra in your lap and the singers above, onstage. I prefer this kind of concentrated, balanced sound to the kind of "spectacular" sonics of studio recordings, including the Solti. As for the performances, as I said previously, I would never want to part with my other Rings, yet this one is clearly the winner. First of all, Joseph Keilberth, the most underrated conductor of my experience, brings a vigor AND subtlety to his interpretation that is in a league with Kempe and Krauss, to name other outstanding Bayreuth conductors. His sense of when to relax and when to tighten is unerring at every moment. As for the cast, they are all at their full glories. Hotter is THE Wotan of my experience, and shows it here. Neidlinger as Alberich is always superb, but has an extra bit of urgency and splendor that make him king of Alberich's. Likewise, Kuen's Mime has never sounded better and comes across as a real meanie, not some pitiable dwarf. Vinay and Browenstyn (sp?) as the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde are so ardent, you really empathize with their plight. Greindl as Hunding and Hagen especially has never sounded as polished and evil as here. Windgassen's Siegfried is for once really heroic, yet tender and poetic. As for Varnay's Bruennhilde, she is the best on any set. I do not understand why she was so sorely unappreciated at the Met. Comparing her on the earlier Krauss set, she sounds even fresher on this latter performance! I have always ranked her as one of the top Bruennhildes, but here, she sweeps the field! I therefore nominate this as the ESSENTIAL Ring. Having just listened to the set, I'd like to add some details. First of all, Testament has trimmed the cost by omitting the libretti, although they can be easily downloaded; even better, though, would be to buy the Stewart Spencer version of the complete texts and very good English translation. Secondly, there is the matter of Act 2 of "Die Walkuere." When I was growing up, it was fashionable to denigrate this act and especially Wotan's dialogue with Bruennhilde as overlong and repetitious. In reality, this act is the pivotal part of the whole cycle, as it shows Wotan's evolving perception of his own position and his awareness of his helplessness. Only the very greatest performances reveal this act as the supreme part of the opera, and this is perhaps the very best performence of them all. As I have said, conductor and cast at the very least equal the very best, and in some moments, surpass them. But with Hans Hotter's Wotan and Astrid Varnay's Bruennhilde, we have interpretations that are unequalled in my experience. And with repeated listening, I would add Windgassen's Siegfried and Greindl's Hagen to that list. What can one say? This has to be the required Ring. Hotter, Varnay, Windgassen, Greindl, Keilberth and Bayreuth RULE FOREVER!"
The prime recommendation
L. Johan Modée | Earth | 02/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Testament's release of the complete 1955 Bayreuth Ring, with Joseph Keilberth conducting the Bayreuth Festspielhaus orchestra in top form, must be seen as the prime recommendation. Not that there are no other excellent Bayreuth sets - here I want to mention Knappertsbusch's (Merit - Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Knappertsbusch), Krauss' (Wagner: The Ring) and Böhm's (Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen) - but the ensemble, sound (of course, the stereo sound is vintage but quite good for its age - including all stage noices...), and interpretation caught on these recordings are first rate making this set truly essential.
Cast is more or less the dream team incarnated, including Varnay, Hotter, Greindl, Neidlinger, and Vinay - all in best possible voice. This fact only makes these performances essential listening, but now we must also toss in another fact: Joseph Keilberth's superb, swift and perfectly consistent interpretation. It is no surprise that Wieland Wagner requested his talent on several occasions.
Keilberth's interpretation is thus wholly different when compared with Knappertsbusch's, the legendary Bayreuth conductor, famous for his lethargic, heavy, somewhat inconsistent, but nonetheless superb performances.
Collectors need both these cycles, of course, in addition to those mentioned above, but if you look for the "prime recommendation", I suggest that the Keilberth Ring is the best possible choice. Here we get a superb interpretation from a great Wagner conductor, outstanding vocal forces from classic Wagner artists, and a live Bayreuth performance in fine stereo sound. It cannot be better than this - ever.
The only drawbacks are (1) a "modernist" production mistake, which, I have heard, was due to Carl Orff's advice. Instead of the sound of 18 tuned anvils in the Nibelheim scene of Das Rheingold we hear the sound of Mixtur-Trautonium, some sort of early synthesizer, which is supposed to imitate that sound. Another technical disturbance (2) is a gas-fueled fire machine, audible throughout the scene. This causes a great deal of hiss in Nibelheim, and the "anvil" sound of Mixtur-Trautonium itself is not entirely satisfying even if not as bad as in Kna's recording (Music & Arts). Prospective buyers should note this, because it may be a sonic disappointment. A third drawback (3) is due to Testament's editing of Siegfried: each of the acts is under 80 minutes (78+, 75+, 75+). Thus they would easily fit on three CDs. Despite that, Testament split the acts over four CDs. I asked Testament about this in an email, and they replied as follows: "Maybe they can fit on 3 but we simply followed the pq plot of the Solti Ring which everyone accepts as the standard, until now it seems." An astonishing answer, in my view. It is just terrible that the Solti set has this kind of influence.
But these drawbacks are soon forgotten. Forgotten are also Decca's Solti and DG's Karajan Rings (leave them to the completists...): these sterile studio conceptions are dead matter when compared to this lively, electrifying and memorable live performance. This is the desert island Ring.
Plaza Marcelino | Caracas Venezuela | 09/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Yes, this set features, as other fellow commentators have remarked in their notes to it, most of the luminaries of Wagner singing in the aftermath of the 1939-1945 european war (with many of them starting their careers in the years immediately preceeding it, or during it) and in their absolute prime. It may also be taken as a truthful and treasurable sound documentary of the Festival's post-war glories that puts to shame its current state of affairs (and now more than ever, as it formally passed to the hands of Wolfgang's daughters, if the very questionable Meistersinger staged by Katharina Wagner in recent years is a sample of what she has in store for the coming years). But to my opinion, this set is a must for people interested in getting to know what conducting Wagner is about, wanting to get into the four-part work's guts, its very bare bone marrow.
This year 2008 marks Keilberth's 100th brithday, as it also marks Karajan's. And the approach to Der Ring from both conductors cannot differ further than it does as evidenced from this set (and Karajan himself had conducted the Ring at Bayreuth a handful of years before). For if to many Karajan's work will be a magnet for its romantic approach, beauty of sound and general musicianship, Keilberth aimed directly and mercilessly, as I said above, at the work's very bare soul. For what this live recording shows above all is a solid long-range conception and vision, little impaired by isolated episodes and always within a solid perspective of the wood rather than isolated trees, with a continuous sense of line and sense of direction. Romantic? Yes. Purposeful? Mostly so. Passionate? Always. In fact, it might be said that this might well be one of the most passionate Wagner renditions on record, Furtwängler's included. If you wanted to encapsulate Keilberth's end result in a nutshell, you might have to choose the word "passion".
The sound (stereo, a curiosity and mostly a sound engineers' toy back in 1955) as captured by Decca's engineers truthfully capture the theatre's particular accoustics, yet slightly favouring the voices. The qualities and orchestral playing practices still in use in the Germany of the 1950's stand out also in favour of the set, for those who are curious about old orchestral playing styles in today's globalised and homogenised world. Nobody plays like that today, even in Germany, any more than anybody today conducts Wagner like that either. No plea this for living in the past, but none the less a lesson for conductors today toying with the idea of getting into a theatre pit and tackling the Ring."