Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Karajan and Solti: comparative review of "bleeding chunks"

Karajan and Solti: comparative review of "bleeding chunks"

Disc: 1
Das Rheingold
1. Prelude and First scene
2. Entry of the Gods into Valhalla
Die Walküre
3. Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond (Siegmund, Sieglinde)
4. Ride of the Valkyries
5. Wotan's Farewell & Magic Fire Music

Disc 2
1. Forging Scene
2. Forest murmurs
3. Siegfried's Rhine Journey
4. Siegfried's Funeral March
5. Immolation Scene

Wiener Philharmoniker
Georg Solti

Birgit Nilsson (Brünnhilde), Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried), Hans Hotter (Wotan, Die Walküre), George London (Wotan, Das Rheingold), James King (Siegmund), Régine Crespin (Sieglinde), Gustav Neidlinger (Alberich), Gerhard Stolze (Mime), Set Svanholm (Loge)


The best thing about such highlights is that they give quite an excellent overview when it comes to what is worth acquiring and what is not in terms of complete recordings. The Ring, especially, being a work of immense proportions, is a solid thing to buy and I would hardly do so without sample some "bleeding chunks" first. I have been introduced to it thus, only it was a one-disc selection that comes from the complete recording with Karajan. Since I am incredibly fascinated by the work, I thought I should like to hear another recording of it that illustrates an altogether different approach. The first that came to my attention was of course the most legendary one.

The next few lines are by no means a comprehensive review even of this set of highlights. Nor are they comparison of the type ''who's better than whom''. All they attempt to explain is why after hearing Karajan's "bleeding chunks" I rushed to get hold of the complete recording and why I didn't do the same about Solti's Ring, and finally decided not to buy the set at all (unless you have some old copy you're willing to get rid of for a few bucks). Of course it is rash to make conclusions for a complete recording of 14 hours after hearing only two and a half of them, but I daresay it is not so unreasonable.

I may start by saying that I simply don't understand all the hype around Solti's Ring and I do think its historical significance, which is completely indisputable, tends to obscure its weaknesses. I have seen Solti, Culshaw and the cast extolled to the skies a great many times. As it turned out, it is not nearly as heavenly as that.

To begin with Solti's conducting, it is quite impressive – sound-wise. Indeed, Solti (and Culshaw as producer, and Parry as engineer) simply blow Karajan away in terms of powerful sound. It's not often that I hear Karajan's sound with the Berliner Philharmoniker from the late 1960s blown away but that is the case here. But power is not the whole of Wagner. If you think it is, then Solti's Ring is definitely your Ring: it is massive, heroic and frenetic, with blaring brass that is guaranteed to blow you away together with the arm-chair you're sitting in. I don't know why Solti's admirers are offended when the conducting of their idol is described as "bombastic". It is as obvious as it could be – listen to the climaxes during the "Entry into Valhalla" and "Wotan's Farewell". But this is not necessarily a bad thing; this is just Solti's view of Wagner. And it must be stressed that he is not so lacking in lyrical qualities as is often pointed out, although he certainly does nothing to emphasize them. And this is just another proof that is not only possible for a great masterpiece to have radically different interpretations, but it is indeed inevitable.

Now comes Karajan and the famous "chamber style approach" that was invented by some mentally deficient critics. Karajan himself detested the description – and rightly so. To my mind, such description simply states that the brass does not blare and obscure the strings regularly and climaxes flow more smoothly than you can imagine. Otherwise the sound is stupendous in terms of dynamic range and clarity, by no means does it lack power. But the sound of a conductor is just like the style of a writer: if he has nothing interesting to say with it, he is done. And here comes the miracle, because Karajan's attention to detail (hear the timpani, in Siegfried's "Funeral March" for instance), his tempo fluctuations, his ability for building dramatic tension and stunning climaxes (hear "Wotan's Farewell") are something miraculous indeed. In comparison to all that, Solti sounds positively brash, rash and, occasionally, even cheap and vulgar. Karajan's Ring may not be so heroic and so powerful as Solti's, but it is not a bit less dramatic, far more lyrical, and a great deal more insightful at the same time.

An ideal illustration for Karajan's subtlety which Solti generally lacks is, ironically, the most famous part of the Ring: "The Ride of Valkyries". Solti not only brings the brass much too forward but he sounds surprisingly clumsy. In contrast, Karajan never obscures the extremely important strings and he is much more sensitive to Wagner's modest thematic material but fertile imagination. Karajan creates a vision of Valkyries flying on their horses which matches Wagner's detailed stage directions to perfection. Solti brings the Valkyries down with a gusto and puts them on lame horses.

As for Culshaw's legendary sound effects that were supposed to recreate every detail from the action, I am not impressed with them at all, either. Wotan's spear hitting the rocks is fine, but Donner's hammer and the final destruction of Valhalla are distinctly unpleasant sensations. Instead of making the recording more real, they only make it more ridiculous, and for my part I am rather happy that Karajan never went so far with these things. But the bigger problem is that, more often than not, the powerful sound of the orchestra obscures the voices and the text become unintelligible. This is another advantage of Karajan's recording: it has a far better balance between the voices and the orchestra, a kind of unity of sound you are not likely to find in Solti's recording where both parts are clear enough in themselves but don't mix too well. I suppose in the late 1950s, when Das Rheingold was the first of the four music dramas to be recorded and released, such a sound and such effects must have been a sensation. The sound is still gorgeous. But the effects have aged badly.

But the greatest problem with Solti's Ring is not Solti himself (nor the presumptuous Culshaw for that matter). Whatever the details, Solti is still a great conductor, even if not exactly to my taste. He has something unique to say and he knows pretty well how to say it in a most effective way. Even though I would never prefer his conducting for my desert island exile, it remains a towering achievement. And despite Culshaw's puerile passion for cacophony, on the whole the sonority and the clarity of the sound remain spectacular even today, some half a century after it was made.

The greatest disappointment in Solti's Ring is the cast. I am totally baffled when read descriptions like "the greatest cast ever" and the like. I have not listened to almost anything and am a Wagner as well as a Ring neophyte, but to my mind Karajan's singers are distinctly superior at almost all fronts. I am amazed that such cast is so often regarded as inferior, even when Karajan's conducting is considered masterful.

In my very humble opinion the only singers in Solti's Ring that are on par with Karajan's set, differences in interpretation and all, are Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen and Gustav Neidlinger. Nilsson doubtlessly has tremendous voice and she must have been there when the walls of Jericho fell; she is pretty much like Solti's conducting and hence a perfect complement to it. Coincidence or not, Karajan's Brünnhilde, Helga Dernesch, is just like the Maestro's conducting – warm, imaginative and subtle. Wolfgang Windgassen is a bit too lyrical perhaps, but to my mind quite convincingly so; the man has the voice and knows how to use it. He is quite different than any of Karajan's Siegfried's, Jess Thomas and Helge Brilioth, but an equally great pleasure to listen to. The most important difference is that Windgassen has never been underrated, as Thomas and Brilioth often are. As for Gustav Neidlinger, he is superb all right, but not a bit more so than Zoltan Kelemen, though rather different as both voice and interpretation.

It is interesting to note that Gerhard Stolze is the only singer who is on both recordings and sings the same part. Significantly or not, as far as the "Forging Song" goes, he is certainly a more cunning and scheming Mime with Karajan than with Solti; in the latter set Stolze tends to overact his part a bit. Also, there are singers in the Solti's set that are just decent and reliable but nothing more, George London and James King for example. Both are quite dependable, but the former, though possessing a much more powerful voice, is no match for the brilliant dramatic inflection that Fischer-Diskau brings to the text, and the latter, though musical and lyrical enough, simply cannot hold a candle to the burning intensity of Jon Vickers as Siegmund.

Some small parts in Solti's Ring are downright appallingly sung, Froh (Waldemar Kmentt) and the Nightingale (Joan Sutherland?!) for instance, but in this category Set Svanholm gets the palm all right. How so incompetent, not to say terrible, a singer could have been included at all in such recording is beyond me. Both his voice and his rendition of Loge's part are, to put it mildly, some kind of an accident, or a bad joke perhaps. Some say he is great because he actually sings the lines, while Karajan's Loge (Gerhard Stolze) is terrible because his is only declamation and nothing more. Nonsense. First of all, Loge's part is largely declamatory and, secondly, Stolze's rendition is a fabulous characterization which has exactly as much singing as there should be. Both extremes can be heard in the finale of Das Rheingold where Stolze totally puts Svanholm to shame, and I can't help feeling sorry for the poor Set who is trying to tackle a part that is so painfully beyond him.

But my greatest disappointment in Solti's Ring is the man who has been hailed as ''the greatest Wotan ever''. Hans Hotter is just another example of adulation I simply cannot understand. Yes, I know he was past his prime is 1965 when Solti's Die Walküre was recorded. Yes, I have listened to his 1955 live recording from Bayreuth with Keilberth and recorded in fantastic early stereo by DECCA. It is not much better; the voice is fresher for sure, but the rendition is just as messy and can hardly be described as anything more than acceptable. It seems to me that Hotter at his best is hardly better than just good.

But the studio recording with Solti really is pathetic. Hotter's voice is unsteady and hoarse, his diction is often abominable though he is supposed to sing in his native language. He tosses off some of the most lyrical moments with something very much like barking. The long and majestic lines – "Denn einer..." and "Wer meines..." – are incredibly sad things to listen to. The only slight redemption of all that mess comes in the quietest moments when Hotter finally manages to sound at least decent – but not for long. I don't know if Brünnhilde is moved by her father's outburst, but I am certainly filled with sorrow – for Hans Hotter. It is completely out of the question to put such performance along Thomas Stewart's in Karajan's set. Not only is the American's diction far superior, but his voice, which may lack somewhat in power, has nevertheless unbelievable ability for sustaining a beautiful melodic line and a very fine dynamic range. Stewart's interpretation of both the text and the music has an emotional richness and psychological insight Hotter never could have dreamed of.

In short, Solti's historically important recording of the Ring is a remarkable sonic achievement for the age and captures some of the most glorious orchestral playing ever put on record, at least in terms of impressive orchestral power. Otherwise, there is little of Wagner's overwhelmingly important lyrical side, but a great deal of abrasive heroism not entirely without appeal, I admit, but also somewhat tedious after a few listenings. It's interesting to give it a try or two from time to time for, if anything, the approach does sound original, but ultimately I would definitely go with Karajan's subtlety, imagination and absolutely unmatched ability for making Wagner's music flow like the Rhein itself.

For all the hype there is and probably will continue to be, for me the cast in Solti's Ring remains just a little above mediocre and by no means preferable to Karajan's often easily dismissed singers. None of the latter has a poor voice or inadequate artistry to the part, while some of Solti's singers are almost a disgrace, another part are just good, and only a few are on the same level of excellence as their analogues in Karajan's set. How much of that is due to some personal charisma of the conductor and how much due to various other reasons is highly debatable, but I am inclined to think that the excellence of Karajan's cast is not the least due to his fascinating personality. Last but certainly not least, the voices and the orchestra complement each other much better in Karajan's set, whereas in Solti's they usually seem to fight with each other.

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