Friday, 18 September 2015

Review: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen (Highlights) - Karajan, 1966-70, DG

A must for aspiring Wagnerians

[1] Das Rheingold: “Aur Burg führt die Brücke”
[2] Die Walküre: “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater”
[3] Die Walküre: Walkürenritt
[4] Die Walküre: “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!”
[5] Die Walküre: Feuerzauber
[6] Siegfried: “Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert”
[7] Siegfried: Brünnhildes Erwachen
[8] Götterdämmerung: “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!”
[9] Götterdämmerung: Trauermarsch

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Wotan: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau [1]; Thomas Stewart [4, 5].
Siegfried: Jess Thomas [6, 7]; Helge Brilioth [8].
Brünnhilde: Helga Dernesch [7].
Siegmund: Jon Vickers [2].
Loge: Gerhard Stolze [1].

Mime: Gerhard Stolze [6].


This is a truly amazing CD. Not so long ago it was solely responsible for making me a true fan of Richard Wagner's late works. I have never had any doubts in his genius and I have always liked his operas from the so called “middle period” – Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and especially Der fliegende Holländer. But Wagner’s late works – much more aptly called not operas, but music dramas – had always terrified me with their length and complexity. Years ago a complete recording of Der Ring accidentally happened to be in my hands. I gave it a try and ended bored to extinction at the second scene of Das Rheingold – the first part of the cycle. It’s funny how things do change.

These excellent highlights showed me the real genius of Richard Wagner and made of myself an ardent admirer of his late works, especially Der Ring. Only recently have I found out how magnificent and how ingeniously composed this cycle of four music dramas really is. The numerous leitmotifs that Wagner used to describe practically every character, idea, feeling, and object are not only deeply psychological but very often extremely beautiful and combined in an astonishing way. His ability to tell an epic story with text and music in a continuous way without virtually any pauses is something to marvel at. Once one gets bitten by Richard Wagner’s genius, one never fully recovers. Nor does one want to.

The whole of Der Ring des Nibelungen runs for the unbelievable length of about 14-15 hours – the “prelude” Das Rheingold is about two and a half hours long and the three “days”, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are about four hours long each – and a complete recording usually takes something like 14 CDs. To compress this huge masterpiece into one CD with duration of no more than 80 minutes seems to be an impossible task. And yet, whoever compiled this CD did it. The nine tracks are not only among the best of the whole cycle musically, but they also represent crucial points in the story; one can almost follow it from the beginning to the end, heavily abridged of course.

All excerpts come directly from the complete recording made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker together with a really magnificent cast of singers between 1966 and 1970 for DG. This is the same remaster made for the Originals reissue and the sound is astonishing – clear, rich and sumptuous, with terrific dynamic range and power, but never reduced to the bombastic heroism which many people think is the only way to interpret Wagner’s music; for my own part it’s not even the most convincing way, let alone the only one. Karajan’s ability to achieve breathtaking beauty of sound does not at all prevent him from creating tremendously dramatic and at the same time movingly lyrical interpretation. He detested the famous description of his performance as “chamber music style” – and rightly so. It’s a perfect nonsense, unless it means that the brass is powerful without being blaring and the subtlety of Wagner's orchestration is superbly revealed.

Das Rheingold is presented with only one excerpt – [1] “Aur Burg führt die Brücke” – the very last nine minutes or so, or “The entry of the gods into Valhalla” as it is more popular. Here you have the opportunity to enjoy two really great singing actors – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the stately, majestic Wotan and Gerhard Stolze as the exceptionally cunning and shrewd Loge. The finale is certainly one of the most glorious pieces of orchestral music ever composed.

Die Walküre occupies the next four tracks. In [2] “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater” Jon Vickers appears as Siegmund, the son of Wotan and a mortal woman, contemplating his origins and his fate. Although I have never been fan of Jon Vickers because his specific timbre just doesn’t grip me, his powerful tenor is irresistible here. The so-called Walkürenritt [3], which Wagner himself never called with that name, is actually the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”, but not the three-minute orchestral showpiece that most people know. It is six minutes long, with a lot of singing from the flying Valkyries, and even this is by no means the whole scene that serves as introduction to the third and last act of the music drama.

The last track from Die Walküre – [4] “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” – is the final of the opera itself, much more popular as “Wotan's Farewell”. This must surely be one the most stunning pieces of opera ever composed. Richard Wagner surpassed even himself in expressing with the most gorgeous music every embrace, every glance, and every nuance of the heartbreaking scene when Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to eternal sleep amidst fire until a hero comes and awakes her. The American bass-baritone Thomas Stewart gives a supreme rendition. He is tender and caressing, but powerful and majestic when it is required. Last but definitely not least when we talk about Wagner’s music dramas, his diction is exemplary. The last two lines – surely one of the most famous in the history of opera –

Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet
durchschreite das Feuer nie!

are something you are not likely to forget, especially with the following orchestral tour de force. You can listen to them together with the so called Magic Fire Music because they are separated in another track – [5] Feuerzauber.

the third part of Der Ring is represented by two tracks: [6] “Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert and [7] Brünnhildes Erwachen, and so is the last part – Götterdämmerung – [8] “Brünnhilde, heilige Braut!” and [9] Trauermarsch. Here two Siegfrieds can be heard – Jess Thomas and Helge Brilioth – and both are so damn good that I am always left wanting more of their voices. As a special bonus from the gentle sex, here is Helga Dernesch in glorious voice as the just awakened Brünnhilde on track 7. Unlike many people, neither Thomas, nor Brillioth sounds “undercast” to me; nor do I hear any problems with Helga Dernesch’s high notes, for that matter.

In track 6 the incomparable Gerhard Stolze appears again, but this time in the role of the sinister Nibelung Mime trying to use Siegfried in his own schemes about obtaining the ring. This excerpt is also known as Schmidelied, or Forging Song, because it is connected with Siegfried’s forging his sword which is called “Notung”. Here Wagner reached new heights in describing the very Hell with music. Awesome orchestration! Track 8 is actually Siegfried’s death and is very moving with its quietness. The Funeral March that follows immediately is the only purely instrumental composition on the disc and one of the most majestic. It is a perfect finale of the CD, if not of Der Ring itself.

At the end of this very long and extremely tedious review, which you are at perfect liberty to evaluate as “uncommonly boring”, a little piece of advice. Listen to the disc with the librettos in hand. Of course the CD has no liner notes whatsoever, let alone excerpts from the librettos, and that is quite natural considering the budget price. But all of Wagner’s original texts, together with his own and very important stage directions, can easily be found with translations on the net, online or not. They immensely increase the understanding of the music and make the whole experience altogether unforgettable.