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I agree with the reviewer above, this is a classy reissue, beautifully done on all counts. What is even more important is that this is one of the greatest recorded Ring cycles out there. Clemens Krauss is under-appreciated these days because many younger Wagnerians have not discovered him yet. It took me a long time to get past all the great newer stereo commercial sets available, Solti, Böhm, Sawallisch and Karajan, not to mention half a dozen others of older and more famous vintage, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch and Keilberth.
One of the key factors that makes the Krauss Ring from Bayreuth so indispensable is the Wotan of Hans Hotter, captured at his very peak. A monumental performance by any standards. Added to this is the Brünnhilde of Astrid Varnay, the best version of her portrayal of these roles. Wolfgang Windgassen was at his peak in 1953 as well, one of his earliest assumptions of Siegfried in a long and illustrious career singing the great Wagner heroes. There's more; Gustav Neidlinger in one of first recordings of Alberich, setting a standard for these roles that have rarely been met let alone equalled. Then there are the smaller but important roles sung by legends like Hermann Uhde (Gunther and Donner) and the comparatively unknown but stalwart character tenor Paul Kuen as Mime. Siegmund and Sieglinde are sung by Ramon Vinay and Regina Resnik, her only recording of this role as far as I know, both bringing out the darker elements of these characters' personalities. She is reminiscent of Martha Mödl who took over the role the following summer at Bayreuth. Finally there is the great bass Josef Greindl at his peak as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen. A beautiful bass voice who is no longer fully appreciated because of the more familiar recording for Böhm when his voice had aged and loosened a bit.
Individually these Krauss performances deserve comment. 'Das Rheingold' is truly superb, second only to Solti's which benefits from John Culshaw's vivid engineering, especially in places like Donner's call to the clouds which is unsurpassed with Eberhard Wächter's virile and powerful voice, but Hermann Uhde, in a live venue is almost as powerful. Krauss's Rhine Maidens are hard to beat. The Erika Zimmermann is perhaps the most satisfying Woglinde of them all. She holds her ecstatic high notes to their full length and easily rides the waves of orchestral sound, the vocal embodiment of pantheistic joy. Hetty Plümacher and Gisela Litz are her consummately musical sisters. They all express the words naturally, laughing a lot too but not in a fake manner. The first scene is utterly delightful and Krauss doesn't miss a nuance of the flickering moods. Gustav Neidlinger crowns this glorious performance with a very subtle and beautifully voiced Alberich. They are given the very important role of being the last voices heard in this opera as the gods ascend to Valhalla. Their pleas to the heedless and arrogant gods are ignored and the element of doom is suggested in their final hymn.
Ira Malaniuk is wonderful as Fricka. Feminine yet regal, nothing nagging about her. The only let down in this cast is the Freia of Bruni Falcon. She sounds terrified, which is not inappropriate for this character under the circumstances, but this sounds too much like stage fright to me. And she misses an important line altogether, and this in a role that really doesn't have too many lines to sing. But she recovers without incident but it is a great pity. Gerhard Stolze is a surprisingly feisty Froh. Nothing sprechstimme about his singing here. The entry of the gods into Valhalla is truly grand without being blatant or over-pumped.
'Die Walküre' starts off with a category 5 hurricane, very fast and brutal, riveting. Resnik and Vinay are exciting as Sieglinde and Siegmund. He is a little histrionic at first, very much in the Otello mould, but he settles down and becomes a very macho guy who has fallen in love and is willing to die for her. Rough tough and a heart of gold. Josef Greindl's Hunding sounds like a catch to me, but his fate says otherwise. His voice is dark, masculine and virile. Resnik is famous for her scream as Klytemnestra in Solti's unsurpassed recording of Strauss's Elektra, and here she shows her screaming talent as a soprano in Act 2 when Hunding kills Siegmund. It is cathartic and totally believable and also hair-raising because it is unexpected that a she should take such a risk with her voice. Best scream ever for any Sieglinde in my listening experience!
Act 3 begins with a fast Ride and a ginned up group of valkyries. Well, they usually are ginned up but these girls also take vocal risks not commonly encountered in this famous octet for women. Will we ever get over Birgit Nilsson? Doubtful. Poor Varnay and Mödl and everyone else who has sung Brünnhilde, and sung it well, are always compared to the great Swede, which I think is entirely unfair, and lazy criticism. Nilsson wasn't the perfect Wagnerian soprano. She could often be just too hard and monochromatic to listen to over a long period of time. Varnay is marvelous for Krauss, as she was for Knappertsbusch, Keilberth and Kempe. She cuts through the orchestra just as effectively as Nilsson but with a fuller rounded tone and much more feminine vulnerability than Nilsson could ever hope to muster, great as she was. Krauss' incandescent conducting surges through inexorably to Wotan's Abschied, delivered with consummate authority and emotional depth by Hans Hotter. He doesn't quite reach the devastating level he does with Keilberth in 1954, not part of the Testament Ring cycle but a stand alone Walküre, and the greatest of them all, but his mastery of the words and his depth of emotional connection to them far surpasses most other protagonists in this great role.
'Siegfried' is often the most successful opera in otherwise variable cycles. I think this has to do with the famous first act forging scene, the last act love duet, and most importantly, the magnificent Act 2. The only caveat about Act 2 is the unfortunate section where Siegfried attempts to fashion a bird call out of a 'reed', you know, the silly, almost embarrassing English Horn honking and squawking bit. It always falls flat and I think it is the one part of the entire cycle that the master might have benefited this opera by rethinking. Perhaps he was already hot to compose 'Tristan und Isolde' and his genius was not fully attentive to this opera at the time. Act 2 of Siegfried is perhaps the single greatest act of any of the Ring operas, but for that bit of vaudeville schtick with the stick. Quaint 19th century German humor I suppose, but it is the only music in Wagner's 10 major operas that sounds... well... stupid. Fortunately it is of very short duration.
Clemens Krauss is magnificent in his traversal of this opera. He has perhaps the greatest cast that will ever be recorded in it. I hope I am wrong but I'm over 60 and I know better than to expect anything better. At the beginning Wolfgang Windgassen's Siegfried is rhythmically all over the place but pulls himself together by the end of the act and turns in a classic performance of this monumentally difficult role. This problem in Act 1 is not unusual for other Siegfrieds either, in that they get ahead of the beat while wielding the mallets in the forging scene. Disaster is averted time and again in this recording by the cool professionalism of both Windgassen and Krauss.
I don't know why people complain about Paul Kuën's Mime. He has a beautiful voice and is far less caricatured than singers like Gerhard Stolze (Solti and Karajan) and Graham Clark (Haenchen and Barenboim). Then there is, again, the unquestioned mastery of Hans Hotter's Wanderer and Gustav Neidlinger's overwhelmingly dangerous and intelligent Alberich. Added to this is Josef Greindl's basso profundo Fafner and you have a 'Siegfried' that is hard to top. Rita Streich is also a fine Forest Bird, though she too gets a little ahead of the beat once but she and Krauss recover without a blink. She doesn't possess the nature element in this ariel character like the uncanny Catherine Gayer (Karajan) who specialized in contemporary opera, to her advantage in this unique role.
Maria von Ilosvay is a beautiful Erda. She is not stentorian like Jean Madeira (Solti, Knappertsbusch '56) but more seductive and a believable lover of Wotan's. Astrid Varnay is a great Brünnhilde. She doesn't have the relentlessly steely tones of Birgit Nilsson but in this opera that is an advantage. Her 'Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich' is sung like a Lied! Krauss and Varnay phrase this hackneyed tune like I'd never heard it before. In music school I had to conduct the Siegfried Idyll until I wanted to puke (pace Roseanne Roseannadanna). Often my eyes glaze over and my ears fog up when this bit begins, but with Varnay and Krauss I was all attention. Very movingly done, best I've heard. The final duet is often exciting, sometimes in hair-raising ways. Here it is an ecstatic experience. I cannot emphasize enough how gloriously Clemens Krauss GETS this music and conveys the emotional and even spiritual impact of it. The Love Duet in Siegfried is one of the most familiar bits in all of Wagner and can be a bore when the tenor is struggling along and the soprano is screaming and wobbling and singing flat. Varnay and Windgassen are IT, the joy of new love is vividly evoked. This is perhaps my favorite performance of this scene on record. Varnay actually sounds love-struck, where Nilsson sounds like an Amazon (pardon that Amazon) who has had a sexual awakening of alarming proportions whose tender expressions of love conjure up a psychopath's imitation of what she THINKS love is.
Krauss's Götterdämmerung approaches the awesome, in the truest meaning of that over-used and abused word. The Norns are fabulous. Maria von Ilosvay, Ira Malaniuk and Regina Resnik. They sound like the three weird sisters in Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Their voices have a similarity of timbre that is uncanny, and I can think of none better than these three great singers.
I won't detail the numerable subtle and canny details Krauss uncovers in this score.
The three sinister Gibichungs are marvelous in their dark machinations. Hermann Uhde's Gunther is like Macbeth. Weak histrionic and too vulnerable to live long in such a role in life. His sister, for once, is her mother's daughter. Remember, mom was Grimhilde, who took payment from Alberich to let him impregnate her and give birth to Hagen, who, by the way, is only supposed to be 25 years old in this opera, not an old evil man! John Tomlinson got this perfectly right in San Francisco in 1985. He was young, handsome, evil and intelligent. Josef Greindl is all those things here, at least aurally.
Other critics have groused about Natalie Hinsch-Grönhdahl's Gutrune. I LOVE HER! For once someone sings this role as I believe it was meant to be portrayed... Ortrud! So often this enigmatic role is given to sweet young things like Gundula Janowitz, Gré Brouwenstijn and Cheryl Studer, or superannuated dramatic sopranos and pumped up mezzos to dire effect. Hinsch-Gröndahl sounds like Hagen's half-sister. Stronger than her brother, Gunther, smarter too, and just as evil as Ortrud (Lohengrin), though with a true longing for Her Man. When she hears of Siegfried's death she yelps like a wounded badger half killed on the road. Her voice is steady and rings out on high yet with a solid middle and lower register, where much of this role lies. Mödl did this part well for Knappertsbusch in 1956 but Hinsch-Gröndahl sounds relatively young by comparison.
Ira Malaniuk's Waltraute is excellent. She isn't catastrophically decimating like Brigitte Fassbaender (Solti Bayreuth 1983, not YET available to the public), Christa Ludwig (Solti, Karajan) or Waltraud Meier (Sawallisch), but she's is a wonderful mezzo who is under-appreciated probably mostly because younger Wagnerians and many so-called professional critics have are not familiar with her name and dismiss her accordingly in their commentaries.
Act 3 of Götterdämmerung is the crowning glory of this magnificent cycle but I just about have run out of superlatives.
Varnay's Immolation took me close to heart attack territory. Had I kicked the bucket at the end of her performance I would have soared to the elysian fields without regret. It is beyond overwhelming, it is cosmic, magnificently sung, ecstatic, uninhibited and profound, and stays in the mind's ear for hours afterwards. Krauss's orchestral denouement is unequaled. Perfectly paced, grand without being excessively emotive.
Suffice it to say that Krauss, Windgassen, Varnay, Greindl and company will be hard to beat. The way things are going these days I doubt if this Ring will ever be topped. The only hope, conductor-wise, is Christian Thielemann. Sadly we are without singers of the calibre available to Krauss, Keilberth, Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler. I doubt if this Krauss Ring cycle will ever be threatened in its hegemony in this repertoire.Krauss's conducting seals this performance as one of the one or two finest around. The monophonic recording is truly amazing, far more involving than most stereo versions I've heard that are so diffused and spacial as to dilute the dramatic impact in favor of audiophile showing off.
You won't want this as your only Ring cycle recording but it is a must-have for listeners who have fallen under the Wagnerian spell. I think this Krauss Ring is far superior in sound and orchestral performance than either of Furtwängler's Italian efforts, the first from Milan famous for Kirsten Flagstad's only live complete Brünnhilde on record and the second from Rome with Martha Mödl's monumental performance, in much better sound than at La Scala but with a perfectly lousy orchestra in parts, though acceptable enough in most of the big moments; though the tuba solo at the opening of Act 2 of Siegfried is laughably bad.
Krauss had the great advantage of the Bayreuth orchestra and theater acoustic. I rate this Ring higher even than the much touted Keilberth set that appeared a few years ago on Testament, excellent though it is his cast falls well short of this one here.
I like the presentation box. A slimline booklet with the essential information about but odd in that it sports photographs of a smattering of the lead singers but not Astrid Varnay's! Must've been some sort of contractual prohibition or something.
The bane of the recording industry.
If I were brand new to collecting Rings I'd save this Krauss set as perhaps a Number 3 go-to set. Solti is probably a must-have if you take it in small doses. The Decca sound is so pumped-up as to be tiresome on the ear, and the Walküre has several superior competitors. I prefer Böhm's live account from Bayreuth in 1966 with James King in spectacular form as Siegmund, though there are weaknesses in that cast to be sure. I am also partial to Sawallisch on EMI, also a budget release with no libretto but with the finest cast that could be imagined at that time, 1989.
Interestingly it is assumed that Decca engineers were responsible for recordings at Bayreuth in the 1950s. If so this is ample evidence that perhaps they didn't need to add all the sonic bells and whistles in John Culshaw's stereo technicolor extravaganza for Solti a few years later. I suppose SACD would show up the deficiencies of this beautiful monaural sound, but on my good but not great equipment it is the most satisfying listening experience of all the recordings I own.
A thousand thanks and kudos to Opera d'Oro for releasing this amazing Ring cycle. If only they had popped for a libretto and a few written essays it would be the only Ring cycle one would need to see out a marvelous lifetime of Wagner opera listening.
If I were ordered at bayonet point (I am hold-fashioned) to pick just one and only one Ring cycle recording to grab as I ran from my burning house, this would be the one. Highest recommendation.