I have been reviewing Ring cycles this summer. There are many recordings in my house that I haven't heard for years in some cases and thought it was time for a reassessment. This Rheingold from Decca with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra was supposed to be part of a complete cycle, but something went wrong. Lots of excuses were bandied about but the fact is it was probably no great loss to the Wagner discography that it was axed after this recording, Die Walküre was released two years previous to this set.
Dohnanyi had a certain cloud of blandness that followed him wherever he went. The 'experts' in the review community compared him to the greats of the past, which is always a stupid thing to do when reviewing. Music is a flexible art and capable of being expressed in a myriad of ways. Wagner's operas are especially ripe and full of options in interpretation. The trouble with this Rheingold is that it is really not much of anything very memorable.
The Cleveland Orchestra plays technically brilliantly, but without exhibiting any trace of this music being in their blood.
Like most American Orchestras it lacks what can only be described as 'soul'. The close up engineering emphasizes the lack of passion in their playing. Hence, it is all a rather dull event.
Dohnanyi's leadership is efficient, quick and lucid, but reveals nothing new in the score. His cast is good without being exceptional. There are some strong performances from Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Fasolt) and Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich). Robert Hale's voice had loosened noticeably since his great recording of Wotan for Sawallisch 4 years earlier in Munich, a must-have cycle! Hale is still formidable but, as recorded, does not sound nearly half as involved as he was live on stage in 1989. Every Wagnerian should have one of Hale's Wotans in their collection, he was one of the greats, but this Dohnanyi recording cannot be recommended for that.
The opening music depicting the Rhine sounds more like a raging trout stream in the mountains than a grandly flowing river. The Rhinemaidens sound more like Valkyries than ephemeral water nixies, with an rather squally Woglinde. Hanna Schwarz first recorded Fricka almost 20 years earlier for Boulez in the famous Chéreau production at Bayreuth in the 1970s. Schwarz is an amazing singer who has lasted a very long time. She is still singing in Europe and made a number of splendid recordings in her career. Here she uses a few more straight tones than of old but she still sounds young and sexy. The Erda scene can be a show-stopper with the right singer and the right conductor and the appropriate acoustic. Three strikes and your out. Elena Zaremba's Erda just made me want the scene to be over.
She doesn't exactly wobble but she bellows and emotes excessively. There is absolutely NOTHING mysterious or seductive about her singing.
Kim Begley is a run-of-the-mill Loge, though he is far preferable to the shouting, wheedling almost sprechstimme Loge of Gerhard Stolze (Karajan) and Graham Clark (Barenboim). And why do all these gentlemen have to shout 'Durch Raub! when Wotan asks exactly how he plans to steel the gold from Alberich. Set Svanholm set the standard for Loge for Solti way back in 1959. He has never been bettered or indeed equaled in his eerily indifferent, yet strongly voiced portrayal of this demigod.
Which brings me to the entrance to Nibelheim and those anvils. In this recording they certainly sound industrial, it is Cleveland after all, but by the end of the little segment it sounds more like a bunch of angry cooks banging on the pots and pans. No pass. The sound effects continue to be ridiculous with Alberich's whipping noises which sound more like an amplified cap gun. Very loud and cruel sounding but not realistic at all. Decca's engineering veered towards the Disney-esque in this set. Very studio bound. Severance Hall has always been a notoriously difficult venue to record in. After renovation things got better but this still sounds like a concert performance with electronic effects added on.
The screaming Nibelungens, always a problem, are absolutely horrible in this recording. It sounds like an electronically simulated high-pitched maelstrom, like the sound of hurricane pitched up 20 levels with the volume knobs going up and up in the control room. Awful!
The closing scene begins with Donner's call to the clouds, beautifully done by Eike Wilm Schulte. I found myself thinking he might have made a very fine Wotan, so would Jan-Hendrik Rootering! Unfortunately the sound effects department made a mockery of Donner's hammer blow and ensuing 'thunder', making those famous noises sound more like a large empty stew pot falling from a high shelf onto a cement floor with the concomitant clatter of lids and sauce ladles. Ridiculous. Really, Decca did pretty half-a**ed job with this recording, even though the overall sound is clear and immediate. Too immediate as it turns out.
It was during Wotan's greeting to Valhalla that I realized what was fundamentally wrong with this recording. Dohnanyi. He doesn't ever achieve any sense of forward momentum. Wotan's great words are static. So much of this music in this maestro's hands is a series of moments that don't link up to one another. They are often beautiful but they are not alive.
The magnificent Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla goes for nothing. It's very proper, perfectly executed by the Cleveland Orchestra, but totally lacking in ecstatic joy. It just sounds technically perfect and, again, soulless.
I kept thinking that these performers were not enjoying these recording sessions at all. A very professional workmanlike job overall.
When this recording first appeared I was so delighted that someone was bothering to record the Ring again following Barenboim's misfire at Bayreuth in the '80s. Since doing this recent reassessment with other very great cycles I'm afraid Dohnanyi's Rheingold is a write-off.
Not recommended unless you are a Wagner opera recording completist (I used to be until I realized I wasn't the public library and that I had to move all these recordings every now and then!). I'm not so sure it is even such a great thing to have the Cleveland Orchestra on record in this or any other opera. It's just not their territory and it shows.
And Dohnanyi is not one of nature's Wagnerians. I like him very much in other operas, but not this one.