This is a cracking performance of Gotterdammerung, arguably the very best available on disc. Knappertsbusch could be a frustrating conductor - on a good day, when he was in the mood, he could be the very best: catch him on an off day and he could be disengaged, uninspired and uninspiring. This was a very good day on the Green Hill. In fact, it seems to have been a very good festival for him as this is the same year as his classic Parsifal. Perhaps it was the adrenalin of the first reopening festival after the war.
The cumulative power of this performance is immense from an intensely dark and brooding Norn Scene (with Modl, no less, as a thrilling Third Norn) right through to a towering Immolation with Varnay singing and acting her socks off. As usual, Kna's tempi tend to be slow but, on a good day like this, there is always a sense of purpose, of going somewhere in particular, of holding the long-term structure constantly in view. Take the great arch of Act 2 as an example. Knappertsbusch sees it as a single paragraph from the dark dreamworld of the Alberich/Hagen scene through the raw power of the Summoning of the Vassals, the choral splendours of the arrival of Gunther and Brunnhilde to the keystone of the arch, a white-hot oath-swearing and then down again through a grim and louring vengeance trio to the hollow glamour of the finale. This is Wagner conducting of a very high order.
The cast were obviously inspired to give of their best and then some by Kna's conducting and Wieland Wagner's direction. One always admires Varnay for her commitment and emotional intensity, but I sometimes feel I'm making allowances for the voice compared to a Leider, a Flagstad or a Nilsson. Not here. This Brunnhilde is magnificently and beautifully sung. Listen to her in the Dawn Duet for some ravishing notes, daringly and thrillingly taken. This is among the greatest performances of the Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde I know. Hermann Uhde simply is the greatest performance of Gunther I know. As an amazingly complex study of vanity mixed with insecurity, honour with corruption, even a touch of heroism brought down to moral collapse, this is peerless. And Modl, who doubles Gutrune with her Third Norn, makes so much more of his troubled sister than the usual dizzy blonde. The Gibichungs here are a formidable pair. Elisabeth Hongen is a veritable Valkyrie as Waltraute, telling her tale with passion, defending her case with resilience and singing alongside Varnay, both with glorious tone. Weber, superb as Gurnemanz in the same season's Parsifal, is perhaps a touch nice of voice for Hagen compared with the black toned villainy of a Frick or, from an earlier generation, an Andresen or a List. But he had long experience of the part and sings it rather than barking and uses the words to great effect.
Which brings me to the one weak link in the cast, Bernd Aldenhoff. He can certainly sing beautifully - but only below top G and below forte. When he drinks the potion in Act 1, for example, he uses a beautifully coloured bit of mezza voce. So too in large parts of the Narration and the Death. But once he opens up, as in the Dawn Duet or the Act 2 oath-taking, the voice comes under strain and takes on an unpleasant rough edge.
Despite that, this is a shattering performance. It's a tragedy that contractual hang-ups kept it in the archives for half a century. Now it is available, I would urge any lover of Wagner performance to snap it up. The sound is what you would expect from 1951 - a little edgy and strident in the brass, a bit thin in the violins - but good for its time. Yes the prompter is there - though not as intrusive as on Bohm's Bayreuth set - but he really doesn't detract from this thrilling performance.