|1. The Rhinegold|
|2. The Valkyrie|
|4. Twilight of the Gods|
Above everything else this is conductor Reginald Goodall's Ring; his knowledge and love of the music pervade every second. And then it's the singers' Ring: Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios, Norman Bailey and so many others, performing with a lyrical and dramatic intensity which they rarely equalled elsewhere. And though I come to him last, perhaps it should have been first: this is writer Andrew Porter's Ring: few who were there as it was unveiled stage-by-stage will forget how his newly-commissioned English translation brought the conflict to such vivid life.
Of course, there are minor quibbles: some tempi are too slow and the pace falters; those who dislike such things should know that there are various stage (and occasionally off-stage) noises, thumps and bumps. An audience member who should have been taken out and shot blows his or her nose during one of the very quietest orchestral passages. But if you're in tune with the atmosphere, the excitement, the sheer sense of a great project triumphantly brought off - then it doesn't matter. None of it matters. This set is vibrant and alive from beginning to end; you can practically smell it.
In sum: a splendid, vivid, invaluable experience of a revelatory production that has never been equalled. I thought I knew The Ring - and then I heard these performances. If you were there, you'll want these CDs. If you weren't there, buy them anyway, listen and marvel - and then wish devoutly that you had been.
The second thing to say is, of course, that it is in English (though sung with a Welsh lilt by some of the cast througout). And although Andrew Porter's is by far the finest singing translation (the Barry Spencer version is probably slightly better for reading along with German performances), it inevitably misses some of the intended Wagnerian performance ethos. Inherently, there is no doubt that German sounds both more menacing and more metaphysical than English. Take the simple example of a crucial word like Schwert, and it's English equivalent, sword. Whereas the latter will well equip Sir Galahad in a tale of courtly love, the former alone sounds fit to eviscerate a fire-breathing dragon or shatter Wotan's world-ruling spear. Likewise Spitze, or as Andrew Porter has it: 'spear-point'. When the vengeful Brunnhilde swears her oath in Act II of Twilight of the Gods, her pledge of 'Spitze!' at the betrayal she feels from Siegfried at that moment, sounds immeasurably more venomous. The translation just doesn't sound as bitter. And there are numerous other examples that could be given. Most of all it is a question of music. Quite simply, the English words can't help sounding musically different even though the note qualities are the same.
And yet, despite such genuine reservations, the more one immerses oneself in these performances, it is remarkable how seldom even the differences mentioned above seem to matter. And the principal reason for this is the conducting of Reginald Goodall. This brings me to the third point about this Ring. It is MUCH slower than other cycles. Even Knappertsbusch seems to race by in comparison. The Rheingold is spread over three discs; Twilight takes five. But what treasures this leisurely approach yields. I have seldom heard the Rheinmaidens' lament, Siegfried' Rhein Journey, the Dawn Music and the Funeral March sound quite so momentous. Similarly, the scene of Wotan's frustration in The Valkyrie and Waltraute's visit in Twilight take on even more ominous connotations that usual. And the sheer beauty of delineation throughout Siegfried is remarkable. Many details and nuances that I had scarcely noticed previously come to the fore. Indeed, so different is it to other recordings that it can feel almost like listening to Wagner's Ring for the first time. It does not just, as the Gramophone Guide suggests, sound like a different work from the Solti version, it also sounds a different work entirely from Furtwangler or Knappertsbusch (both idolised by Goodall). And the net effect of Goodall's approach is to create a seamless, genuinely circular Ring in which the whole can be experienced in the consituent parts. (That's not to suggest that the four operas are indistinct - Twilight in particular is quite remarkable.)
Of course even such conducting insights would be to some extent wasted if the singing was not up to scratch. More than almost any operatic work, The Ring demands astonishing feats of the singers. And, bearing in mind the above mentioned reservations about Wagner in English, and the expansive tempi of Goodall, the cast are all the more under scrutiny in this version. Happily, they are uniformly up to the task. Indeed, Alberto Remedios as Siegfried and Siegmund, Rita Hunter as Brunnhilde, and Norman Bailey as Wotan are amongst the finest exponents of these roles ever recorded. Also fine are Derek Hammond-Stroud as Alberich and Katherine Pring as Fricka and Waltraute. And Auge Haugland as Hagen, whilst sounding undeniably Scandanavian, has a quite remarkable voice, (to my ears almost reminiscent of classic pre-war voices like Schorr). The orchestral playing is also superb throughout.
However, I think it is only fair to point out here that this Ring is utterly unique. I would be loath to recommend it to the first time buyer. They may love it, and consequently find virtually all other Wagner recordings disappointing; conversely, it may put them off Wagner for life, and stop them even looking at these other recordings. Because, despite what may have been written by other Wagner enthusiasts about its similarity to Furtwangler/Knappertsbusch etc, the sound really is quite different. It is not merely a case of tempo. There is none of the 'heavy' Wagner sound that one associates with these two legendary Wagnerians, or even with conductors as different as Keilberth or Solti. But whilst it may lack some of the dramatic storminess of Furtwangler or Knappertsbusch, it moves along with a glacial cosmic certainty that even those great Wagnerian masters can't match. Perhaps controversially, I actually think it has more of an organic similarity to the so-called 'chamber music' set of Karajan. By which I mean that it is astonishingly mellifluous, incredibly 'quiet' and remarkably detailed. As with that recording, restraint is the key characteristic. There is no 'Sturm und Drang' here. But despite its brilliance, regardless of the fact that it is sung in translation, I cannot give five stars to a Ring cycle quite so idiosyncratic.
A final note about this set: it is quite beautifully produced. Some Ring cycles are scarcely better packaged than fast food; but this one is, like Goodall's majestic achievement, built to last. The notes are interesting, the photographs evocative, and the slip box as sturdy and reliable as Grane. The set may not be budget price but, unlike some other more costly sets, you get every penny's worth.
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