The year 2013 being an anniversary year of the births of both Wagner and Verdi, the former composer is receiving a great deal of activity in terms of new releases and reissues, a process started in 2012 with the Pentatone Janowski series and the beautiful Solti presentation set and continuing with the glamorous reissue of the Janowski Dresden set remastered by Sony , the completion of the new Janowski series with the release of a new Ring, and a Gergiev Ring cycle under way to be completed in 2014. The Ring is the bedrock of any Wagner collection, and I propose to tackle this review primarily as my advice to a reader looking to buy their first or only cycle-and at the asking price this set is a candidate! There can be no doubting the prodigious musical talents of Barenboim, but he does not always convince me as a conductor, and I don't care for more of his recordings than I admire-but then the same applies to Solti, and I LOVE his Ring recordings! At its best, Barenboim's Wagner is superb as his Parsifal demonstrates, as does his Tristan to a lesser extent, and for much of this Ring he conducts with sensible tempi, excellent dramatic flow and balances the forces well-but on too many occasions he suddenly changes temp mid-bar, slows down for no apparent reason, whips the tempo up again.. and then continues sensibly! Some big moments-Siegfried's Funeral March for example, lack impact and are suddenly rushed through and this irritates me in particular-it's a trait he displays in his later Wagner recordings too-but overall it is a fine achievement and infinitely preferable to the perfunctory conducting of Janowski for example.
Technically this is the best recorded Ring of all, though that may well change when the SACD versions of forthcoming cycles appear. It is in a sense a hybrid recording, recorded on stage in Bayreuth during the 1991 Festival, not at live performances with an audience but during the filming of the cycle for initially Video then DVD release. By necessity each work is recorded in a single day during the annual festival, but this does allow for retakes and patching to a small extent. Thus we lose some of the drawbacks of live recording at Bayreuth-NO PROMPTER, no audience noise, no chattering stage crew, but we also get little of the frisson of the live performance. We DO get the stage noise-props, scenery and clumping feet and the shifting aural perspective particularly as singers move back into the deep recesses of the huge stage. The orchestral sound is dazzling-Barenboim achieves the best playing we've ever heard from the Festival-but the immediacy of the sound in no way represents a true Bayreuth experience. It is as if we are in the pit alongside Barenboim, with orchestral presence so tangible that one feels one could reach out and touch the musicians. I cite the Prelude to Act 2 of Siegfried as an example to be savoured. The voices are in an entirely different acoustic, with the acquisition of a gentle resonance not characteristic of this theatre. I think of this Ring as a Studio Recording with live effects, and so the tinkering with the sound picture does not bother me when the results are so spectacularly good- but purists be warned.
Casting and performances are as ever an issue, and obviously there is a high degree of personal preference involved. All hope of a cast to rival those of the 50's and 60's has long since been abandoned with regard to Bayreuth, and the best we CAN hope for today is that it's not too bad-but this cast fares better than that. It is so often the minor roles that disappoint-Bodo Brinkmann who sings both Donner and Gunther starts each phrase wonderfully and ends them with a pronounced wobble and is totally unable to sustain a legato, Linda Finnie ,an artist I admire but who is here a prosaic Fricka, the Woodbird is wobbly and unfocussed (this is criminal but commonplace!), Paul Kang has a fine Bass voice but his Fafner and worse his Hagen are totally devoid of expression, as if he is singing the text phonetically and has no clue as to what it means, and I`ve heard more mellifluous Norns and Rhinemaidens and better Valkyries-but none of this is terrible and in terms of modern expectations is pretty good-sadly.
Part of the problem is that any singer who is half decent in Wagner gets booked by every house world wide, so bookings have to be made years in advance and do not take into account the singer's vocal state at the performance date-and Bayreuth operates a "buggins' turn" system whereby loyal servants are eventually awarded plum roles regardless of talent.
In this cycle the main roles, with a few exceptions are good to very good.
Nadine Secunde is a squally and unfocussed Sieglinde partnered by a pretty decent if not brilliant Elming who has dry top notes and who palpably tires. Von Kannen is an excellent Alberich, a darker more cunning Nibelung, not in any way a comic turn gone bad and Grahame Clarke is a tour de force as Mime and Loge-simply superb. John Tomlinson divides opinion as Wotan-he is a full Bass, and struggles at times with the higher register. He barely squeaks through parts of Walkure, though he gives a fine Farewell and he rises well to the occasion in the climax of Rheingold, as does Barenboim it must be said.
He interprets well, and while he is not my ideal in this role, he ticks many of the boxes. He is a SUPERB Wanderer! Though he struggles with the legato at the top of the stave, his dramatic projection is excellent and he has the perfect timbre for the role, and in terms of the wobble he is no worse than Hotter. Svenden is a vibrant Erda, Waltraud Meier a luxury casting as Waltraute and other minor roles fare well. This leaves Siegfried and Brunnhilde, and I will not hesitate in stating that I have total admiration for both artists cast.
There is a"sniffiness" about Jerusalem in some quarters-"he's not a true Heldentenor, he's not Melchior blan blah"... What he IS, is a superbly dramatic, firm and steady voiced Siegfried who tires only marginally and sustains a firm and beautiful legato throughout. He was the Siegfried of his generation and ranks alongside Windgassen, possibly even surpassing him.
When this production premiered, Deborah Polaski was the Brunnhlde but she encountered difficultes and broke down in the first cycle, leading to accusations that Barenboim had miscast her and had effectively ruined her career. She did of course recover and still sings Brunnhilde today in her 60's.
She was replaced as a stopgap by Britain's own Anne Evans, whose smaller more lyrical voice is not ideal for this role-or so one might think until she starts singing.
She was triumph in the second cycle and retained the part throughout to tremendous acclaim, and her tireless, beautifully enunciated and utterly steady singing is both a joy-and relief. Of course, this is not the blazing tones of Nilsson's warrior goddess, but a far more human and humane reading, not lacking in drama. Evans uses her technique to superb effect-the finale of Siegfried is arguably the finest of the stereo era, the opening duet in Gotterdammerung is utterly thrilling, and the Immolation a triumph, though Barenboim makes some strange tempo choices!
When the set was released, the late Alan Blyth , a critic to respect, took the opportunity to name his ideal recorded Ring-he chose Solti for Rheingold, Furtwangler/VPO for Walkure, the Barenboim for Siegfried and Levine for Gotterdammerung-oh and Bohm for a complete Ring under one conductor.
I agree with his choices for Rheingold and Siegfried, though I would choose Leinsdorf for Walkure and back to Solti for Gotterdammerung, but for the set under review to get a first choice for any of its elements is no mean feat.
In sum, Rheingold is very fine, Walkure is a disappointment but not a disaster, Siegfried is superb and Gotterdammerung is very good, but has some let downs in performance. By today's standards this is grounds for 10 stars!
If you are looking for a Ring under £50 in cost, the first choice must still be Bohm, for many a first choice at ANY price-but if you want the extra brilliance of the digital recorded sound and thrilling engineered balance, this Ring becomes a real option. It's one I return to, and I've pretty well got them all (I think!). There are just too many below par performances for it be 5 stars, but it gets a worthy 4 not least for cost. Recommended. Stewart Crowe.