on 30 June 2014
This Ring gets 5 stars because if you simply buy the CDs (no mp3 download) and listen to it, you'll love it. If, on the other hand you are in the pocket of a large recording company (eg Decca, DG, RCA, Philips) you won't listen to it but will write a review explaining why, cheap as it might be, you really shouldn't buy it, particularly if you are new to the Ring. So what's wrong:
1. No libretto. Wow! Are you reading this review? Then just google Ring libretto and you have it free in any language you wish!
2. Some history. The recording was made in 1968 on the cheap with only 2 microphones. Oh dear. But I thought that with only 2 mikes, you get real stereo. Of course, if you want surround sound, you need many mikes and many speakers at home. But, pace Culshaw, the Solti Ring was recorded in stereo using many mikes to generate a surround-style atmosphere. And the result: the voices are buried in a way that they never are at Bayreuth. So this recording sounds as a recording made at Bayreuth in simple stereo sounds, as Wagner would have wished.
3. More silly history also mentioned in the booklet. The recording was apparently interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Prague, which we are told, sent members of the Czech orchestra racing home, their place being taken by the smoother horns of Bavaria. But the documentation says that the last recording session was on the 19th of August 1968, whereas the invasion was on the 20th of August 1968? Perhaps the orchestra members left while Lohengrin was being recorded?
4. The singing is criticized here and there, in particular the Siegmund and Siegfried, Gerald McKee. So let's be honest, shall we. The best tenors who have sung both father and son in complete or partial recordings and live are Lorenz, Melchior and Treptow and these only made any of their complete recordings in mono. The best of them in very acceptable sound is the Ring conducted by Moralt. The best individual opera is Die Walkure from the MET the day before Pearl Harbor in 1941 where Melchior is awesome. But in stereo recordings, there is no Siegfried clearly superior to McKee because the latter has power to burn and is very exciting. But he croons, we are told. If so, Windgassen croons as well, but in Act 2 of Siegfried, it's described as sweet singing! If you want to hear this music sung at its best, you must find the 1936 Bayreuth highlights disk where Lorenz shows how it should be done and noone since 1945 has begun to sing it.
As for the other singers, they are all very steady, have fine voices and act with their voices. The Brunhilde is as fine as any on record in stereo (without matching Fladstadt of course), he Wotan is fabulous as are Alberich (who bows only to Neidlinger), Mime and all the rest.
Swarosky conducts as if he is trying to convey Wagner's music without adding his own "genius" and the orchestra is fine, It is not as brilliant as the Vienna Philharmonic (jerked around as it is by Solti), but does as well as the rest.
So buy it for the ridiculous price and you'll never regret it. Then get the Moralt.
The genesis of this 1968 recording is bizarre-as is much of the music making contained therein!
It was commissioned in the wake of the of the white heat enthusiasm for the recently completed Solti Ring and the Karajan still in progress by Fabbri Brothers, famed for their glossy series of picture cards and "collectibles" magazines-you know the sort of thing-"The History of Sailing in 500 weekly parts including each week a new part to enable the building of a life size working replica of the Titanic in cardboard." It was intended to release the recordings an LP at a time in this format, though this plan was dropped for the UK and USA.
The budget was minimal and Fabbri commissioned a small German recording company-basically one man and two microphones (no multi-miking for this Ring)-to record the both the Ring and Lohengrin over a 4 week period using a scratch orchestra. 1968-a "Summer of Love"-was also the year of the Prague Spring and the venue of nearby Nuremburg enabled the engagement of members of the Czech Philharmonic and National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo), the nation's premier opera house in the prevailing climate of freedom. This backfired tragically of which more anon.
The conductor engaged was Hans Swarowsky, who like his contemporaries Herman Scherchen, Franco Ferrara and Renë Leibowitz was more renowned as a Professor of Conducting than as a performing artist. He was a staff member of the Wiener Staatsoper under Karajan, but his role was more of an assistant in preparation and coaching singers-he conducted few performances there.
His job in forging a credible orchestra for this project was made doubly difficult when midway through the project, the Russians invaded Prague and ended the new found freedoms overnight.
The borders initially closed but re-opened briefly after 4 days whereupon the majority of Czech musicians fled home to join their families and were unable to return.
Swarowsky was a regular conductor of the variously named Frankenland or Nurnberg Symphony Orchestra, and he was able to draft in members of that band as well as the Bamberg and Munich orchestras to make up the deficit.
The result is a changing orchestral palette from the rather raw-edged Czech sound to the more rounded mellow Bavarian sound, particularly noticeable in the brass. As the works were not recorded sequentially, but piecemeal arranged around the availability of the singers, the sound can change from phrase to phrase throughout the 4 works, and there is some amusement in playing "spot the difference!"
Credit must be given to Swarowsky for coping with this, but I'm afraid that the campaign to rediscover him as a neglected genius does not have legs, for his conducting is at best reliable, and is frequently rhythmically square and plodding. There are some moments when his rather pedestrian style pays unexpected dividends-the little scene between Alberich and Mime after Siegfried slays Fafner often emerges as unintelligible gabble, but here the rhythmically square slow tempo enables the music and text to be clearly heard and gives this passage a new significance.
Swarowsky makes few eccentric gestures however, and there is value in his clear exposition of the score. It is far from the whole story -but it will do.
The playing is remarkably good, if balanced somewhat strangely at times. The bass tuba-palpably Czech-frequently rasps above the whole orchestra-and there are passages when precision is a little less than desirable, and I've already referred to the sudden switch from Slavic to rounded Bavarian brass in an unpredictable manner-but again, it will do.
Vocally this Ring benefited from an abundance of first rate exponents of Wagner in the 1960s, with the perennial exception of Heldentenors, and there are some performances that rival the very best on record.
Rolf Kuhne and Herold Kraus were two of the successors to Neidlinger and Kuen at Bayreuth, and as Alberich and Mime they are nothing less than superb. Indeed Kraus gives a fully sung performance as an intelligent and dangerous Mime which could be my favourite, though this creates its own problems to which we will return. Fritz Uhl, famous as the Decca Tristan, here gives a characterful Loge, and Ursula Boese is as good as any Erda on disc. Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns are all very good.
Rolf Polke is a firm voiced genuine bass Wotan, who performed the role week in and week out in the major and minor houses in Germany and Austria, and if he is at times less than the most dramatic, his clear declamatory style and firm singing is most welcome. Ruth Hesse, early in her illustrious career is a hectoring and shrewish Fricka, firm and noble of voice and the Rheingold cast is generally fine.
The cast is almost entirely German, but Siegmund/Siegfried and Brunnhilde are "imported" so to speak. Gerald McKee is the American cast as both Siegmund and Siegfried, and his rather nasal but firm tenor is quite agreeable, and it is a relief in these times to hear a tenor actually sing the role and hit the high notes. However, they are frequently not the right high-or low-notes, his German is shall we say often rudimentary and there are whole passages where he has little or no sense of the drama.
He sounds tired from the outset in Walkure Act One, partnered by a mature and uningratiating Ditha Sommer as Sieglinde, and Swarowsky's leaden tempi do him no favours. The Wintersturme is comical as he negotiates his way through it, which is unfortunate.
Siegfried Act One finds him in better voice-but as the act unfolds Kraus sings so well that the thought cannot be banished that the roles might be better reversed!
McKee copes well enough with the Forging Song, accompanied by hammer blows that sound like an iron bedstead being struck by a galvanised chamber pot. He croons his way through the Forest Murmurs, actually lapsing into falsetto at one point-but this is pleasant enough and his Woodbird is fine. Otto von Rohr, a bass of the old school (Thank Heavens!) takes on the roles of Fafner, Hunding and Hagen with assuredness and rock solid steady tone. He roars (no pun intended) too much as Fafner in the fight scene which becomes irritating, but is a fine Hagen in the manner of a steady Ludwig Weber rather than a Frick or Griendl. (The Steer Horns are knockout by the way!)
The Vienna Chorus is unsurprisingly very fine, the Vassals entering from each side in best early stereo widescreen effect.
Nadezda Kniplova was an experienced Brunnhilde like her compatriot Ludmilla Dvorakova
and had sung the role for Karajan in his 1967 Salzburg Siegfried. She is very good indeed, with firm tones reminiscent-I kid you not-of Nilsson though she does snatch at some of her top notes, and those same notes are in danger of fading in a way that would not be the case with Nilsson.
She is better than many of the much lauded exponents of the role today, and has an understanding of the drama which few have bettered.
She too has problems with German-at times her singing is unintelligible. The beautiful passage in the Immolation "Ruhe, ruhe du Gott" sounds like gibberish-but it will do.
So what is the conclusion? I've enjoyed the whole experience, frequently for the wrong reasons, and at its paltry price it is a genuine bargain. There is little however that would compel me to return to it other than to hear Kraus's extraordinary Mime and those wonderful Steer Horns. None of the orchestral show pieces are outstanding, the conducting is competent but uninspiring and the overall verdict is that all things considered, it's surprisingly decent but far from a top recoomendation.
All ardent Wagnerians will want to -and should -hear it, and it would be a recommendation as an entry level Ring for novices were it not for the fact that the Bohm can be had in its new re-mastering for a little more outlay and it is in a different league.
Profil have done a superb job on the sound, classic stereo in the Mercury Living Presence mode using 2 microphones only, with the voices balanced favourably in a resonant acoustic but orchestral detail very clear. There are no libretti, and Gotterdammerung is translated strangely as "Dusk of the Gods"-not inaccurate but not usual. The original LP's released in the sexy 60s had raunchy covers in the USA- a pity they are not reproduced-and neither are the more staid European faux velvet versions, but at this price, no complaints.
It's much better than the Neuhold Baden-Baden Ring and Zagrosek Stuttgart version for all their digital sound, so it has a definite constituency and is a welcome arrival. As a bargain it merits 5 stars-in comparison to the likes of Solti, Karajan, and Bohm etc. it is 3 stars. Great fun though. Stewart Crowe.