Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ring Recordings, Part I: Overview

Over at SFCV, there's a roundup of favorite Ring recordings, curated by Janos Gereben, with contributions by the high and mighty (David Gockley, Martin Bernheimer, David Littlejohn) and the less-than-high-and-mighty, including me. Why on earth this ran in June, a week or so before the opening of Cycle 1, I do not understand. I would have published it in May, so people would have a chance to buy and listen for more than ten minutes..

Understandable space limitations mean contributors can't natter on; instead, they have to make a complex case rather concisely. Herein I get chatty about the Ring recordings I know, because there are tradeoffs of one kind or another with most sets. Surprise - none are perfect, and if you're only going to buy one or two of these sets, you need to figure out what is important to you.

I consider Wagner recordings along several dimensions:  the conducting, the singing, the sound quality, orchestral quality, and the completeness. For example, when you're looking at recordings of Tristan und Isolde, a surprising number of the available performances take the "big cut," also called the "Metropolitan cut," in Act II. Thus, to my knowledge, there's no recording of Melchior or Traubel or Leider singing the "Tag und Nacht" section. To hear Flagstad in that music, you have to turn to Furtwangler's 1952 studio recording, which finds her past her prime.

With Ring sets, completeness isn't much of an issue; the studio sets and all of the Bayreuth live sets are complete, as far as I know. The incomplete Ring sets I know of that are worth hearing are Bodanzky's Met Ring of the 1930s - which is heavily cut - and the HMV "Potted" Ring, which was never intended to be complete. Bodanzky was a fiery Wagnerian and worth hearing, despite crazy cuts that, for example, shorten Goetterdaemmerung to three CDs. You need that particular recording because it's the only live Melchior Gotterdaemmerung around.

The "Potted" Ring was recorded between 1927 and 1932, using three conductors, two orchestras, two locations, and a plethora of singers - some of who disappear and reappear in the same act. The sound is good electric-era mono and some of the singing is spectacular. The performers include Frida Leider, Lauritz Melchior, Florence Austral, Walter Widdop, Gota Ljungberg, Friedrich Schorr, and many other good and great singers of the day. I note that John Culshaw spends a page or two disparging this set in Ring Resounding, as part of the reasoning about why he needed to make the Solti Ring. He shouldn't have.

Next, we've got the general issues of sound and orchestral quality. Every set since Solti's is in stereo. Of the great 1950s live Rings, and there are around a half-dozen, only the Keilberth is in stereo. For a first recording, you probably want stereo, to get the full depth of detail and perspective.

Me, I am not so sensitive to sound issues. I listen to the Mapleson cylinders and Julius Block cylinders for fun. Good 50s mono is fine for me, and some of the Bayreuth sets sound great even in mono. Your ears may vary.

The orchestral playing on the available Ring sets varies tremendously. At the top of the scale, you've got the mighty Vienna Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and sundry other elite orchestras; in the middle, the excellent orchestras on the live Bayreuth sets. At the bottom, there's the unidiomatic playing of the Scala and RAI orchestra and the scrawny Sadler's Wells orchestra of the 1970s. These latter three are paired with excellent casts and tremendous conducting and deserve to be heard.

Ah, yes, the conductors. You will hear a vast range of conductorial approaches to the Ring, from the classic wall-of-sound to the transparent chamber approach; the swift to the weighty to the eccentrically slow. The great conductors all bring something special to their Wagner, and it's worth opening your ears to them all.

The problem boils down to this: if you're only buying one or two Ring recordings, you'll have to figure out your priorities. If you're not counting, then do what I do, and get your hands on every recording that you can. Wagner performances vary more in terms of approach than those of most other composers; the music can accommodate them all.

That said, my personal take follows on some of the sets discussed in the SFCV article. I'll discuss a bunch of sets, and barely discuss the the important sets that I don't own and haven't heard in full, those by Herbert von Karajan, Clemens Krauss, and James Levine.


The Wistful Pelleastrian said...

"Bodanzky was a fiery Wagnerian and worth hearing, despite crazy cuts that, for example, shorten Goetterdaemmerung to three CDs"


That is an abomination.

How can any person even contemplate making cuts to Gotterdammerung, one of the most continuously riveting of all operas.

Anyway, I like all of my Wagner to be on the very slow side; the quality of the singers and orchestra are secondary. In 1973 Reginald Goodall made a Siegfried recording that lasts over 4 and a half hours... What ruins the whole thing of course is that it was sung in freakin English!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Too bad you feel that way about opera in English. I'd say the biggest problem with the ENO is the scrawny orchestra.

As for Bodanzky, shrug. Most Wagner performances were cut in 1930s. And Bodanzky's been dead for 70 years.

Henry Holland said...

In 1973 Reginald Goodall made a Siegfried recording that lasts over 4 and a half hours...

Well, speaking of abominations....

What horrible conducting on those Goodall sets, he was a rank incompetent of the kind only England abides (see La Cieca's "fucking Brits" tag). It's like the Bernstein Tristan prelude on the complete set, the music is so slow in parts that it almost disintegrates.

Plus, considering that Siegfried might be the dumbest character in all of opera next to the Rigoletto Gilda, anything that gets a knife in the back of that blockhead Siegfried sooner is fine by me. Go Hagen!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Patrick will be along any second to tell you that the right way to play Siegfried is as a youthful trickster god, although I suppose we already have one of those in the Ring, with Loge.

As to Goodall, well, he's eccentric and controversial. I happen to love that set. Yeah, it takes a lot of patience to listen to, but the last time I heard it, I found it immensely powerful. He does not lose the sense of overall structure and forward momentum, even at those crazy speeds.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I would also disagree that Gilda is dumb.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'd like to hear more about that. i have her pegged as the dumbest character in opera.

Anonymous said...

"the right way to play Siegfried is as a youthful trickster god"

Lose the "trickster god," keep the "youthful." I've seen it well argued that the simple explanation for Siegfried is that he's 17. It makes sense to me. This is unfortunately disguised by the fact that he's usually played by men who are 37 or 47.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

@calimac: Sure, but you (well, obviously not *you*) could argue that "trickster god" is implicit in being a certain type of 17-year-old -- subversive, playful, overturning and mocking convention.

About Gilda: Like Miranda in The Tempest, she's been raised mostly in isolation and protected from "the world" but she is remarkably clear-sighted about what has happened to her and how she'll react. She is not a victim but knowingly sacrifices herself for her lover (and I'd need to refresh myself on the libretto for this, but I think she also recognizes by then that he does not love as profoundly as she does, and so is in a way unworthy of her): in other words, she (like Butterfly) deliberately chooses the shape of her life. Not only that, but she is unconventional enough to claim as she dies, blasphemously, and despite her suicide and sex outside of sacramental marriage, that she's going straight to Heaven (I think that had more of a charge in 19th-century Catholic Italy than it does today). I think she shows considerable free-thinking originality (no doubt partly due to her isolation growing up) and courage in taking the path she takes. That she does so for a philanderer might make her seem ridiculous to some, but to me it makes her situation tragic and ironic -- and, in its grandeur and its refusal to live a life unworthy of her love, it shows an excess of sublime emotion that seems ultimately operatic.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm going to have to haul out the librettos for Butterfly and Rigoletto to adequately respond, which I will likely do in a separate posting and not for a bit - I have other librettos to read this week.