LABELS: Music & Arts
WORKS: Der Ring des Nibelungen
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Windgassen, Astrid Varnay, Hans Hotter, Gustav Neidlinger; Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
CATALOGUE NO: CD-1009 ADD mono
He looked like a granite statue come to life; he was brusque, witty and notoriously reluctant to rehearse; he fell from favour with the Nazis but wielded his baton in Nazi-occupied territories, and he was certainly among the greatest Wagnerian conductors of the last hundred years. But you had to catch him on a good night. Hans Knappertsbusch – or ‘Kna’ as he was affectionately known by many – had an unjustified reputation for slow tempi and slovenly ensemble, but listen to his ‘Immolation Scene’ with Astrid Varnay (Bayreuth, 1956) and you hear Brünnhilde’s apotheosis unfold with an unsurpassed sense of inevitability.
It is the crowning glory of a valuable Bayreuth Ring cycle that Music & Arts has issued in astonishingly good mono sound, but that poses the inevitable problem: which Knappertsbusch Ring to buy? Here, I’m afraid, I need temporarily to don my collector’s anorak. There are three complete Kna Rings (1956-8, all from Bayreuth), plus two Götterdämmerungs (from Munich on Orfeo, and from Bayreuth 1951 – forthcoming from Testament), a host of fragments from the wartime Vienna State Opera (Koch) and various studio-recorded excerpts (Decca, EMI, etc).
All are – or will be – worth hearing, though not necessarily worth owning. This present production peaks with an exceptional Das Rheingold, and includes a magisterial ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ from Hans Hotter and a fearsome Summoning of the Vassals with Josef Greindl as Hagen. Tempi are, at best, judicious, and at worst wilful, though nothing Knappertsbusch does is beyond musical reason. One major stumbling block is Die Walküre’s rhapsodic Act I, where Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegmund and Kna’s baton are consistently out-of-sync. There, the 1958 Ring (with Jon Vickers, on Arkadia) scores higher marks; but in all other respects, this Music & Arts set is the one to go for. It is an essential supplement to the Rings of Furtwängler (La Scala), Clemens Krauss (Bayreuth) and Solti (Vienna).
Choosing a Kna Meistersinger is even more problematic in that Decca’s Vienna Philharmonic recording is now out at mid-price, Orfeo’s 1955 Bavarian State Opera live relay is newly imported by Classical Passions and there’s a 1952 Bayreuth performance (with Edelmann as Sachs) crossing the Pond from Music & Arts. Furthermore, in the case of the Orfeo set, there’s the complication of comparing Ferdinand Frantz’s lovably human Sachs for Kna with his more formal – though no less musical – studio reading under Rudolf Kempe (Berlin Philharmonic, EMI). Generally speaking, Kempe’s is the most consistently well-drilled option (the close of Act II is especially impressive); Kna’s Decca recording (with Paul Schöffler a noble Sachs) is more cautiously drawn, but the Orfeo production has a spontaneity, inner vitality and affable gait that spell joy in virtually every bar. Nothing drags; there are no longueurs, and Frantz’s cast companions include a superb Eva in Lisa della Casa and Gottlob Frick’s memorable Pogner. I doubt that the 1952 version will sound better, though Edelmann’s Sachs will prove an irresistible draw for some.
Complicated? A less costly roster of comparisons fits neatly among the four CDs of Richard Wagner on Record, Preiser’s latest contribution to the ever-growing stock-pile of Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’. This particular miscellany features 88 worthy Wagnerian singers in an assortment of roles, with recordings dating from between the turn of the century and the early postwar period. Some names meant absolutely nothing to me, and Preiser’s lack of detailed annotation means that I’m still none the wiser – save that Gertrud Bindernagel was evidently a fine Isolde, and Gertrude Kappel an estimable Brünnhilde. Most, however, are far better known, the transfers are very good and there are some rarities – including a previously unissued Götterdämmerung sequence with Nanny Larsén-Todsen and Erik Enderlein under Leo Blech.
All project their own very individual personalities, and they all sound as if they mean every note they sing – which is why listening to old vocal recordings is invariably such an enlightening experience. No one matched heart and voice more effectively than John McCormack, especially in art songs and Irish ballads. McCormack’s horn-recorded HMV and Victor 78s mix variously successful operatic arias with touching lighter fare, some with Fritz Kreisler on violin. Personal favourites include Braga’s ‘Angel’s Serenade’ and the politically loaded ‘The Wearing of the Green’. The voice itself suggests poetic sensibilities, sincere emotion and youthful masculinity in more-or-less constant accord, whereas the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling projected a virile, trumpeting tenor that could soften to the loveliest mezza voce.
EMI’s splendid Jussi Björling Edition culls many rarities, most of them Swedish, and scatters them among the famous and well-loved, all in superlative Andrew Walter transfers. If you’re hesitant about hearing Verdi in Swedish, fear not: Björling’s singing could make virtually any language sound universal.
Tito Schipa’s lyric tenor is perhaps more of an acquired taste and Preiser’s transfers sound less impressive than EMI’s for Björling, what with bass-heavy accompaniments and thin-toned reportage of the solo voice. However, the phrasing is so eloquent, the characterisation so utterly convincing (whether Ernesto, the Duke, Werther or Almaviva), that sonic inadequacies soon cease to register.