ALBUM TITLE: Wagner
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter, Paul Kuen, Astrid Varnay; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 4 1392
Decca recorded Wagner’s Ring live (in stereo) at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival, but then opted not to release that cycle in favour of producing the now-famous 1958-65 studio recording made in Vienna, conducted by Georg Solti, and masterminded by John Culshaw. Now, thanks to Testament’s excavations, we learn that this decision came at a significant price. The 1955 Siegfried sounds perpetually alive and committed in a way that often eludes the studio recording’s more considered and calculated dramatic realisation. Conductor Joseph Keilberth fashions a performance that – at least when heard in such rich, full sound – weds urgency to weighty import, and frequently finds specific, illuminating character. Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried often sounds brasher and more daring than he did seven years later, the powerful authority of Hans Hotter’s Wanderer is vocally fresher, and Astrid Varnay’s confidently gradated Brünnhilde – even if prone to scooping – is at least the equal of Birgit Nilsson’s gleaming but more ungainly singing for Solti. Maria von Ilosvay’s enigmatic Erda, Josef Greindl’s uncommonly conversational (rather than merely menacing) Fafner, Ilse Hollweg’s voice-of-nature Woodbird, and Gustav Neidlinger’s rich-voiced, malevolent Alberich provide additional assets.
The drawbacks of live recording are also apparent – ensemble sometimes goes awry (especially when Windgassen is singing), and orchestral playing is not as polished or well-tuned it might be under studio conditions. Bayreuth broadcasts from earlier years show Paul Kuen to have had a definite and broadly conceived characterisation of Mime that turns one-dimensional and dramatically unhelpful this time – for all his idiosyncrasies, Gerhard Stolze turns in a more trenchant performance for Solti. In the end, Kuen’s Mime, Keilberth’s less than Dionysian approach to climaxes and large-scale structure, and some sonic distortion (especially in Act III) keep this recording from being a first recommendation. It nevertheless constitutes a major addition to the Wagner discography. David Breckbill