Wagner: Götterdämmerung

LABELS: Testament
WORKS: Götterdämmerung
PERFORMER: Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen,Josef Greindl, Hermann Uhde, Mariavon Ilosvay, Gustav Neidlinger;Bayreuth Festival Chorus &Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
Testament completes Decca’s extraordinary 1955 Bayreuth Ring, never released due to contractual clashes. John Culshaw, producer of the ground-breaking Solti studio set, is also blamed, but apparently he chiefly doubted whether this live recording could sell well enough to open up what was then an untried, risky market for complete Wagner opera sets – and he was almost certainly right. Joseph Keilberth was constantly being rubbished by contemporary critics; and with its theatre noises and occasional orchestral weaknesses this can’t offer the sonic splendours and polished orchestral detail of Solti or Karajan, especially in the famously homogenizing Bayreuth acoustic. But we’re better equipped now to appreciate what it does offer, and that’s Götterdämmerung with white-hot immediacy. The cast is superb, from Norns and Rhinemaidens upward. Astrid Varnay’s voice has a darker metal than Birgit Nilsson’s steel, but more femininity, even in her venomous anger and majestic Immolation. Wolfgang Windgassen sounds far fresher and more heroic than in later recordings. Josef Greindl’s Hagen lacks the eerie malevolence of Gottlob Frick’s, but his huge voice embodies the character’s stony ruthlessness, well matched by Gustav Neidlinger’s Alberich. Maria von Ilosvay is a rich-voiced, intense Waltraute. Hermann Uhde’s Gunther is light-voiced but incisive, although perhaps played too weakly from the start, and the chorus is splendidly robust. Keilberth sweeps them all along the path of tragedy with compellingly balanced drive and spaciousness, arriving at an unusually serene vision of Valhalla’s destruction. It’s an altogether gripping experience, surpassing other Bayreuth recordings including Boulez, Böhm and Testament’s Knappertsbusch, and takes its place alongside the Solti among the finest renditions on disc. Michael Scott Rohan