Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

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LABELS: Testament
WORKS: Der Ring des Nibelungen
PERFORMER: Hans Hotter, Otakar Kraus, Erich Witte, Kurt Böhme, Birgit Nilsson, Sylvia Fisher, Ramón Vinay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Peter Klein, Hermann Uhde, Joan Sutherland; Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Rudolf Kempe


Testament’s second Ring, appearing a mere two years after its predecessor, shifts the venue from Bayreuth to Covent Garden and moves forward from 1955 to 1957. Its focus too differs – whereas vivid stereo sound was the transforming element of the Keilberth/Bayreuth Ring, the artistry of conductor Rudolf Kempe is the feature Testament chooses to highlight in this new release. Rudolf Kempe’s personal yet unostentatious approach emerges from generally leisurely pacing that never becomes heavy. Notoriously opposed to bombast as he was, Kempe seeks out lyrical ways of elucidating Wagner’s music – for example, he conceives of the ‘Young Siegfried’ motif not as an exuberantly energetic outburst, but rather as an artless, instinctive sound of nature. Kempe’s flowing style occasionally foregoes optimal grandeur and incisiveness (as in both the prelude to and ending of Siegfried, Act III), but his momentum also sometimes spills over into impulsive haste (at the end of Walküre, Act I, for example). What most haunts the memory is Kempe’s reverent treatment of moments that evoke sombreness or nostalgia (such as Woglinde’s ‘Nur wer der Minne Macht versagt’, the Wanderer’s ‘Kenntest du mich, kühner Spross’, or the Rhinemaidens’ sadness-tinged sporting at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, Act III), all of which seem to tap into a vein of profound, timeless truth. In short, Kempe’s humane, often poetic Ring nourishes the spirit. This cast features some singers familiar from other recordings – Hans Hotter’s Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde (gleaming in tone for Götterdämmerung but quite rough at ‘War es so schmählich’ in Walküre, Act III), Hermann Uhde’s Gunther, and Ramón Vinay’s Siegmund in particular are known quantities, and appear here in largely representative form. Less frequently recorded singers who have strong outings include Otakar Kraus – whose Alberich is fervent, well sung, spontaneous-sounding, and poignantly sympathetic – and Sylvia Fisher, who portrays Sieglinde’s strong emotions with feverish intensity. Erich Witte’s Loge is often so understated as to make an almost bland impression; by contrast, Kurt Böhme’s blatant insistence that Hagen is The Villain destroys the brooding quality that makes this character sinister, while Böhme’s dry sound and broad touches are all wrong for the beauty- and honour-loving Fasolt. Smaller roles are variably cast, but among the singers involved is no less than Joan Sutherland as Woglinde. The recorded sound favours brass and winds, while singers are caught more naturally (that is, less prominently) than in most commercial and broadcast recordings. The sound is basically clear and steady, save for a progressively bad stretch extending from the middle of Götterdämmerung Act I all the way through Act II. Most listeners who can tolerate the sound of this set, however, will probably prefer Clemens Krauss’s trenchant, vital 1953 Bayreuth production, Kempe’s touching humanity notwithstanding. David Breckbill