WORKS: Der Ring des Nibelungen
PERFORMER: Rolf Polke, Nadezda Kniplová, Gerald McKee, Fritz Uhl, Rolf Kühne, Herold Kraus, Ruth Hesse; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Grosses SO/Hans Swarowsky
CATALOGUE NO: 703769 ADD (distr. Music Discount Centre)
When Hans Swarowsky’s Ring cycle was finally issued in the UK in 1972, three years after it was hastily recorded in Nuremberg just before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (the home of the orchestral players, from the Czech PO and Prague National Theatre), it already faced stiff competition from the familiar accounts of Solti (Decca), Böhm (Philips) and Karajan (DG). Now, nearly 25 years later, the need for the Swarowsky version is even less pressing, with upwards of fifteen CD Rings currently available, ranging from the classic interpretations, caught live, of Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch and Krauss to the state-of-the-art digital recordings of Janowski, Haitink and Levine.
If the myth that Wagner is loud and crashingly boring needs perpetuating then Swarowsky is your man, at his best in the big set-pieces, when the music plays itself, but elsewhere, where the musical argument is more elliptical and dependent on the dramatic context for clarification, strangely reticent, relying on his singers to paper over the cracks. Of these Polke offers a stentorian Wotan, Kühne a well-sung Alberich, Uhl a sympathetic Loge, Kniplová an awesome, intractable Brünnhilde and McKee a Siegmund and Siegfried impressive in the heroics but prone to crooning his more reflective utterances in a lachrymose senza voce. Supporting cast is no more than adequate, orchestral playing enthusiastic, often approximate in tuning and sometimes bizarrely caught by the fake stereo microphones.
Casting a Ring is never easy, as opera-house managements often remind us, though, as this newest account, documenting live performances from the Baden Opera in Karlsruhe last year, demonstrates, it’s possible, given the will and the support of a sympathetic conductor, to achieve a perfectly acceptable general vocal standard. Günter Neuhold is a natural if sometimes impetuous Wagnerian, swift in the manner of Krauss or Janowski but conscious of the music’s larger perspectives. Sometimes he presses too hard, denying his singers their full opportunity for expressiveness, but by and large his vibrant, dramatically driven account is as convincing as any on offer from today’s ‘leading’ Wagnerians.
His singers, led by Carla Pohl’s fresh Brünnhilde, Edward Cook’s resourceful Siegmund and Götterdämmerung Siegfried, and John Wegner’s fluent Wotan similarly, tend to be on the lightweight side, and though there are no obvious stars, there are no weak links. Indeed, while this is in no way a ‘great’ interpretation, it’s the consistency of its averageness which makes the whole thing worth preserving as the embodiment of our unromantic, unheroic age.