Wagner: Götterdämmerung

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COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Testament
WORKS: Götterdämmerung
PERFORMER: Astrid Varnay, Bernd Aldenhoff, Ludwig Weber; Bayreuth Festival Choir & Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 4175 ADD mono
This set, which might have been the first complete recorded Götterdämmerung to be issued, belatedly becomes the most important: no other (save arguably Solti’s, which by comparison seems unrelievedly tense) makes the drama at once so immediate and so substantial. The reason? This live performance, captured by Decca in 1951 (in excellent sound) at the first post-war Bayreuth festival, is the most conspicuous recorded example of Hans Knappertsbusch having an ‘on’ night: his theatrical instincts make the drama a grand, flexible, highly charged, cumulative, living organism. Such leadership transforms his singers. Astrid Varnay may indulge in recalcitrant scooping too often, but her carefully planned dynamic inflections and phrase shapings seem spontaneous in this context, resulting in a startlingly full portrayal of Brünnhilde. Bernd Aldenhoff’s Siegfried, lively and (as in the narration) musically sensitive, is so often a dramatic asset that one forgives his tendency to push and overshoot high notes. Martha Mödl’s gusty tone is unattractive in itself, yet she and Kna conspire to mould the Gutrune scene into one of the most profound and riveting passages of the drama. A further list of great moments could extend indefinitely.

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This set is not for the fastidious: it contains many errors of execution and ensemble that would cripple a lesser performance, and the recorded perspective on the voices varies markedly as singers move around the stage. Even with these flaws, the debt Wagnerians owe to Testament for unearthing this performance is incalculable: here is the essence of Götterdämmerung. David Breckbill