Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wagner's artistic insights remain as needed as ever, but performances -- now done in every theater on the planet -- have never been less comprehending


Birgit Nilsson, whose still-unmatched Isolde and Brünnhilde are gloriously represented in the 33-CD Bayreuth Festival set, here sings Isolde's climactic "Liebestod" in concert in 1962 with the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Knappertsbusch, whose Bayreuth Parsifal from the same year -- one of the all-time great opera recordings -- was regrettably passed over.

by Ken

In some ways -- not many, but some -- the Wagner lover of 2008 is better-served than all previous generations of Wagner lovers. I'm thinking particularly of the preposterously inexpensive 33-CD set Wagner: The Great Operas from the Bayreuth Festival. Here, in a box a mere 5 1/8" by 5 1/8" by 2 9/16", we have recordings in excellent stereo of all ten canonical Wagner operas made in the Festival House built to the composer's specifications for performance of his operas.

Of course, simply as a feat of miniaturization this is still nothing compared with the CD-ROM Operas of Richard Wagner created by Mike Richter for his Audio Encyclopedia series (available from a variety of sources, but Mike's officially designated distributor is Image Mogul). There's no need here to fool around with titular distinctions like "the great operas." Mike's got all 13 Wagner operas.

The Wagner CD-ROM draws on a wide range of sources, of varying sound quality. But all the performances, even those that exist in high-quality sound, are heard here in limited MP3-compressed mono. (The 1976 BBC concert performances of Wagner's first three operas can be found elsewhere in excellent FM-broadcast-quality stereo. Of course Rienzi contains some first-rate music, but the basic reason for hearing these pieces is to appreciate the leap the composer made with The Flying Dutchman.) Nevertheless, it's thanks to the MP3 compression that all 13 operas, most of them very long, fit on a single CD-ROM. The performances are also a wildly diverse lot artistically speaking, including some notable ones.

For a long time, this was the only source I'm aware of for:

* the seriously interesting complete Ring cycle conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1968 for Rome Radio, which has only recently been issued in proper CD form by Myto;

* and also the English-language Mastersingers of Nuremberg conducted by Reginald Goodall that same year at Sadler's Wells Opera. Goodall would then preside over a complete Ring in English, using many of these same singers, in the course of which (and in good part thanks to which) Sadler's Wells Opera became the English National Opera. The Goodall Mastersingers, I'm pleased to see, has now been issued in Chandos' opera-in-English series (where the Goodall Ring has wound up as well). I still haven't heard it, though. It's expensive, so I'm saving my pennies.

To get back (finally!) to the new Bayreuth set, when I finally cracked it open last Monday, it made for an interesting week of listening. And I mean a work week: Between Monday and Friday, I went through 30 1/2 of those 33 CDs, which is to say from the Dutchman Overture on through Act I of the final Wagner opera, Parsifal. Of course I wasn't listening carefully. Mostly I was listening while doing other things, on the subway to and from work, and at work.

But then, a number of these performances I know pretty well, notably the 1966 Tristan und Isolde originally recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, at the final Bayreuth Festival of Wieland Wagner, the elder of the composer's two grandsons (the sons of Richard Wagner's son, Siegfried), who were given charge of the festival when it was finally allowed to reopen in 1951 -- as de-Nazified as was possible -- for the first time following World War II. (The photo shows young Wolfgang [left] and Wieland [right] with Hans Knappertsbusch at that first postwar festival. Kna conducted one Ring cycle -- Herbert von Karajan conducted the other -- and Parsifal, both staged by Wieland.)

When the Wagner boys took charge of "New Bayreuth" in 1951, and for the 16 seasons during which Wieland Wagner (1917-1966) was its principal creative force, brother Wolfgang (born 1919) was largely thought of as the "administrative" half of the team. It's sobering to realize that Wolfgang, though less than 32 months younger, has now outlived Wieland by more than 40 years, and is only now at 89 preparing -- kicking and screaming -- to relinquish control of the festival, which he has exercised singlehandedly since 1967.

I remember eagerly opening the shipping carton that contained the LP edition of the still relatively new DG Tristan, which I'd mail-ordered while I was in college, and over these 40 years it remains my favorite version, with soprano Birgit Nilsson's classic Isolde, the outstanding Brangäne and Kurwenal of mezzo Christa Ludwig and baritone Eberhard Wächter, a darned good King Marke from bass Martti Talvela, and even a memorable Shepherd (tenor Erwin Wohlfahrt) for his haunting scene at the start of Act III. I own this recording on LP, open-reel tape, and now in two CD editions. To me it sounds better than ever.

For anyone with any sense of phonographic history, the weirdest thing about this set is finding all this material on the Decca label. The DG Tristan had already been absorbed onto the Philips label, back when the once-rival labels were already under the same corporate umbrella -- for a Philips Bayreuth compendium. (The performance has actually been issued on CD on DG and Philips.) Otherwise, this material is so closely associated with Philips that it seems just plain bizarre to see all those Decca logos. All three labels, along with a host of smaller ones absorbed along the way, are now part of Universal Music, the colossal and colossally mismanaged entertainment giant, which has shown little understanding of or appreciation for either the cultural or commercial value of the musical treasures entrusted to its custody by virtue of corporate inheritance.

Now that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of good stuff that's tossed out of the various Universal repositories. From people who should know, I hear guestimates that they must be losing a couple of dollars on every copy of this set they sell. (Presumably they're making it up in volume!) When I looked earlier today, was selling it for $55.99 (with free shipping). For a long time Amazon -- and most everyone else -- was out of stock on it, and during that time, fearing they might never get it back in stock, I bought mine from for $54.99 (also with free shipping). At the moment they're selling it for only $51.99. Grrr!

Naturally at this price there are no printed texts or translations. There are plot synposes. (Odd note: For some reason, the booklet credits the two Ring operas recorded in 1966, Rheingold and Siegfried, as 1971. The Walküre and Götterdämmerung are credited correctly as 1967.)

Some of these performances are less familiar to me. Before this week I don't remember the last time I listened to the 1962 Sawallisch-conducted Lohengrin, which wasn't issued till more than a decade after it was recorded -- because, it was generally thought, of the controversial cuts made in the performance. Although cuts, often extensive, at least used to be fairly common in Wagner performances in the rest of the world's opera houses, you don't think of Bayreuth performances being other than note-complete.

I don't recall listening to the 1974 Meistersinger conducted by Silvio Varviso and the 1985 Parsifal conducted by James Levine since I was working on the chapters on these operas for The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera. I was curious to hear the Meistersinger again, and indeed as a solid ensemble performance it holds up better than I would have guessed when I last wrote about it. The Parsifal, alas, holds up less well. Oh sure, it's better than Maestro Jimmy's dead-as-dust Met Parsifals, including both the 1991-92 audio and the 1993 video recordings, but I'm no longer sure it's significantly better. It's professionally executed, but on the whole a bore.

A certain stylistic consistency

Somewhat to my surprise, gulping these performances down in such a short span highlights a certain stylistic consistency. In part this is because, not surprisingly, a lot of the same singers turn up in multiple operas -- happily so in some cases (most obviously Nilsson as Isolde and all three Brünnhildes, but also bass Franz Crass's gorgeous Flying Dutchman and nearly as good King Heinrich in Lohengrin, along with his luxurious appearance in the relatively small role of the Minnesinger Biterolf in Tannhäuser); in other cases not so happily (most conspicuously the squeezed-toned soprano Anja Silja as Senta in Dutchman, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Elsa in Lohengrin, and the Third Norn in Götterdämmerung; and the artistically wise but drearily dry-voiced bass Josef Greindl as Daland in Dutchman, the Landgraf in Tannhäuser, and Hagen in Götterdämmerung).

Split down the middle is bass Hans Sotin, who had a lovely voice but wasn't exactly what you'd call an interpretive self-starter, and so rarely made the kind of impact of some Wagner basses whose careers overlapped his -- Crass, Karl Ridderbusch in his younger years (up to about 1975), and Kurt Moll. Sotin's Pogner in the 1974 Meistersinger (in which Ridderbusch moved up from the bass role, Pogner, to the Heldenbariton or "heroic baritone" role of Hans Sachs, which doesn't seem to have done his voice much good), while not in a class with Ridderbusch's really superlative Pogner in Herbert von Karajan's Dresden/EMI recording, is sturdy and dependable -- a solid success. But his Gurnemanz in the 1985 Parsifal falls prey to the yawning emptiness of James Levine's note-churning.

When the music either moves at a moderate-to-fast clip or contains enough activity in the slower passages to generate a modicum of energy on its own, the performance wakes up. Otherwise Maestro Jimmy seems to have no clue how to animate the musical line so that it progresses from from note to note for some reason other than "that's what's printed on the page." In musical terms one could say that, as in so much of the maestro's Wagner conducting, there is essentially no phrasing, the lifeblood of the music. Given this problem, which has remained constant over the decades I've been listening to him conduct Wagner, his preference for really, really slow tempos, which can be made to work by conductors of real vision, is suicidal.

Probably because the Bayreuth musicians have this music in their blood, to some extent they're able, unlike Maestro Jimmy's Met forces, to fill those gaps in the performance's forward movement. But revisiting the Bayreuth recording, I found myself unable to stop noticing the gaps, and once you're conscious of them, it's hard to hear any real continuity in the performance, which dissolves into a four-hour expanse of notes. What a shame that the extraordinary 1962 Knappertsbusch/Bayreuth/Philips Parsifal was passed over. (The last time I looked, though, it was still available on its own, and it's still my first recommendation for the opera.)

Art as religious ritual -- or "Art = suffering"

Of course there are people, notably those who think of art as some sort of religious ritual, who believe that pointlessness and tedium are what makes art worthwhile, as proof of the spectator's suffering and endurance. I remember staggering out of a Met Tristan a few years ago, a performance of almost unbroken ineptitude, whose hatefulness was compounded by the then-new production's derisive trivializing of the piece itself -- which, overall, was pulverized into virtual unrecognizability -- and noticing that a surprising number of my fellow audience members seemed almost buoyant. I could only guess that if suffering in the name of art was what they were after, they had just endured a five-hour voyage into the sublime.

After the washout of Sotin's 1985 Gurnemanz, it's a shock to go back to the 1981 Bayreuth Parsifal film conducted by Horst Stein. The unpretentious Stein's pacing is generally quicker, and for all that Stein was never what you would call a deep musical thinker, the performance is unfailingly more alert -- the music actually moves with purpose, and Sotin, while still not a memorable Gurnemanz, gives a sturdy, honest performance of this modestly wise teacher, who never complains about the really despicable way he has been treated by the current administration of Montsalvat. Gurnemanz is potentially one of Wagner's most cherishable characters, and the audience depends almost wholly on him for our understanding of what happens in the nearly two-hour expanse of Act I, and for that matter everything that follows. There doesn't seem to have been anything wrong with Sotin's voice in 1985, but he's sucked into Maestro Jimmy's snoozefest, and his performance here seems to me an almost total loss.

What did Maestros Böhm and Sawallisch know?

Of course the major reason for that "certain stylistic consistency" in the Decca Bayreuth box is that, setting aside the Meistersinger and Parsifal, the eight remaining operas are conducted by either Sawallisch or Böhm. What was most interesting to me, listening straight through these performances, was how beautifully conducted all eight operas all seemed, and how persuasively they all "play." Certainly Sawallisch and Böhm aren't conductors one thinks of as plumbing for great depths, at least in Wagner. They're closer in spirit to the honest, plain-spoken work we hear in that Horst Stein-conducted Parsifal, making sure that the music fits together and "plays."

Sawallisch (born 1923) was still a relatively young Wagner conductor in 1961-62 ( he's seen here in 1962), but the fluency of his Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, with the incidental detail knowingly but unshowily accounted for, is an almost unfailing pleasure. The Dutchman and Tannhäuser in fact succeed in spite of casts that -- apart from Crass's Dutchman and Eberhard Wächter's often quite beautiful Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser (along with interesting work by some of the lesser minstrels) -- could fairly be described as weak.

The Lohengrin is rather decently cast. In addition to Crass's lovely King, Jess Thomas gives what may be his most effective recorded performance; along with the voice's familiar size and strength, once it's warmed up we get large stretches of genuinely beautiful singing. There's a vocally plausible, predictably intense effort at the baritone role of Telramund by the reconverted tenor (after all those years of Otellos and Siegmunds and Parsifals) Ramon Vinay; an outstanding Royal Herald (a difficult and important role) by baritone Tom Krause; and a predictably commanding and predictably unlovely Ortrud by Astrid Varnay.

While I don't think of Böhm (1894-1981) as a great Wagner conductor, as noted I'm a longtime fan of his unfancy yet richly detailed while always forward-moving Tristan. Despite the performance's limitations -- notably the merely serviceable Tristan of Wolfgang Windgassen (but of course what alternative was there?) -- I do love this recording.

I had a hunch that I might enjoy Böhm's Ring more on rehearing. In fact, before the advent of this set, I'd been thinking about scouting for a CD issue of it. And, especially freed from the confines of all those LP side breaks, the cycle indeed plays beautifully. It would be way too complicated to compare it with its most direct competitors, the Solti/Decca and Karajan/DG (and perhaps now also the 1955 Keilberth/Testament) Rings. What struck me most forcefully is the presence of a caliber of Wagnerian performance, a level of intuitive understanding at the basic phrase level, that's seemingly beyond nearly all the more recent Ring recordings, audio and now video.

The notable exceptions are the 1991-92 Barenboim/Bayreuth/Teldec audio and video Ring (which may be the most beautiful recorded representation of the orchestral part we've had on records, and is at least tolerably sung) and, a special case, the Goodall/ENO cycle (which was probably recorded too long after the original performances; only the Valkyrie seems to me to really "work," and yet Goodall digs into the music in a way that not even Furtwängler did). Okay, I have a certain fondness for the 1980-83 Janowski/Dresden/Eurodisc Ring, which still has some vocal performances I enjoy returning to. It's not in the class of the earlier recordings -- as we can hear by throwing Sawallisch's 1968 Italian Radio Ring into the mix, Janowski just didn't have his or Böhm's basic feel for the way this music moves -- but outclasses most of the later ones.

He never seems to miss the music's content

For its issue of the 1968 Rome Ring, Myto appears to have had access to excellent "inside" tapes. There's a special surprise in the discovery that the Rheingold was recorded in stereo, and even has some stereophonic staging. What really matters, though, is that the stereo sound enables us to hear the loveliness and incisiveness of the playing Sawallisch drew from the Rome orchestra, the very one with which Italian Radio had 15 years earlier recorded for its own broadcast use a complete Ring under the great Wilhelm Furtwängler. When the Furtwängler/RAI Ring finally achieved commercial release nearly 20 years later, it became one of the essential Wagner recordings.

There's no reason to assume that in 1968 the orchestra's playing standard dropped in the later operas. It's just that the mono recording sucks all the texture and dimensionality out of it -- an unintended but striking demonstration of the leap in sonic believability brought about by stereo technology. All the same, even in the later operas the sound is a major improvement over the low-fi MP3 version I've known, and the cast, which often overlaps the casts of Böhm's as well as the Solti/Decca and Karajan/DG studio Ring recordings, is always solid and often genuinely interesting, and Sawallisch always seems to get solid, believable work out of the singers.

I guess its pointless to linger over the what-might-have-been if the whole of the Sawallisch/Rome Ring existed in sound of the quality of the Rheingold. I should point out that there is a stereo Sawallisch Ring. Japan's NHK video-recorded his 1989 stereo Bavarian State Opera cycle, and then licensed it to EMI, which gave it almost invisible video circulation in the U.S. in the form of effectively underground "black box" VHS sets, complete with hilarious typos, but the audio portion received actual domestic release as a CD set. In both cases, I've been struck over the years by Sawallisch's seemingly effortless shaping of The Ring's scenes.

He is, notably, the master of Act II of Siegfried, that singular succession of deeply weird, and wildly differently weird, scenes -- surely Wagner' most idiosyncratic piece of musicodramatic construction. (But then, Siegfried always seems to me the Wagner opera for the truest Wagner aficionados.) After years of listening to Sawallisch Wagner performances, while other conductors may have hit higher highs and unearthed deeper depths, I'm struck by how consistent he is in seemingly never missing the content of this music, which is unprecedented in both its vastness and its intricacy.

Obviously Wagner performances of recent decades have been hobbled by the drought of singers equal to the challenges of the cruelly demanding principal roles. (Of course, opera companies haven't done much better in casting the smaller roles, but let's not be picky.) Certainly the absence of conductors with a Wagnerian vision comparable to Furtwängler's or Knappertsbusch's (when he was into what he was doing, that is) or even Goodall is regrettable. But where are the conductors who can simply -- or maybe not so simply -- make this music come to life, who can let us hear what it's about, in the way that we hear Böhm and Sawallisch doing here?

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At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great overview of this box set - I might get it, although whether I really NEED another recording of any of these operas is doubtful. My touchstone for the Ring remains the Solti version, favored Parsifal is the Krauss from 1953 Bayreuth - if you like faster-paced Parsifals, Krauss is your man.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That's interesting, RJM.

I think for overall strength of casting and quality of orchestral playing and recording, the Solti/Decca and Karajan/DG Ring recordings are still obvious first choices. But that still leaves a lot of performance issues to talk about. Maybe someday we should do that.

As for Krauss's Wagner, I go back to the Bayreuth Ring and Parsifal periodically to see what I'm missing (as a matter of fact, I've recently been "doing" that Ring again), and I still don't get anything. However, I do have an enthusiastic recommendation for an "up tempo" Parsifal: the Erato recording conducted by the never adequately appreciated Armin Jordan (a really terrific conductor) with Yvonne Minton (a white-hot Kundry), Reiner Goldberg (certainly the right kind of voice for Parsifal, though he never seems to have made what one would have hoped from that vocal material), and Robert Lloyd (a really fine Gurnemanz).

Don't hold it against the recording that it was made to be used as the soundtrack for the dreadful Syberberg film of Parsifal. As far as the participants were concerned, it was their recording of Parsifal, and it's a beauty, lit with that inner light of urgency that makes the opera such an overwhelming experience.

Thanks for commenting!


At 4:08 PM, Blogger Batocchio said...

Thanks for the reviews and tips. I own the Solti Ring set, which I bought on sale years ago, and the Karl Böhm Tristan, an opera I saw live for the first time earlier this year.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Those are some nice starters, B! I hope you have the most recent CD remastering of the Solti Ring -- finally a really first-rate job.

I wonder what it would be like to see one's first live Tristan now. I'm glad I have some sturdy memories to fall back on.

Some thoughts if you haven't already gone there:

* For a Meistersinger, the second Solti recording, with the Chicago Symphony (and a cast headed by Jose van Dam as Hans Sachs), a startling improvement over his OK-but-dull earlier Vienna recording. It's fascinating to read in his booklet essay about the rethinking he'd done about the opera in the years before undertaking the remake (in particular its line of descent from Mozart) and then hear everything he talks about in this happy performance.

(After years of serially relistening to the Karajan/Dresden/EMI recording, from which I had never gotten much message, I recently listened to it again when I found a cheap copy of the CD edition, and maybe it had to do with listening via headphones, which forced me inside the performance, but suddenly after all these years I loved it! But that seems to me way too risky for recommendation purposes.)

* For Parsifal, as I hope I made clear in my piece, the 1962 Knappertsbusch/Bayreuth recording is one of my all-time favorite opera recordings. For a fascinating complement, there's the Jordan/Erato version noted in my comment above.

* The Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin situations are deeply complicated. You could do worse, though, than the Philips' later Bayreuth Dutchman conducted compellingly by Woldemar Nelsson (with Simon Estes in the title role); DG's London-made Tannhäuser conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli (with Placido Domingo surprisingly close to a satisfactory Tannhäuser, with Siegfried the toughest challenge in the tenor repertory); and I see that Rafael Kubelik's lovely Lohengrin (marred only by Gwyneth Jones's not very nice Ortrud) has slipped onto CD.


At 1:08 AM, Blogger Batocchio said...

Thanks for the tips! It looks like my copy is the '97 edition. I've been pleased with it.

(By the way, if you've never read Terrence McNally's play The Lisbon Traviata, you'd probably enjoy Act 1 of it.)

At 12:22 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Yes, 1997 sounds right for the finally satisfactory Decca CD issue of The Ring, which I believe was one of the last projects that Jimmy Lock undertook before his retirement as Decca's chief of technical operations. The result seems clearly a labor of love, and it's hard not to think that this had something to do with the fact that he had been part of the original recording team for this historic project.

Now that we have so many Rings around us, it's easy to forget how precarious a project recording the first commercial Ring was, which is why I periodically reread producer John Culshaw's account, Ring Resounding. Of course, we know now that Culshaw's account was not only self-serving but at certain points just plain dishonest, notably with regard to the 1955 Bayreuth Ring recorded by Decca but not released until some 50 years later, by Testament.

There are some interesting issues here, which I reserve the right to come back to in a new post!



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