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Reviews for the Dream Ring

Click here for review by John Steane in Gramophone magazine (567 Kb)

October 2005

The Dream Ring: A Dream Come True for Wagnerites

Secretary of New York Vocal Record Collector's Society
Music critic - Opera Quarterly
Reprinted from Wagner Notes by permission of the publisher, the Wagner Society of New York.

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Metropolitan Opera/Covent Garden/Other Sources, R. Wagner. Principals: Kirsten Flagstad (Brünnhilde). Lotte Lehmann (Sieglinde), Stella Andreva (Forest Bird and the Rheingold Woglinde), Karin Branzell (Fricka), Hilde Konetzni & Maria Nezadal (Gutrune), Kerstin Thorborg (Erda and the Götterdämmerung Waltraute), Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund and Siegfried), Rene Maison (Loge), Karl Laufkoetter (Mime), Friedrich Schorr (Wotan), Eduard Habich (Alberich), Herbert Janssen (Gunther), Emanuel List (Fafner and Hunding), Deszo Ernster (Hagen); other roles sung by Lucine Amara, Erna Berger, Lucielle Browning, Dorothee Manski, Doris Doe, Herta Glaz, Irra Petina, Hans Clemens, Julius Huehn, and Norman Cordon. Artur Bodanzky, Erich Leinsdorf, Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductors. (The first three operas are culled exclusively from Metropolitan Opera broadcasts of 1937 through 1940, with one “add-in” as explained below; the concluding opera is sourced from Metropolitan Opera broadcasts of 1936 and 1951, a Covent Garden performance of 1937, and the Furtwängler La Scala performance of 1950, supplemented sparingly by a few commercial 78rpm recordings (12 CDs) Guild GHCD 222 l/2; 2215/7; 2207/9; 2224/7.

If you will kindly go back and read the above heading with great care, it will obviate the necessity for me to indulge in prolonged further explanations of the venues of the performances that make up this Dream Ring. Have you done so? Good. Now we can proceed.

This project is the brainchild of Richard Caniell, of the Canadian-based Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society. As he explains in rather copious (to say the least) notes in each of the four volumes under discussion, it has been his dream to re-create his own “Golden Age Ring,” his Golden Age being what most of us consider the one and only true Golden Age of Wagnerian Singing — that period from the mid-1930s thru the late-1940s, brought to full fruition by the arrival or Kirsten Flagstad upon the scene of an already-thriving throng of some of the greatest the world has ever known. It was Mr. Caniell’s dream, now realized, to recreate the entire Ring Cycle using consistent casting from the available broadcasts of these greatest of Wagnerians — even when those broadcasts did not allow for such consistency. To achieve this, it was often necessary for him to combine singers from one broadcast with those from another (or from occasional commercial recordings), sometimes utilizing dozens of silent “joins” (there are 312 such joins in the complete set). He then set about equalizing the reproduction so that neither the joins nor the different recording ambiences were discernible, occasionally even making a particular passage sound a bit worse than its condition might warrant to make it a more perfect fit with other passages surrounding it. He has been astoundingly successful!

Even though he makes perfectly clear in his notes where such joins, additional replacements, etc. take place, listening intently to the entire Cycle on headphones (basically divorced from any other reality), I was unable to spot more than three or four of them, this in some fourteen hours of music. Since Mr. Caniell admits to some six to ten such moments (again, out of more than 300), this must be considered a veritable triumph of sound restoration and engineering.

The operas least affected by the transplantation of singers and, therefore, with fewer reproduction problems are Siegfried and Das Rheingold. Indeed, Siegfried is simply the entire Met broadcast of January 30, 1937, sans exchange of singers, add-ins, pull-outs, etc. For its period (and for those used to listening to broadcast material from that era), it is an excellent sounding recording throughout. Given what he had to go through with the other operas, Mr. Caniell must have counted himself blessed that he merely had to give Siegfried the best possible engineering to get it out. (I will go into the actual performances after getting the technical details on all four operas out of the way.)

Das Rheingold, a Met broadcast from April 3, 1937, was a bit more difficult in that conductor Artur Bodanzky had broken this should-be-seamless opera into two acts, so that it was necessary to fiddle about a bit to get it back to its one-act original. Other than that, Mr. Caniell has removed Doris Doe’s “Weiche, Wotan, weiche!” and replaced it with Thorborg’s Victor recording of the same piece. He did this to insure casting consistency as Thorborg is the Siegfried Erda as well, but also because this is one of the most important moments in the opera, and Doe was simply not in the same vocal league as her colleagues of the period. It is accomplished seamlessly, with some diminution in the reproduction of the commercial 78 (even, to these ears, possibly adding some surface noise) in order to have it match its surroundings more perfectly, and Schorr’s two “live” comments in the course of the aria are perfectly interspersed. Das Rheingold is also a good-sounding broadcast for 1937 and, while there is a certain amount of surface noise noticeable early on, the ear becomes quickly accustomed to it, and it is hardly apparent at all as the music grows louder and the characters grow more manic. Indeed, the screams of the tortured Nibelungs at one point seemed more immediate, and certainly more horrifying, than in the Solti recording!

In many ways, Die Walküre is the masterpiece of this set. It doesn’t seem possible, but despite the number of times they performed this opera together at the Met, Schorr and Flagstad never appeared together in a broadcast of the work. Schorr’s broadcast partners were Leider (once), Traubel (once), Kappel (twice), and Lawrence (three times) while, despite her status as the Brünnhilde of her day, Flagstad sang the role in only one broadcast during her initial seven-year stay at the Met, and that one to the Wotan of Julius Huehn. Fortunately, Die Walküre was broadcast twice in early 1940, both times conducted by Erich Leinsdorf so that the reproduction of the two performances is totally consistent, and the tempi similarly of a piece. Lawrence was Schorr’s Brünnhilde, and the Sieglinde of that same performance was Lotte Lehmann. As Mr. Caniell notes, because Schorr and Flagstad sang this work so often together under Leinsdorf, there is no reason to think that their work would vary very much from one performance to the next (especially since the two performances took place only six weeks apart), thereby making a complete recording of their scenes together from the two broadcasts under discussion an artistically valid undertaking.

Furthermore, by joining Lehmann’s Sieglinde to the Flagstad Brünnhilde, we can actually hear these two sovereign sopranos together in the same opera for the first and only time on record. Despite the fact that there are 76 joins in Act II and 50 in Act III, that word “seamless” comes into play again, especially since the three artists in question never sing together at the same time. It is masterful from an engineering standpoint; from a performance standpoint, it is, to these ears, an example of the total being even greater than the sum of its already great parts. A true voice-oriented Wagnerite should be happy he or she has lived to hear this! The broadcast sound of these two performances was superb, and the reproduction of this Walküre is often near to the commercial recording standards of its time. I have rarely been so excited by the famous opening passage of the opera, for the orchestra seems practically in the room with the auditor.

Finally, Götterdämmerung. This is the really difficult one to describe for, as Die Walküre came from only two broadcast sources, this last opera in the Cycle comes from eight different sources spanning some 22 years (including the 78s). Melchior’s contributions come from Met performances of 1936 and 1939, from Covent Garden in 1937, and from 1929/1930 commercial recordings. Flagstad’s Brünnhilde comes from the 1939 Met performance, the 1937 Covent Garden one, and the 1950 La Scala Ring Cycle under Furtwangler. Ernster’s Hagen dates totally from 1951, while Janssen’s Gunther spans 1937 through 1951.

The only real double casting of a major role in the entire Ring is the Gutrune of Hilde Konetzni and Maria Nezadal, the latter in the 1937 Covent Garden performance and the former in the 1950 La Scala one. However, Melchior and Konetzni did appear together on other occasions, as did the tenor in his late Met years with Ernster, so that the inclusion of these artists into this Golden Age Ring is reasonably justified. There are other, even more confusing, instances of artists bouncing in and out of this opera for a few lines as this is by far the most difficult of these works to “join” (proof: there are 177 of them in this Götterdämmerung), so that we do hear mini-contributions from Ludwig Weber and Regina Resnik, and reproduction considerations have forced the replacement of earlier Rhinemaidens with the Met’s 1951 trio headed by Erna Berger (Do read that again; Erna Berger as a Rhinemaiden!). Given the eight sources involved, the reproduction is amazingly consistent, and the concluding Immolation Scene, from the 1937 Covent Garden performance, is downright pummeling in its effect.

Given the names listed in the heading, is it really necessary to go deeply into the singing? With the possible exception of Schorr, all of the leading singers are in, or very close to, their prime, and there is not one contribution that fails to be at least as good, if not better, than expected. Flagstad’s voice is stupendous (indeed, when singing with Melchior in the Daybreak Duet, even he has to struggle a bit to be heard against the torrent of sound she ever so easily unleashed) and, despite unwarranted assertions to the contrary over the years, she is a deeply committed performer. Her pleas to Wotan before his farewell to her could hardly be more moving.

Melchior is another force of nature. His singing is so purely exuberant throughout that you are astounded in, say, Siegfried that he has anything left for the ensuing acts, but he just keeps going. His Siegmund and young Siegfried are both thrilling, and his famous “Wälse! Wälse!” is almost death defying in its audacity.

Branzell is an overpowering Fricka in the first two operas, and Thorborg similarly so in her two Erdas and her Waltraute. Schorr’s very top notes had gone by 1937 (if, indeed, he ever really had much in that area), but the rest of his voice is like a rock, with a legato-based stream of beautiful tone allied to a truly commanding vocal personality. He sounds like a god without even trying to! Lehmann’s Sieglinde is justly famous and, while it is hard to imagine her being any more committed in this role than she appears in her famous recording of Act I, she is almost superhumanly vital throughout this Die Walküre . The only thing to be found wanting in Emanuel List is that he isn’t the Hagen of this set (for which he can hardly be blamed), but his Hunding and Fafner are benchmarks for these roles, and, like Lehmann, he is an even better Hunding in-person than on that Act One set. And Ernster, another forgotten first-rate singer, is a terrific Hagen in any case, truly malevolent at all times. One can’t make much of an impression as Gunther or Gutrune, but Janssen, Nezadal and Konetzni do as much as they can with these roles.

The real discoveries of the set are Rene Maison, Eduard Habich and Karl Laufkoetter. The Belgian tenor Maison was a famous one in his time, primarily in French opera, but his is as good a Loge as I have heard from a leading tenor voice (as against the Gerhard Stolze type of big character tenor), extraordinarily well sung and interpreted. Unlike the character types who usually do this role, his God of Fire sounds very much an equal among his fellows (which he should be given that, like Cassius, he’s the smartest guy around, to whom more powerful people might be well-advised to listen). Laufkoetter is an excellent character singer, with what sounds like a quite good tenor voice when he is allowed to employ it In any case, his Mime is a character you can feel sorry for while still hating his guts.

The biggest surprise is the Alberich of Habich, a noted German baritone with a highly successful career spanning forty years (1904-1944), including many seasons at Bayreuth between 1912 and 1931. The Met was lucky to come upon him for two seasons in the late 1930s, for his is surely the best Alberich to be heard between Desider Zador and Gustav Neidlinger, and he need not take a back seat to either of those estimable baritones, nor, in his own way, to his more famous colleagues in this historic set. As singing, his is excellent; as interpretation, his Alberich is top-of-the-line all the way.

Das Rheingold and Siegfried are conducted by Artur Bodanzky, pretty much forgotten today because he made few recordings, but one of the leading Wagner conductors of the last century. With 1087 Met conducting appearances, he held the house record by a good margin until James Levine came along. He was noted for exciting performances of Wagner scores, several of which he personally cut (as did even Toscanini on occasion), once claiming that if the public was bored by too much Wagner, then he would see they got less of it. Anyhow, in his notes Mr. Caniell tells us that Bodanzky came in for some criticism due to often indulging in excessive tempi. This might be so, and certainly Bodanzky does let rip, especially in the duet that concludes Siegfried , but when Leinsdorf takes over the podium for Die Walküre in this set, Bodanzky’s tempi seem almost Klempererian in comparison. Leinsdorf leads surely the fastest Walküre I have ever heard; in fact, his “Siegmund heiss ‘ich” sounds like a horse race between him and Melchior to see who can finish first. It’s actually a bit hard to tell who wins, but, God, is it exciting! Anyhow, this is certainly the best-sung Ring to be heard anywhere, but the conducting is never subservient to the singers.

The set is very well produced, with (as I mentioned at the start of this tome) copious notes by Mr. Caniell. Some of his prose is almost of the purple variety (Siegfried is not the victim of a spell, but of “an enspellment”), but Caniell’s notes are exceedingly comprehensive; he knows his Ring intimately and makes many excellent points regarding character motivations and the like. He loves his singers and has many interesting things to say about them (along with good biographical detail on all the leading artists), and he goes into extreme and truthful detail about everything that he has done to make this DREAM RING a viable entity. He takes pains, at times, to justify some of his choices and actions, but the justification is in the result, and the result is the most gloriously sung Ring ever heard on records, with sound reproduction far in advance of anything we might have expected from the sources he had access to. There are no libretti included (we all have other versions of these operas from which a libretto can be found), but each opera’s plot-line is given in considerable detail, with CD tracks carefully noted within those plotlines (except for Siegfried, where for some reason the pertinent tracks are not mentioned at all).

This is obviously a labor of love on the part of Mr. Caniell and his colleagues. Labors of love do not always work out well where operatic recordings are concerned. This one, however, has more than worked out well; it has increased and enhanced all Wagnerites’ performance experience of the most gigantic work in the history of vocal music, while adding immeasurably to our total knowledge of the Ring Cycle by virtue of providing a completely viable recording of it with those singers who most closely resembled, in vocal terms, the gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, underwater bathing beauties, occasional mundane human beings, etc. that sprang forth from Richard Wagner’s fertile imagination. Everything about this Ring Cycle is special, perhaps unique, and it is most highly recommended.


August 2003

JOHN STEANE – Singer Talk

Wagner-dämmerung? Let’s hope not – and Rejoice in a “dream Ring” come true

I sometimes think my Wagner nights are over. Perhaps it is simply a matter of bad luck, but for many years now my trial-occasions have been trials indeed. The singers’ voices have not invariably sounded surface-scratched or wobbly, the productions have not every time struck me as crude, unsightly and daft, but there has been enough of that to deter. So records become still more precious as a refuge. I find it regrettable, because when all goes well a Wagner night in the theatre is one of a musical life’s great pleasures. When Wagner is respected and his storybook world allowed to open on stage as he directed we can sit with an excited sense of space and time to be filled with greatness: a chronicle of character and event made real and important in a musical score so integral and organic that its yield, to heart and intellect, remains inexhaustible. And in the darkness, without importunate promptings by officious producers, we could think for ourselves. Records, ‘the theatre of the mind’, will in some ways provide ideal conditions to substitute for this. But it’s a pity. I liked the view of 16th-century Nuremberg, the overgrown garden of King Marke’s castle, the Valkyries’ rocks; and the space and atmosphere of the opera house is Wagner’s due. And so is the live sound of voices and orchestra, which we delude ourselves if we think modern recording techniques and expensive equipment will reproduce for us in the living-room.

Circa 1955 to 1970 were the years in which I most enjoyed Wagner live. At Covent Garden the conductors included Rudolf Kempe, Reginald Goodall and Sir Georg Solti. Among the singers were Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Sylvia Fisher, the now almost forgotten Maria von Ilosvay, an aristocratic Fricka with a finely schooled voice, a towering Ortrud in Rita Gorr, Wolfgang Windgassen, Jon Vickers, the gifted Ernst Kozub (‘Our Tenor’ of John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding), Hermann Uhde, Gustav Neidlinger, Hans Hotter and the great Gottlob Frick. We didn’t do too badly, yet at my back I always seemed to hear Time’s winged chariot travelling in the opposite direction. Behind the living sound of ‘our lot’ were the recorded voices of Leider, Lehmann, Flagstad, Melchior, Janssen, Schorr and Kipnis. These were the ones who set the standards for me, and these were the ones I yearned to hear.

And now we come a little nearer to ‘hearing’ them. Complete Ring cycles from their era are offered on two labels. The Naxos Historical series, with transfers by Ward Marston, now packages the four operas in a box, Die Walkure recorded at the Metropolitan, New York, under Erich Leinsdorf in 1941, the others in 1936 and ‘37 under Artur Bodansky. Guild has the same Siegfried, but a 1937 Rheingold with Thorborg as Erda, also a Walküre (but 1940) under Leinsdorf, and a composite Göitterdämmerung. The presiding genius here is Richard Caniell, director of the Immortal Recorded Performances Society which operates from New Denver, Canada. The Naxos set is likely to have wider publicity and better sales, in the UK at least. But the Guild version (no box, but separate issues) has a touch of the visionary about it.

Here is a Ring resounding primarily with the names of its leading singers. Kirsten Flagstad sings Brünnhilde throughout, Lauritz Melchior Siegmund and Siegfried, Friedrich Schorr Wotan. In addition are Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde, Karin Branzell as Fricka, Kerstin Thorborg as Erda and Waltraute, René Maison as Loge and Herbert Janssen as Gunther. The Mime and Alberich, as vital as their more renowned colleagues, are Karl Laufkötter and Eduard Habich, masterly exponents both. It is called the ‘Dream’ Ring, and this is for more than one reason, the first being that no such Ring exists.

Two of the operas have had to be compiled. The Walküre involved an elision of only two performances, and then only in scenes where Wotan and Brünnhilde appear together. The Götterdämmerung is an extraordinary network, drawing on three stage performances, sometimes in rapid succession; there are also two passages where studio recordings have been incorporated. Considering the variations in the quality of recorded sound between 1936, the earliest year of recording, and 1951 (the latest), it is extraordinary what has been achieved. The principal conductors are Artur Bodansky, Fritz Stiedry and Wilhelm Furtwängler — and perhaps it is a misnomer, and a serious one, to call this a Ring at all. Yet the fusion gives us the unity of this magnificent casting headed by the most full-bodied, nobly timbred heroic soprano of the century, the most glintingly resilient and renowned of Heldentenors, and, in Schorr, the bass-baritone who best combined authoritative power with beauty of vocal line.

At the end of his labours, which have included the provision of generously ample booklets for each opera, the producer writes that now ‘All that is required is to settle back in your most comfortable chair, turn the switch and enter into what seemed, previously, to be a bygone and unrecoverable world.’ And oh (‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’), how I wish it were as simple for the listener as that! It isn’t. It’s like a journey where the sun is all the time in and out of the clouds. Visions of glory — Schorr entering Valhalla, Melchior invoking the eternal ‘Wälse’, Lehmann’s wide-eyed terror in Act 2, Thorborg’s sumptuous Rheingold Erda, Flagstad’s entry for the Immolation — these and their kind are sufficient to light up the whole experience in retrospect. But . . . well, there are many ‘buts’. Melchior and Bodansky aid and abet each other in a manic gallop through the first scene of Siegfried. Schorr, near the end of his career, is badly in need of his lost high notes. It seems unlikely that Dezso Ernster would be anyone’s ‘dream’ Hagen. And so forth. And yet it’s out of such material as this that my own ‘dream Ring’ would be fashioned; and therefore, knowing that dreams do not always go where one wants them to, when the poet asks ‘If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?’, the answer comes sure enough. I’ll buy this.

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