Let me get the worst out of the way immediately. The packaging sucks. I had difficulty getting the CDs from the cardboard sleeves. Figure out some other way to house the set, because it's worth the effort. Second, the insert notes have no libretto. That is actually less of a handicap than it may sound, however, because I recommend you get Spencer's translation [Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung: A Companion. Themes and Hudson: 500-01567] as a supplement no matter what set you have. I will have more to say about the book as I go.
Now, let me be honest, this is my first concentrated exploration of this Everest of Operas. I must also confess that opera is not what I consider one of my strengths. My Wagner background is primarily listening to overtures and 'bleeding chunks' on discs. Further, I really appreciate Stokowski's way with the music more than anyone else's by a mile. I have sampled the entire cycle in Barenboim's set, but I cannot say that I was concentrating on it. I was trying to 'get a feel' for the piece. Hard to do with a 17 hour 'piece'. So, what you are going to be reading is not so much a review as it is a report. Perhaps this travel log to my odyssey will give some of you an idea how to approach this set when you decide to tackle it.
On my first listening of Das Rhinegold, I read the synopsis of the music in Spencer's book then played the Sawallisch recording. I did not follow along with the libretto. I listened to the integration of the voices and the orchestra. I compared the Barenboim in a back-to-back session. My observations are that I prefer, by a large margin, the sound of this EMI set. There seems more an integration of the two primal forces, Sawallisch captures my imagination at the very outset of the first book. Barenboim's sound has an edge, it is not as rich, the voices sound as if they were almost recorded separately. It is a more hard edged recording and performance. That may appeal to you, but not to my ears.
Next came Die Walkurie. I still was not following along with the libretto but I was developing a real liking for this particular recording. For some reason I didn't have the same feelings of involvement when listening to the Barenboim set. I also noted that I can now even better appreciate Stokowski's recordings of excerpts from the Ring. I was also developing a better appreciation for the overall structure of the opera. I was developing a musical map. I really like Brünnhilde, she has a firm voice sans the vibrato laden operatic quality that turns a lot of people off. I also like Wotan. He is not so deep or strong as heard in Barenboim's recording, but his acting is great! There is a pulse in the music making on the Sawallisch set. I find myself often stopping, gesturing and muttering, "Yes!"
As I was about to start Seigfried, Bill and Mary Ann Pomputius, friends of mine lent me several tapes and articles they had on 'The Ring'. They had attended the whole cycle in Arizona and had 'done their homework' before going. I listened to the cassette about Siegfried before listening. I learned a whole lot of things I wouldn't have by merely reading the summaries/synopsis in the insert notes or in the book. Speight Jenkins' commentary opened up psychological vistas that gave the opera a more human aspect for me. For example, his discussion of Mime made it clear that the character has all the personality of gollum, a completely despicable person. It offered information and insights to the dragon which I would not have been able to appreciate if I'd had only the book and recording. [On the other hand, I found myself regularly not caring for the musical examples on the tapes, taken from Klemens Krauss' 1953 Bayreuth recording]. I would listen to the tape, read the synopsis in the book, then follow along with the summaries in the insert notes as I listened. Now, of course I have to go back and go through the same process with the previous two operas. Which I did.
The next step was to follow the libretto in English as I listened, again, to the first three operas. Now, the only other libretto I have is the one included in the Barenboim set. Frankly, it stinks. What became apparent as I read Spencer was that he has a grasp of the flow and meter of the German language. Reading along was almost effortless. It was like listening to a very good dub of the opera. His commentary on the translation is also insightful. The only weak link in the book is that the summaries leave out some really important information. Of course, the insert notes in the set are also guilty of this error. Following the text as you listen is really neat.
After listening, and re-listening to the Sawallisch recording of Seigfried, I made the mistake of putting on Furtwängler's 1950 performance. (I borrowed that from Bill and Mary Ann, too.) I strongly urge you to invest in the set from Music and Arts [M&A: CD 914 (12CDs: $149.50) rather than some of the pirates. It can be ordered direct from them and can also check out their wares at their site: http://www.musicandarts.com. I think the first two acts of Seigfried are the finest opera I have heard or read. After that the cycle seems to go to hell (pun intended). I particularly like the opening of Act One. Listening to the clanging of Mime's hammer trying to forge the sword is one of those defining moments. Furtwängler manages, using hammer blows that are not synchronized, to capture Mime's anger and frustration in the very sound. Barenboim's Mime, is the most vile, he spits out the words, the venom. On the other hand, it is Sawallisch who integrates orchestra and actor more atmospherically than Barenboim and his Mime is better than Furtwängler's.
As for Sawallisch's recording, I have already mentioned that I prefer it to the Barenboim. I really like the portrayal of Mime. Helmut Pampuch brings out a whinny, slimy aspect that is absolutely delightful (if that doesn't sound like a contradiction). I like the fact that the voices are not vibrato laden and sound like younger people. This is particularly important in Seigfried and Rene Kollo executes the role just fine. Hildegard Behrens' Brünnhilde is wonderful. Wotan might have been a bit deeper for my taste, but I am a mere tyro. The interplay between orchestra and singers is just perfect. All of this we can thank Sawallisch for in his efforts.
I have a problem with the final opera, Der Götterdämmerung. I will probably get over it, but it seems like such a disappointment after the other three. It seems almost like Wagner resorted to 'the truck' ending. In writing it means that if you find you've written a piece and can't figure out how to end it, have everyone get run-over by a truck. Hagen is the most interesting character in this part. Brunnheilde, of course, is the star. Seigfried, however, turns out to be just another dumb man. So, what I am saying is that my current perception of the whole piece is in its infancy and my disappointment is primarily with the plot. On the other hand, I have no reservations about the performance in this recording. Again, Sawallisch and his troops do a wonderful job.
I have mentioned that the packaging is a pain. On the other hand, EMI manages to get the whole set in a rather slim container. In fact, when I first got the package, before I opened it, I wondered if perhaps this was an abridged version. Then I saw that there are 14 discs and knew it was the whole thing. Cost is really low, $92.00 for the set compared with $160.00 for Solti's. That means you can get Sawallisch's set and Spencer's book for less than Solti's set. Now, I haven't heard Solti. A friend of mine loves the set. On the other hand, the sound on this EMI release is really fantastic. The cost approaches Naxos range.
Do I recommend this set? I'd be crazy not to. I cannot find anything wrong with the acting and the orchestral playing and sound is excellent. On the other hand, you know that this is a response from someone with limited reference. My comments are more general, you note few specific comments. This is because I am a tyro. Others may find more reason to quibble, but I think you will enjoy this set and, especially if this is your first the price is right.
Will I actually go to a Ring cycle? Probably not, but I have developed, in my mind's eye, a sense of how I see the opera. Just as having read a book, you develop a notion of how the characters look and act so that no movie will ever capture it as well as your mind, I fear I may have done the same to Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
After writing all of this, EMI sent me the 1953 Furtwängler recording [EMI 6-7123: $85.00]. This is just mind-blowing. Listening to Götterdämmerung I almost lost my reservations about the plot. The final moments, in Furtwängler's hands, are so riveting and tense that my shoulders sagged and I sighed at the end. Out of curiosity I pulled out Stokowski's Philadelphia recordings of "chunks" and listened [Pearl: GEMM CDS 9076]. The sound is fuller, the strings in particular are ravishing. It makes me wish that Stokowski had the chance to record a Ring Cycle. The opening of Mime's hammer blows in Siegfried are not as powerful as in the 1950 performance, but Siegfried is really in good shape. I am constantly amazed at how Furtwängler sucks me into his performances, as different as they are. Like Stokowski, Furtwängler was a wizard and you simply must have one of his performances.
If cost is a factor, I think I have provided the necessary details. These prices were gleaned from Music.Blvd. And directly from Music and Arts. The Sawallisch and EMI Furtwängler sets really should be in your collection given the price and the quality.
Copyright © 1998, Robert Stumpf II