Joseph Keilberth
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
28 July 1955
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedWolfgang Windgassen
BrünnhildeAstrid Varnay
GuntherHermann Uhde
GutruneGré Brouwenstijn
AlberichGustav Neidlinger
HagenJosef Greindl
WaltrauteMaria von Ilosvay
WoglindeJutta Vulpius
WellgundeElisabeth Schärtel
FloßhildeMaria Graf
1. NornMaria von Ilosvay
2. NornGeorgine von Milinkovic
3. NornMina Bolotine

Have Testament trumped their own ace? Hans Knappertsbusch’s live 1951 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung was finally released by Testament to great acclaim in 1999 and quickly established itself as a benchmark for Wagner’s apocalyptic opera. This 1955 Bayreuth performance conducted by Joseph Keilberth also unfairly gathered dust in the Decca archives for half a century before being released to favourable reviews, many claiming it is now the Götterdämmerung to own.

With so many components making a Wagner opera recording it’s a question of swings and roundabouts.

In her 2000 autobiography 55 years in 5 acts: my life in opera, Swedish/American soprano Astrid Varnay expressed disappointment that her Brünnhilde was not commercially available. By the time this Testament Ring was released Varnay was the only major cast member left to enjoy the positive response so it is both appropriate and moving that the booklet’s cover photograph is of Varnay with the Vassals. The final photograph is of Varnay in her dressing room before her make-up mirrors.

What of Varnay’s singing? Dramatically this is a firecracker performance illuminating Brünnhilde’s narrative though textual clarity and colour. The opening duet, for example, gains excitement and momentum as Varnay brightens her tone, the final rapturous “Heils” thrillingly nailed and extended. However Varnay’s line is undermined as she swells into more notes than you could wave a spear at. Unfortunately her basic tone suffers from fruitiness although her dark lower register is particularly effective in Act II as Brünnhilde crosses from incomprehension and deep pain at Siegfried’s betrayal to bitter fury. For technical security, radiance and dramatic insight Rita Hunter remains my benchmark.

Where the 1955 casting scores over 1951 is Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried. Windgassen’s tone is bright and sunny at the start yet very much the faltering heldentenor in the death scene. Bernd Aldenhoff for Knappertsbusch is fettered with a gritty tone which almost ruins the otherwise splendid opening duet. Yet Aldenhoff does settle in Act III and his death scene is similarly moving.

Gré Brouwenstijn’s tremulous yet expressive Sieglinde is resurrected in this Grutrune. Her quick vibrato arguably suits a character which might be conceived as having a flaky edge. Hermann Uhde encompasses both Gunther’s external command and inner weakness. Josef Greindl’s pitch black implacable Hagen is truly terrifying yet Ludwig Weber in 1951 reveals more layers of characterisation. For example Weber instructs the Vassals to slaughter sheep for Fricka with brutal comradely comedy whilst Greindl sings the lines straight.

Wagner’s grandsons recruited Keilberth along with Cluytens, Kempe, Böhm and Krauss in a post-war trend towards less monumental conducting. Keilberth is certainly swift, conducting Götterdämmerung 24 minutes faster than Knappertsbusch in 1951 so the whole of Act III fits onto a single CD. However Keilberth does not lean too forward in the manner of Böhm; instead Keilberth’s conducting is characterised by natural lyricism which suffuses Götterdämmerung with surprising warmth. The opening duet is notably exciting for being music of the air, almost Mendelssohnian, with upper strings and woodwind colours imparting surging energy within supple rubato.

It’s the dark end of the spectrum, the descent into tragedy, that somehow fully eludes Keilberth. The Prologue misses the impending doom that you hear in spades under Knappertsbusch, although Keilberth expertly develops the cumulation points. The Act II brass interjections amid the summons of the Vassals are certainly fearsome and Keilberth thrusts home the tension to the close. Yet Knappertsbusch just has the edge with slower tempi imparting a malignant sense of evil.

The start of the 1955 Funeral March is impressive with woodwind floating above basses and low brass. Keilberth thrillingly builds tension but the resulting accumulation is somewhat disappointing as the timps lack thunder although the trumpet soars clearly enough.

Keilberth ends Götterdämmerung splendidly but that’s not enough. Crucially the world does not sound as though it is collapsing as leitmotif piles upon leitmotif in Keilberth’s Immolation scene. Valhalla’s demise, the overflowing of the Rhine and, my favourite, the orchestral grand command as Brunnhilde summons Loge to destroy Walhalla do not match Knappertsbusch’s dramatic and tonal weight. Keilberth crucially misses the fury and escalating violence of Toscanini (live 1940, Guild Historical) and Furtwängler’s overwhelming dramatic tension (live 1950, Testament). One can hear why Keilberth in his day was considered a fine conductor but overshadowed by such contemporaries.

The stereo sound is a balm after listening to pirate Bayreuth broadcasts from the 1950s where the Bayreuth orchestra is too recessed. Here the singers and orchestral voices are generally well balanced although there is compression and unobtrusive shifts in perspective. The prompt is blessedly unobtrusive, unlike the 1951 Immolation Scene where she can clearly be heard reading Varnay’s lines.

The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is not in the same league as Levine’s Metropolitan Orchestra (DG) or their modern successors under Barenboim (Teldec). The upper brass can sound somewhat strident with the trumpets being a tad forward. The strings can catch your ear though, their sensitive and lyrical phrasing the best example of Keilberth’s style.

Testament’s booklet contains essays, biographies, production photos and the libretto in German and English. The booklet notes add little to those in the earlier issues in the cycle. It would have been better to know more about the performers in relation to Götterdämmerung, details of the editing and anecdotes relating to this particular production.

The booklet says this Götterdämmerung was recorded on 28 July 1955 but I wonder whether the patching is taken from dress rehearsals or other performances? If so, why weren’t various noises and glitches edited out? For example listeners will clearly hear a lady talking in the wings stage-left 25 seconds into CD1 track 8. However audience noises and stage sounds are generally unobtrusive and, to my mind, add theatricality and atmosphere.

Testament will in future issue Keilberth’s 1955 Ring in the format they should have chosen from the outset: as a unified set presumably with one comprehensive booklet. Unfortunately their site states that 1955 cycle will still be spread over 14 CDs so it appears Siegfried will remain musically disfigured by unnecessary breaks. They could easily fit each Siegfried Act onto a single CD. Why, why have they done this?

So purchase Keilberth’s Götterdämmerung with confidence but faced with a choice then stick with Knappertsbuch 1951. This can be supplemented by the final scenes under Goodall (1972 studio Chandos mid-price single CD) and Immolation scenes conducted by Furtwängler (1950 live, Testament) and Toscanini (1940 live, Guild Historical). Modl’s 3rd Norn, Weber in Hagen’s watch, Knappertbusch’s thrilling mastery as the Götterdämmerung tragedy unfolds and evolves with devastating power and majesty, the deepening orchestral rubato as Varnay turns to face the inferno really are the stuff of legend.

David Harbin | 7 June 2007

The Guardian

The long overdue appearance of this superb Ring cycle, taken from performances at the Bayreuth festival in 1955, and the first to be recorded in stereo, has unquestionably been one of the highlights of the year’s opera CDs. Following on from the Walküre and Siegfried, which were issued in the spring, the Rheingold and Götterdämmerung complete a cycle which now has to be ranked alongside the very finest available on disc, and one that in some respects outpoints all its rivals.

Hans Hotter’s incomparable Wotan is in marginally fresher, more authoritative voice here than when he took part in the famous studio recordings of The Ring under Sir Georg Solti, for Decca, which began three years later, just as Wolfgang Windgassen sings with far more freedom and tireless musicality as Siegfried in this Götterdämmerung than he does in the Solti version made in 1964. Alongside them, Gustav Niedlinger’s Alberich is implacably venomous in both works, while Josef Greindl’s Hagen is unfathomably dark – his summoning of the vassals in Götterdämmerung is one of many moments that chills the blood – and Astrid Varnay’s Brunnhilde is touchingly heroic.

In general, the recorded sound is wonderfully vivid, though in Rheingold the Nibelheim scene is marred by a rushing noise that was apparently caused by the Mixtur-Trautonium, an early electronic instrument used to produce the sound of the offstage anvils, which was apparently recommended to Bayreuth by the composer Carl Orff. Time and again the epic sweep of Keilberth’s conducting catches the ear, not just in his presentation of the great orchestral set pieces like the Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March in Götterdämmerung, both of which are superbly monumental, but also in the care he takes over details such as the faltering string lines that portray the gods’ ebbing strength at the beginning of the fourth scene of Rheingold. For all the glory of the singing throughout this Ring cycle, it is also Keilberth’s greatness as a Wagner interpreter that is documented so vividly in these wonderful performances.

Andrew Clements | 15 December 2006

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
728 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.3 GByte (flac)
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.