Joseph Keilberth
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
14 August 1955
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedWolfgang Windgassen
BrünnhildeMartha Mödl
GuntherHans Hotter
GutruneGré Brouwenstijn
AlberichGustav Neidlinger
HagenJosef Greindl
WaltrauteMaria von Ilosvay
WoglindeJutta Vulpius
WellgundeElisabeth Schärtel
FloßhildeMaria Graf
1. NornMaria von Ilosvay
2. NornGeorgine von Milinkovic
3. NornAstrid Varnay

As Martha Mödl’s Third Norn in 1951 sings ‘the last day of the eternal gods will dawn once for all’ she digs deep within her being and prefigures all the majesty, the drama and cosmic power of Götterdämmerung. The effect is so gripping that I almost regretted that Mödl was not the Brünnhilde.

Well the Walhalla gods have smiled. Wagnerians will know of the live Keilberth Bayreuth Götterdämmerung recorded by Decca on Thursday 28 July 1955 and finally issued by Testament in 2006. This is the alternate Decca recording of the ‘second cycle’ recorded on Sunday 14 August 1955, also in stereo. The cast is again drawn from Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner’s carefully trained stable of singers. Now Martha Mödl leads as Brünnhilde and we also hear Hans Hotter’s Hagen. Astrid Varnay is Third Norn.

There will no doubt be discussions about whether Varnay or Mödl’s Brünnhilde is superior. Many will argue, with good reason, that with so many riches on offer such rankings are superfluous. Anyway, Mödl is the key reason for investing in this set and I would argue that her Brünnhilde is well worth the expense. Varnay is remembered as one of the greatest Wagnerian singers. However, for all her dramatic insights, steadiness and generosity with legato I am bothered by her fruity tone and constant swelling into notes. Her seeming unwillingness or inability to hit so many notes squarely in the opening duet is particularly irritating.

Mödl will also not be to all tastes. As so often with this singer vocal production can sound like an effort is being made, especially where she overuses the chest voice or needs to negotiate top notes. Her final “Heil” in the duet has little of Varnay’s shine or stamina and is also an example of Mödl’s occasionally tenuous intonation. Mödl is also prone to scooping, although this is never bothersome to the extent we hear under Varnay.

The key reason why Mödl remains one of the great Brünnhildes is her ability to evoke Brünnhilde’s torment and explore the ex-goddess’s new-found humanity. As Peter Conrad argued in A Song of Love and Death, Wagner wanted to move beyond the Italian model but packed into Götterdämmerung numerous Italian opera staples. Few Brünnhildes can encompass the ensuing emotions so successfully as love triangles, betrayal, revenge and tangled subplots build with miraculous cumulative force.

This dramatic intensity is borne out through clear diction, innate dramatic intelligence and Mödl’s rich mezzo-gone-up lower register. This becomes the basis for an extraordinary range of colours. Brünnhilde’s very opening lines establish the basic mellowness of the voice. The youthful bright tones of a Hunter or Nilsson may be missing but dramatic tragedy is instantly established. Such acting is especially moving as Brünnhilde digs down to the depths of her soul moving from incomprehension to fury at Siegfried’s betrayal in Act II and when she rejects Waltraute’s demands.

The Immolation is grandly conceived, moving and disturbing. Mödl begins shakily as she overextends (for breath?) the pause before “des hehresten”. Several later top notes are somewhat negotiated rather than rung out. Look to Hunter, Flagstad and Traubel for sovereign line and lift here. The whole central section has extraordinary inwardness as Mödl pays tribute to the passing of the gods. Here she scales right down almost to a hush at “daβ wissend würde ein Weib!”, later intertwining with the basses and horns for “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!””. Finally, as with her Third Norn, Mödl pushes out the drama, firing the lines from deep within her being as Brünnhilde summons Loge to Walhalla. Keilberth is especially impressive here too as the brass dig in and the strings emulate rising flames combining a clear singing line with strong rhythmic attack. Finally Brünnhilde makes one last great heroic stand and Keilberth broadens the tempo most naturally providing an altar on which Mödl pours out the most noble and affecting singing. More than any other performance the listener is profoundly aware that Brünnhilde is a person making a great sacrifice and about to die.

Hotter’s Gunther is impressive yet he sounds too authoritative and one voice size too big to completely fit such a flawed character. This Gunther certainly does not sound a sibling match for Gré Brouwenstijn’s Gutrune. Her basic tone is radiant and lyrical but the inherent tremulousness which undermined her Sieglinde in the first cycle Walkure is here an asset, figuring Gutrune’s neurosis and weakness. As the object of Gutrune’s machinations Windgassen’s Siegfried again lays claim to be one of the finest on record. From the opening sunny, youthful tone to his faltering final lines he is fully the faithful unfaithful hero.

The Bayreuth orchestra plays well for Keilberth but the upper brass can tend towards a squall with the trumpets in particular sounding too tight. They are no match for their Bayreuth successors under Barenboim but Keilberth’s conducting which develops a clearer line throughout is definitely preferable. Everything feels in place and alive under Keilberth’s well sung approach. And unlike Böhm, who can lean forward too hard, Keilberth always allows the music to sing naturally. Keilberth’s Immolation was impressive but not devastating on Thursday 28 July 1955. By Sunday 14 August there is an extra fission which does suggest a world’s end.

Decca’s stereo sound is amazing for its day, especially when compared with the distant orchestral images in the 1953 Krauss Ring and, worse, 1956 Knappertsbusch Ring. There are, as in the first Decca 1955 cycle, compression and shifts in perspective which, for example, undermine the line Keilberth builds in the opening of the Funeral March. Shifts in perspective are also perceptible when the acoustic takes on an added bloom. Who cares about distant audience coughs, backstage chatter as Siegfried journeys down the Rheine and tape hum at the start of the Funeral March? For me anyway, such things add atmosphere to this important archive recording.

Testament’s presentation in this £43 set falls below the high standards in its series of Bayreuth releases and will disappoint collectors. There is no cued synopsis, no separate artist biographies and only five photographs. Two of these photographs are also reproduced in the Varnay set. At least Testament ditched the cardboard sleeves in place of a protective jewel box, albeit one that seems more reluctant to release CDs 2 and 3 than Brünnhilde is to return the Ring to Waltraute. Mike Ashman’s essay is illuminating, especially where he recounts how Mödl felt she was unlucky in love as she did not approach life with the same intensity she lived on stage. Ashman does discuss Mödl, Hotter and Keilberth. The libretto can be downloaded from Testament’s website but the quality is nothing special and I lost patience cutting out the pages from the printed sheets.

Let’s conclude with a small story which says much. EMI wished to release the RAI Italian broadcast tapes of Furtwängler’s live 1953 Ring in which Mödl was also Brünnhilde. They set about making proper payments and obtaining agreements from the performers involved. Mödl, ever the generous artist, was enthusiastic for the Ring to be published and apparently offered to transfer her rights for payment to any colleagues who had since fallen on hard times.

David Harbin | 9 January 2009

The Guardian

Two years ago, Testament issued for the first time the complete Ring cycle that Decca recorded in stereo at the Bayreuth festival in 1955. With Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde and Hans Hotter as an incomparable Wotan, the cast was arguably as good as any assembled since the second world war. Joseph Keilberth’s conducting combined epic spaciousness with a command of the smallest detail. But Decca also taped the second cycle at Bayreuth that year, and it is the final instalment of that, also conducted by Keilberth, which Testament has now brought out for the sake of its intriguing cast changes. While Windgassen was once again Siegfried in this Götterdämmerung, Martha Mödl (who had sung the role for Furtwängler in his famous Rome recording) took over as Brünnhilde, and Hotter sang Günther – luxury casting of the most rarefied kind. Hotter’s vocal presence gives the first act a whole new dramatic balance. And though Mödl is less dramatically flamboyant than Varnay, there is no shortage of vocal power, and a quiet lyrical intensity that is devastatingly effective. Keilberth is just as magnificent as he is in the earlier release. Wagner completists will rush to acquire this set to put alongside the complete 1955 cycle.

Andrew Clements | 2 January 2009


Here, for once, is a recording of a great late Wagner opera which can be recommended with virtually no reservation. It is being issued as a kind of supplement to the complete Ring cycle released a couple of years ago by Testament. The major differences here are that Brünnhilde is sung by Martha Mödl, and Gunther by Hans Hotter. Mödl could often sound tired, but here she is utterly inspired, showing why she is a cult singer. The casting of Hotter as Gunther is more controversial, as this character is normally portrayed as a weakling, more a pawn of the villainous Hagen – once more marvellously taken by Josef Greindl. Hotter shows Gunther as an uneasy king, alternately arrogant and anxious, and morally collapsing in Acts II and III in a subtle and extraordinary performance. Wolfgang Windgassen is even more moving, tireless and likable as Siegfried than he was in the previously released cycle, and there is no comparison with the Solti Ring on Decca, where he is a shadow of what we hear here. Even the small but significant part of the Third Norn is taken by Astrid Varnay, the Brünnhilde of the other cycle, and to glorious effect. The conductor Joseph Keilberth is on top form. There are some stage noises, which add to the atmosphere for me, but may annoy some other reviewers. And the recording sounds so warm, so natural, so true to what one hears at Bayreuth.

Michael Tanner | 20 January 2012


Not quite hot-on-the-heels of the July 28, 1955 Götterdämmerung that triumphantly capped Decca’s long-buried stereo Bayreuth Ring cycle released by Testament comes an alternate recording from August 14, also previously unpublished. Here Martha Mödl replaces Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, Hans Hotter takes Günther over from Hermann Uhde, while Varnay assumes the Second Norn. Robert Levine’s accurately enthusiastic comments about the earlier performance apply here too.If anything, Josef Greindl’s resonantly malevolent Hagen is vocally stronger in Act 2. Wolfgang Windgassen’s vivid, multi-dimensional Siegfried needs no further endorsement from these quarters; however, it’s interesting how subtly he adjusts his timbre at the end of Act 1 when assuming Günther’s form, as opposed to having it done for him via John Culshaw’s studio trickery nine years later. Gré Brouwenstijn’s bigger-than-usual if slightly wobble-ridden Gutrune and Maria von Ilosvay’s superb vocal acting as Waltraute are as consistently fine as they were a few weeks earlier. Hotter’s lieder-like inflections of Günther’s text contrast to Uhde’s more straightforward vocal strength. Although Mödl never matched Varnay’s Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde for power and projection, her sensitive shading in quiet passages stands out.The stereo engineering is excellent for its time, and rectifies a few of the July 28 recording’s skewed balances (the way-up-front Act 2 trombones-as-steerhorns, for instance). Testament provides superb, informative notes by Mike Ashman and rare photos, but only offers a libretto via online PDF files.

Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 8

Jed Distler | 20 January 2012


Es war eine kleine Sensation, als das britische Label Testament vor drei Jahren den von Joseph Keilberth dirigierten Bayreuther Ring von 1955 erstmals der Öffentlichkeit zugänglich machte. Und zwar nicht nur in künstlerischer Hinsicht, sondern auch in klangtechnischer. Handelte es sich doch um einen Live-Mitschnitt, der mit damals modernsten Mitteln ausgestatteten Firma Decca, der dann aber nicht veröffentlicht wurde, weil man der Studio-Produktion unter Georg Solti keine Eigen-Konkurrenz machen wollte.

Weil es ohnehin vor Ort war, nahm das Decca-Team nicht nur den bereits vorliegenden ersten Zyklus auf, sondern – gleichsam zur Sicherheit – auch den zweiten. Aus dem hat Testament, wohl ermutigt durch den großen Erfolg, jetzt die Götterdämmerung herausgegriffen und erstveröffentlicht. Sie weist in drei Positionen neue Besetzungen auf und ist deshalb zum Vergleich vor allem für Sammler von großem Interesse. Hans Hotter übernahm von Hermann Uhde, der für eine Neu-Inszenierung des Fliegenden Holländer gebraucht wurde, die Partie des Gunther und versuchte diesem Anti-Helden etwas von der Autorität seines Wotan zu vermitteln. Astrid Varnay überließ die Brünnhilde, die sie in der ersten Serie gesungen hatte, ihrer ebenbürtigen Konkurrentin Martha Mödl und machte sich in der kleinen Partie der 3. Norn nachhaltig bemerkbar.

Wer den kompletten ersten Zyklus bereits besitzt, wird sich deshalb hier in erster Linie auf Mödls singuläre Interpretation konzentrieren, die an emotionaler Tiefe kaum zu überbieten ist. Mit ihrem erdigen, warmen Sopran, der noch viel von der früheren Mezzo-Qualität bewahrt hat, aber in der Höhe triumphal aufblühen kann, leuchtet sie das Gefühlsleben Brünnhildes, die bei ihr ein Mensch aus Fleisch und Blut ist, in allen Facetten und stets subtil aus. Da hört man mehr Piani als sonst und lauscht gebannt auf feine Nuancen des Textes. Wolfgang Windgassen als Siegfried ist ihr ein sensibler Partner, der die lyrischen Seiten der Partie hervorhebt, ohne an den geforderten Stellen heldische Strahlkraft schuldig zu bleiben. Josef Greindl ist ein wahrhaft grimmer Hagen, der in jedem Ton den Urhaß des Ungeliebten und Zukurzgekommenen zum Ausdruck bringt. Großartig auch Maria von Ilosvay, die mit reichen Altmitteln Waltrautes Erzählung sehr expressiv und textdeutlich gestaltet. Gré Brouwenstijn kann sich als Gutrune bei aller vokalen Opulenz nicht gleichermaßen profilieren.

Die Seele des Unternehmens ist auch bei dieser Gelegenheit wieder der Dirigent Joseph Keilberth. Er ist mit der Götterdämmerung 20 Minuten früher fertig als sein Kollege Knappertsbusch, aber es entsteht nirgends der Eindruck von Eile. Die Wahl der Tempi wirkt ebenso wie die der Dynamik immer organisch, es entsteht insgesamt ein ruhiger Erzählfluß, der die gesungenen Dialoge in heute nicht mehr üblicher Plastizität hervortreten läßt.

Ekkehard Pluta | 04.03.2009

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
752 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.4 GByte (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival. Recorded by Decca but not released (from the second Bayreuth Ring cycle 1955)
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)
Hans Hotter’s only recording as Gunther.