Herbert von Karajan
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker
10 October 1969, 29 December 1969
2-6 January 1970
Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedHelge Brilioth
BrünnhildeHelga Dernesch
GuntherThomas Stewart
GutruneGundula Janowitz
AlberichZoltán Kelemen
HagenKarl Ridderbusch
WaltrauteChrista Ludwig
WoglindeLiselotte Rebmann
WellgundeEdda Moser
FloßhildeAnna Reynolds
1. NornLili Chookasian
2. NornChrista Ludwig
3. NornCatarina Ligendza

Now that DG have completed their recording of the Ring it becomes possible to view Karajan’s fine interpretation of the tremendous work from beginning to end. Much attention has been drawn to the ‘chamber music style’ that particularly distinguished his performance of Rhinegold but which, predictably, would become increasingly less suitable in the succeeding operas. Karajan’s refinement and delicacy of texture, and the greater clarity given to the words are notable, but it is demonstrably untrue to suggest that nothing approximating to it all had ever been heard before. To go right back to 1908, great praise was given to Nikisch’s poetic treatment of the Waldweben scene in Siegfried during his first performance of the Ring at Covent Garden – at which I had the good fortune to be present – and experienced Wagnerians will easily be able to recall numerous such instances, past and present, in the opera house.

However, it is all to the good that we have two such splendid interpretations of the Ring on disc, by two great conductors of widely differing temperaments, and a carefully considered and worked out comparison between them would yield fascinating results. This, however, is not the place to undertake any such task but rather to confine this review to Götterdämmerung with some comparative references to the Decca recording.

To begin with the Prelude to Act 1, I was rather sorry that Christa Ludwig was cast for the second Nom as well as Waltraute for her highly individual voice is unmistakeable, but in spite of this she fits well into the excellently sung and balanced trio. The forward placing of the voices, characteristic of DG, does rob the scene of mystery and, pace DS-T, I preferred the veiled acoustic John Culshaw devised for it in the Decca. In the second Norn’s first narration there is a striking example, one of many, or Karajan’s close observance of Wagner’s dynamic directions, changing here in each of seven consecutive bars – p, cresc, poco f, p, dim, più p; and there is, at the end of the scene, one of his finely managed transitions, here from gloom to sunrise and daylight, ending in a glowing climax just before the succeeding duet.

This brings me to Helga Dernesch’s Brünnhilde and Helge Brilioth’s Siegfried. Dernesch’s beautiful lyric soprano, ample in tone, even throughout its range and with a valuable rather dark lower register, her innate musicality, her warmth of expression, her high notes placed with unerring accuracy, if without sufficient variety of tone, make her an appealing Brünnhilde but the part imperatively calls for Nilsson’s true dramatic soprano, the heroic ring in her magnificent voice. Brilioth’s rather dry voice, no Heldentenor, is somewhat constricted at the top of his range, but he phrases well and sounds more youthful than Windgassen who, however, was in splendid voice in the Decca set. Karajan unleashes the orchestra in no uncertain manner in this scene but at no time overwhelms the voices as he was said to do, by some critics, in the Salzburg Festival performance last Easter.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra do not normally play in the opera house – that is the province of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra – and we are told, in Wolfram Schwinger’s essay in the booklet, that Karajan ‘explained each situation to them at the recording as they had had no previous operatic experience’, whereas the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as John Culshaw reminds us in his book Ring Resounding, had the music in their blood. It is a great tribute to Karajan’s explanations that they responded to him with such understanding. In ‘Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine’ they were on more familiar ground, as also in ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’. There is much delicate detail in the ‘Journey’. another of Karajan’s fine transitions to the first scene of Act 1 and great splendour and nobility of sound in the March.

Thomas Stewart’s excellent Gunther, is not of the stature of Fischer-Dieskau’s in the Decca set, but he does convey something of the King’s dignity, vanity and self-distrust. Karl Ridderbusch lacks the ‘black’ quality and incisive ennunciation of Gottlob Frick’s Hagen. The man is not such an evil character as Alberich and the subtlety in Ridderbusch’s smoothness of manner in his conversation with Gunther, in Act 1, may be concealed from the listener by the beauty of his voice. It was a curious idea to cast Gundula Janowitz as Gutrune and not a successful one. She is not really at ease in declamatory passages but, as one would expect, sings the lyrical ones with lovely tone. She sounds rather as if Pamina had strayed from The Magic Flute into this opera. Decca’s Claire Watson, if less regal and more human, is more in the skin of the part. Janowitz sings ‘Siegfried mein’, after he has drunk the fatal potion, in a cool tone that, does not at all correspond with Wagner’s direction that she goes to her apartment ‘in lively agitation’. Watson is much better here. Ridderbusch’s voice rings out strongly in Hagen’s greeting to Siegfried and he is splendidly virile, with fine top notes, in the summons to the Vassals in Act 2, as also are the chorus of the German Opera. There is, in fact, little to choose here between the DG and the Decca – both are most exciting. In the scene with Alberich the gradual fading away of that evil character is not so well managed as in the Decca. In general Karajan makes little use of aural effects, rationing the thunder and so forth.

Ludwig is even finer in the Waltraute-Brünnhilde scene than in the Decca but I wish the orchestra had been more eloquent as she sings ‘he remembered, Brünnhilde, thee!’. Dernesch is admirable in the great declaration of love for Siegfried which her sister understands as little as she did Siegmund’s love for his sister. No gimmick is used, as in the Decca, to assist Siegfried to imitate Gunther’s voice, Brilioth simply sings as brusquely and as tonelessly as he can. The great scene of the oath to bring about Siegfried’s death is most dramatic and splendidly sung, though here again I miss Nilsson’s more incisive and ringing tones and earlier on the full force of her anguished cry, ‘Betrayed, shamefully betrayed!’

In the Prelude to the Third Act the Rhinemaidens make a better balanced team than their Decca counterparts, when Gwenneth Jones’s voice was too prominent; and Karajan treats the scene very much in his ‘chamber music style’, that is, with great delicacy and refinement. It is very lovely. Brilioth is good in his conversational exchanges with the girls and also in Siegfried’s long narration that follows when Hagen and the huntsmen come in. He sings the story naturally and interests one throughout, and he puts considerablc pathos into his death scene.

I must turn now to the closing scene and here, alas, Dernesch’s inexperience in her part obtrudes and is not helped by Karajan’s slow tempos. There is a constant loss of tension, up to the moment Brünnhilde takes the firebrand to light the funeral pyre. Up to this point I was not moved, recalling Nilsson’s ‘Alles, alles, alles weis ich’ and ‘Rube, du Gott’. Dernesch, also, is unable to bring the noble exaltation and authority of Nilsson into her rapturous greeting to Siegfried and sounds considerably strained towards the end. The orchestral peroration is magnificently played but cannot really compensate for what has been lacking before. I feel sure that with more experience, more variety of tone, more penetration into the soul of the character, added to her already great gifts, Dernesch may well become a great Brünnhilde.

I do not want to make comparisons between the two great orchestras, both of whom play gloriously, but the instrumental balance is better defined in the Decca. Only too often the DG bass, other than when the brass are playing, is weak or sometimes nearly in audible. The overall balance and tonal quality is certainly better in the Decca recording even though the brass, as in the astonishing Prelude to Act 2, sometimes sounds larger than life. In each recording there is a wealth of lovely detail, lyrical beauty and high drama, but I cannot greet Karajan’s Götterdämmerung with the same almost unqualified rapture I expressed about Solti’s, for the reasons given above and for one other of special importance. It lacks the vital onward-going rhythm, the sense of the unfolding of the great symphonic design which I value so much in Solti’s interpretation: he is never episodic. Karajan’s interpretation, nevertheless, remains, a notable achievement, a noble conception which every Wagnerian would wish to possess.

Alec Robertson | November 1970

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
623 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.2 GByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.