Bernard Haitink
Chor und Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
November 1991
Herkulessaal der Residenz München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedSiegfried Jerusalem
BrünnhildeÉva Marton
GuntherThomas Hampson
GutruneEva-Maria Bundschuh
AlberichTheo Adam
HagenJohn Tomlinson
WaltrauteMarjana Lipovšek
WoglindeJulie Kaufmann
WellgundeSilvia Herman
FloßhildeChristine Hagen
1. NornJard van Nes
2. NornAnne Sofie von Otter
3. NornJane Eaglen

Haitink is astute at setting the mood of a scene. The louring menace in the Prelude that suggests the dark deeds of Act 2 is as unerringly caught as the primal innocence of the Rhinemaidens that begins Act 3. The latter is preceded by an ideal balancing of the various calls, the timbre of the individual brass instruments caught in just the right perspective. In listening to an opera at home, a Wagnerian one more than any other, this kind of unobtrusive detail is just as important as the accomplishment of the purple passages and tells us as much about the care taken over the recording’s characteristic. I compared the same passages in both the Levine (DG) and Solti (Decca), until now the best engineered sets, and was amply convinced that Haitink and EMI have achieved the best balanced and most spacious sound to date. The sound is resplendent. When Haitink does pull out the stops as in the hair-raising climaxes of Act 2, the funeral march in Act 3 or the apocalyptic downfall of the finale, moments unmatched in any other music, he gives us a marvellously rich and incandescent canvas—just as he had done at Covent Garden in the same work shortly before making this recording. The experience of those opera-house encounters has also taught him to manage these magical, masterful transformations, that make this score so unique, with complete authority, taking him into the elite of those who have attempted The Ring. As with many of his predecessors the work itself has inspired him to new heights in the alert concentration of his interpretation. As a whole it is also a triumph for his orchestra, surpassing its excellent form in the previous works of the cycle. The strings are warm and luminous throughout, the wind rounded, the brass incisive without being blatant.

Jerusalem goes one better even than his admirable performance in Siegfried (11/91). Here his execution is more positive, fuller in tone. As before it is distinguished by attention to exact note values and rhythmic precision: listen to his account of Siegfried’s Act 3 narration, alive in word and feeling and enhanced by Haitink’s unfolding of the recollection of motifs—and the death scene has dignity if not quite the inner eloquence of Windgassen (Solti). Earlier the Act 2 reply to Brunnhilde’s accusations is trenchant and vivid, no doubt as a result of his Bayreuth experience of the role. His heroic delivery is answered by John Tomlinson’s Hagen, the very incarnation of eager malevolence. The glee of his boastful enunciation and his misplaced confidence that he will regain the Ring are made manifest in his gloriously pointful delivery of words, consonants to the fore. Is it all too Sprechgesang? Perhaps so by comparison with Salminen’s more rounded, rich singing for Levine, but Tomlinson easily justifies his very individual and compelling interpretation. At the start of Act 2, Theo Adam as Alberich is equally articulate, father and son alike in their scheming nastiness.

Remarkably, because the role is new to him, Hampson gives a thoughtful portrait of Gunther and suggests a more youthful figure than we have become accustomed to, while not matching the subtle detail of the remarkable reading of Fischer-Dieskau (Solti)—and Hampson’s tone is undoubtedly a shade too soft-grained for Wagner. All Waltrautes seem elevated by the music written for them: Lipovsek is no exception. She tends to the grand, authoritative reading of Ludwig (Solti), rather than the somewhat more reticent, urgent account given by Schwarz (Levine). The Norns have been cast from strength and could hardly be bettered and the voices of the Rhinemaidens blend nicely. Bundschuh’s Gutrune, steadily and securely sung, is not as convincingly glamorous as Studer’s (Levine). Her tone is rather rich and mature for Gutrune—might she have been a Brunnhilde? Which brings me to the big bugbear that prevents me giving this set an unreserved recommendation, indeed sets it back on its heels—Marton’s Brunnhilde. Her voice judders uncomfortably from start to finish so that virtually every sustained note becomes almost a trill. Under pressure her tone now loses colour, becoming unacceptably harsh so that it is uncomfortable to the ears. Behrens (Levine) may not have been ideally steady or, as JBS pointed out in his ”Quarterly” (10/91), full enough in the middle register, but she is a pleasure to hear after the aural assault of Marton’s performance. If there were some distinction of interpretation, one might be prepared to put up with the ugly sounds, but by and large Marton’s phrasing is jerky and her dynamic level seldom goes below forte. Nowhere are the insights provided by Behrens apparent. As Brunnhilde is unquestionably at the centre of this work, this unsatisfactory performance is a serious drawback. It is the price that has been paid, given the unpredictability of singers, for recording a cycle over as many as four or five years. You have only to turn to Nilsson (Solti) at almost any point in the opera to hear how the role responds to secure vocalization and finely delineated phrasing.

It will be time to assess the recently completed cycles of Haitink and Levine when they are issued as complete entities. Where its great finale is concerned, I don’t detract a word of my praise for the Levine, but EMI have trumped even DG’s ace where the sound is concerned, and on this occasion, Haitink’s orchestra matches the virtuosity of their Metropolitan rivals. Levine’s reading is the more powerfully tragic, absolutely overwhelming in its sweep and power; Haitink’s the more consistent in the matter of matching tempos and their relationship one with the other. Levine’s reading was lamed by its Siegfried, but not to the extent Haitink’s is by its Brunnhilde. Solti, also a splendid interpreter of this work, has perhaps the most consistent cast and the Decca recording still sounds well, though the voices haven’t quite the presence of those on Haitink’s version. I will stay with Levine or return to the various historic live performances, nowhere so well recorded but often providing very special vocal and orchestral insights. For instance, nobody can match Furtwangler in the exuberance of the Rhine Journey—it’s something to do with the secret of creating inner tension. But I must resist the temptation to reiterate my praises of that great musician’s achievement….’

Alan Blyth | Issue 9/1992


The final opera in the Ring is the best of the four led by Bernard Haitink, recorded in the very early ’90s. Siegfried Jerusalem remains the best of the lightish Siegfrieds of his generation, with an enthusiasm and spring to his singing, dead-on accuracy, emphasis on the text, and sweetness of tone that always pleases. If he isn’t heroic in the Melchoir, Svanholm, or even Windgassen mold, well, he’s everything else. Eva Marton’s voice was an estimable instrument, and even at this stage, when she is not called upon to sing with any great volume or above the staff, she’s a fine Brünnhilde. Sadly, much of the role is both loud and high and her sound is very hard on the ears–wobbly and strident.

John Tomlinson’s Hagen is a supremely nasty character–three-dimensional and utterly evil–and stunningly sung. Marjana Lipovsek’s Waltraute is right-on; her big scene has great urgency and she and Marton create theatrical sparks for the 15 minutes the scene takes. Theo Adam’s Alberich is wobbly; Thomas Hampson and Eva-Maria Bundschuh are good as Günther and Gutrune. Jane Eaglen and Anne Sophie von Otter are luxuriously cast as Norns.

The real issue here is with Haitink’s leadership. Though not quite as bland as the first three operas in the Cycle, his use of the orchestra–it’s a lean, more-transparent-than-usual sound–is more effective and he knows how to build up to the big moments. The sound is very good. But this set is not really in the running, particularly with the Barenboim Ring now being offered at a bargain price, unless Tomlinson’s Hagen and Jerusalem’s Siegfried (he sings the same role with Barenboim, recorded a year or two later) are necessities.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality : 8

Robert Levine

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
549 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 981 MByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.