Das Rheingold

Herbert von Karajan
Berliner Philharmoniker
6-28 December 1967
Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
DonnerRobert Kerns
FrohDonald Grobe
LogeGerhard Stolze
FasoltMartti Talvela
FafnerKarl Ridderbusch
AlberichZoltán Kelemen
MimeErwin Wohlfahrt
FrickaJosephine Veasey
FreiaSimone Mangelsdorff
ErdaOralia Dominguez
WoglindeHelen Donath
WellgundeEdda Moser
FloßhildeAnna Reynolds

It is DG’s policy to record and release each opera of the Ring in the year of its first production by Karajan at Salzburg. We had Die Walküre in July 1967, now we have Das Rheingold and the last two operas will follow, in sequence, in the next two years.

As one would expect, Karajan interprets Rheingold in the style he adopted for Walküre – how this will suit Siegfried and Götterdämmerung remains to be seen. An essay, by Wolfram Schwinger, in the booklet labels it ‘Lyrical Cosmos’, referring to the fact that the conductor’s ‘present-day approach to the Ring music has been influenced to some extent by his work in the sphere of Italian opera, Verdi in particular…Despite his pleasure in the powerful unfolding of sound…this music to him is more in the nature of a lyrical cosmos’. The writer lists the virtues of the Karajan style as radiant clarity, virtuosity of sound, highly effective contrasts, cantabile quality, and noble vocal and instrumental beauty. However, with all respect to the writer, most of these virtues are present, if in some cases intermittently, in the interpretations of other leading Wagner conductors, such as Böhm and Solti: but what does especially stand out is the care Karajan takes to be always most considerate to his singers, and this he assuredly is.

To secure ‘vocal and instrumental beauty’, and the rest, needs commensurate forces and Karajan has these, of course, in the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and in his admirable cast of singers.

The 1959 Decca recording of Rheingold has been re-cut so as to match the levels of the later Ring recordings and the general effect is certainly brighter, though the ‘ground tone’ at the start of the Prelude, provided by eight double-basses, is now rather too prominent. DG’s voices, as so often, tend to be too forward, at the expense of the orchestra; but otherwise in this recording the balance is usually good and in this Prelude the ‘ground tone’ sounds at just the right volume.

The ‘effects’ used in John Culshaw’s production of the opera, and then an exciting novelty, were for the most part those indicated by Wagner and some of them are used by DG. Donner’s hammer gives the same high-clink as in the Decca. That Wagner expected a bass sound is clearly indicated in the score. There is an amusing difference between the Nibelungs shrieks – Decca uses trebles, DG tenors. I think the trebles are more effective in suggesting a bunch of small eunuchs. Both recordings fail to devise a way of making Erda sound really supernatural. She rises out of the earth in a bluish light and one wishes it could have been suggested in the recording – but perhaps for that we must await the audio-visual disc. Jean Madeira and Oralia Dominguez sing the warning solemnly enough but without any sense of mystery. Still, these are all small matters.

Both Wotans are young but that is all they have in common. George London (Decca) has a true bass-baritone, Fischer-Dieskau (DG) a light baritone. London cannot match Fischer-Dieskau’s feeling for words, for the musical phrase, but in the scene with the giants one does feel that the DG Wotan is a bantam among heavyweights. Both artists have great dignity and suggest a god-like origin. A good example of Fischer-Dieskau’s failure to fill out a great phrase with ample tone comes when Wotan stands enraptured at the sight of his glittering castle and ends his praise of it with ‘sublime, lordly structure’, set to a phrase which involves a leap up to a high F. Fischer-Dieskau sounds too effortful here. London gives the phrase its due volume. These instances are rare and with Karajan’s sympathetic treatment of the artist we can fully appreciate his truly distinguished performance.

Gerhard Stolze (DG) gives what seems to me a superlative account of Loge which, as a characterisation, leaves Svanholm (Decca) at the starting post. Here is all the malice and guile, the contempt for the other gods, that inhabit this mercurial creature. Foreseeing the ruin that will come to Valhalla he intends to survive. As Martin Cooper says in the DG booklet, he is ‘the only clear-headed and rational being in all the dramatis personnae of the Ring, the rest of whom are the slaves of their passions, their ambitions or emotions’. Stolze uses an extraordinary variety of tone from a mere whisper – sometimes almost inaudible – to the denunciatory, and manages the lyrical phrases given to him very well. This is a virtuoso performance.

To say that Zoltan Kelemen’s Alberich (DG) can stand up to Neidlinger’s (Decca) is to give him the highest possible praise. Neidlinger was persuaded by Culshaw to sing Alberich for the last time in the Decca recording. He thought it ruinous to a voice in its prime. Not all Neidlinger’s diabolical intensity is conveyed to Kelemen but his younger voice enables him to fill out the climactic moments without strain. Robert Kerns (DG) is not weighty enough for Donner and in this part I prefer Decca’s Eberhard Waechter. On the other hand Erwin Wohlfahrt’s Mime (DG) is better sung than Paul Kuen’s. No one today could equal Martti Talvela’s huge bass as Fasolt (DG) and he is vocally more in character than Walter Kreppel, whose romantic approach suggests, as AP said, a romantic young giant more interested in Freia than in the gold. Honours are equal between the Fafner’s.

Among the female singers Josephine Veasey (DG), also the Fricka of the DG Walküre, gives another excellent performance in Rheingold. There can be no basis of comparison with Flagstad’s wonderful singing of the part (Decca), for that was something unique in the annals of Wagnerian opera. Decca’s Rhinemaidens were a good team but DG’s are even better and their Wellgunde is sung by a soprano and not as in the Decca by a contralto. My Schott score lists her among the ‘high sopranos’ though the vocal range of the part is that of a mezzo-soprano, and Flosshilde that of a contralto. Edda Moser’s warm tones sound to me like those of a mezzo-soprano.

On balance I prefer Solti’s ‘ecstatic dynamism’ as Schwinger describes it in the DG booklet. I entirely agree with AP’s description of his interpretation as ‘superb, extraordinarily faithful, never eccentric, never obtrusive, lyrical without ever becoming slack or sluggish, dramatic without ever being overbearing’. Others may prefer Karajan’s more relaxed approach, the chamber-music like quality he gives to many passages, his preoccupation with tonal beauty and perhaps a more subtle gradation of dynamic levels, his revealing direction to the brass not to become aggressive when the gods enter into Valhalla. ‘Strength alone is not enough’, he says, ‘it can be played beautifully as well’. A price has to be paid for this restraint and there are some rather dull patches, as for example in the orchestral passage (the Valhalla theme) just before Wotan begins ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’, in the last scene, which does not glow.

But it is the old story, both are splendid interpretations that have much to offer in their own individual ways, both have magnificent orchestral playing and wonderful singing. In a word, one wants both of them. Decca’s booklet with the 1959 issue was a meagre affair compared with those which accompanied the other three operas and no doubt the reissue will be given a new one. DG’s handsome production has the libretto in German, English and French.

Alec Robertson | September 1968

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This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.