Das Rheingold

Bernard Haitink
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
November 1988
Herkulessaal der Residenz München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanJames Morris
DonnerAndreas Schmidt
FrohPeter Seiffert
LogeHeinz Zednik
FasoltHans Tschammer
FafnerKurt Rydl
AlberichTheo Adam
MimePeter Haage
FrickaMarjana Lipovšek
FreiaEva Johansson
ErdaJadwiga Rappé
WoglindeJulie Kaufmann
WellgundeSilvia Herman
FloßhildeSusan Quittmeyer

Das Rheingold is possibly the most telling music drama, as distinct from opera, ever composed. Wagner’s ability to provide the inevitable music to match its sheer variety of incident not only surpassed anything that had gone before but probably remains superior to anything written since. Within the cycle itself it remains perhaps the single work that is ideally proportioned, economic as to means and pertinent in every detail. Maybe that is why in almost every Ring recording we have had to date the Prologue to the tetraology has provoked such memorable performances. This version is no exception. It is a splendid achievement on all sides—conductor, cast and production.

As Haitink showed at Covent Garden before this set was made he very much has the measure of the work. He knows how to shape and pace each scene, when to hold back, when to press on just how to place relevant detail. Nothing in the score seems to escape him, yet practically everything is heard as part of the total structure. In its quicksilver line, its lyrical sustenance, and its balancing of voices and orchestra his reading calls to mind that of Rudolf Kempe in the opera house and excels that of Janowski on his similar Eurodisc/RCA recording. I don’t want to discuss the reading in too much detail as it is the overall achievement that is so satisfying, but I would just point to the way Haitink allows the music to soar after Fasolt’s love song and after Freia’s release how he suggests the terrible menace of Alberich’s rule over Nibelheim; how—always a tell-tale passage this one—he suggests the inner imaginings of the Gods and Giants when the capture of the gold is in prospect. The terrifying climaxes, especially the delivery of the gold and Fasolt’s death, are tremendous, portending the tragic events that they initiate.

My only moments of doubt came right at the beginning. Neither Haitink nor the Rhinemaidens quite capture the innocent ecstasy or the sheer Schwung of the opening scene: here you need to go to Krauss (Laudis now available on Foyer/Target), Bohm (Philips) or Furtwangler (the EMI set on LP is deleted) for that extra frisson. Indeed, there are one or two other places where their interpretations, in a live context, are that much more inspiriting, and Solti’s trail-blazing Decca account musn’t be overlooked, especially in its most recent, CD incarnation (part of a complete Ring on 15 discs at mid price 414 100-2DM15). But there’s no doubt that this recording is better balanced and more spacious than its predecessors. Nor need the Bavarian orchestra fear comparisons with even the VPO (Solti) or the BPO (Karajan/DG).

It was a touch of inspiration on EMI Executive Producer Peter Alward’s part to engage Theo Adam for Alberich. Always a master of word painting and intense projection of character, he gives us a dwarf as malevolent and dangerous as any, not as well sung admittedly as Neidlinger’s on at least three versions (for Bohm, Krauss and Solti), but quite as potent in declamation, and the unevenness that troubles some in his Wotan isn’t bothersome here, where there is so little need for legato singing. Whether snatching at the Rhinemaidens, lauding it over his slaves, or enduring the ignominy of capture he creates a vivid impression of pent-up fury and is rightly at the centre of the drama. Like all the singers, he is given a forward recording, so that the full force of his singing can be appreciated.

As his adversary Wotan, James Morris is ideal pouring out mellow, well-focused tone unstintingly and getting right inside the role of the ambitious young God. Perhaps the Rheingold Wotan suits him best at this stage in his career. He very much calls to mind George London (Solti), except that Morris’s voice is more secure and his phrasing longer-breathed. He reacts with intelligence and presence to every turn in the story, and now enunciates German with the idiomatic confidence of a native. Another piece of acute casting is Zednik as Loge, a part he took so incisively in the Chereau/Boulez Ring. He is masterly in his accenting of the text yet manages the lyrical moments of ”Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn” without strain. Although there are Loges with better voices on other sets, only Schreier (Janowski) manages to combine such sharp characterization with so much musicality.

Lipvosek is as convincing a Fricka as any on record, and I prefer her richer tone to that of Meier on EMI’s Die Walkure. She sounds like a goddess from her first entry. This Fricka is obviously keeper of her husband’s conscience. The other future inhabitants of Valhalla are just as well fitted to their roles. Peter Seiffert and Andreas Schmidt are youthful and fresh as Froh and Donner, and Eva Johansson’s soprano soars as freely as it should as Freia. Below ground the experienced Peter Haage proves a suitably selfpitying Mime, but never exaggerates his plight with unwanted whimpering.

I have heard somewhat more sympathetic Fasolts than Hans Tschammer but few with such a steady, voluminous voice. Kurt Rydl is a dark-gained, saturnine Fafner. As I have suggested, the Rhinemaidens lack a little in eager projection, but they are an admirably steady trio. Jadwiga Rappe is a properly grave, other-worldly Erda, and her voice is given just the right distancing. Which brings me to the production. The placing of the voices is cleverly arranged to suggest stage movement—such as Alberich approaching centre stage just after the start of the third scene. The anvils, lightning and thunder are all realistically handled, yet without any sense of artificial striving for effect.

I am not going to be so foolhardy as to suggest this version immediately supersedes all others. Solti’s pioneering one, the most convincing part of his whole cycle. the various merits of the live performances conducted by Krauss and Bohm, both more viscerally exciting in certain places, are still there to be heard and enjoyed. So is the Janowski which has just been reissued on two discs instead of the original three (and at mid price), not only as part of a complete Ring but also separately. It matches the Haitink as a recording and is also evenly cast. It is a faster, lighter performance, very immediately recorded, with Nimsgern as a frighteningly ferocious Alberich, Schreier a nonpareil of a Loge, Adam an authoritative Wotan as already mentioned, and fine playing from the Staatskapelle, Dresden. But though certainly competitive and enjoyable (as I found listening to it again for these comparisons), it is neither quite such a penetrating account as a whole nor are all the singers up to their roles, nor is the production so keen. The fine modern recording and the faultless casting on the new EMI, combined with Haitink’s sane overview, make it a highly desirable newcomer in the field. It will be interesting to hear how Levine’s imminent version stands up to this potent challenge. In the meantime, those who have Haitink’s Die Walkure need not hesitate to invest in this prelude to Wagner’s masterpiece. The booklet, by the way, has some interesting illustrations.’

Alan Blyth | Issue 12/1989

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5§§ kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 546 MByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.