Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wilhelm Furtwängler
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala Milano
4 March 1950 (R), 9 March 1950 (W)
22 March 1950 (S), 4 April 1950 (G)
Teatro alla Scala Milano
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



This is a known quantity, having been available in many incarnations since its creation, but a few words about the performance–and Furtwängler–are in order. This is the only live complete (except for two cuts) Ring conducted by Furtwängler; the 1953 Ring, available on EMI, was taped in a studio, an act at a time. That is not to say that the ’53 is not filled with drama, it is only to underscore the sponanaiety of this one. Where Karajan saw the Ring as a thing of beauty, to be examined under a microscope, and Böhm realized a world in constant flux, with so much excitement that the Cycle’s many tender moments were underplayed, and Solti saw clash, power and disorder in equal parts, Furtwängler saw it as a whole: epic, sober, and in truth a grim story that goes deep into the Teutonic subconscious. Furthermore he was totally aware that it is one BIG story and his passage from one scene to another and indeed, one opera to another, is organic; the story moves inevitably to its tragic conclusion. And it is just this inevitability, this inescapable sadness, that makes Siegfried’s Funeral March so potent and leaden.

At any rate, this new 12 CD set has been remastered with state of the art, 24 Bit Technology, and although I will never either know or care exactly what that means, I can tell you that it has made a world of difference. The formerly dull, thuddy sound has been upgraded. The highs are far more prominent, and this makes a dramatic improvement in the string tone throughout. Of course, it’s still not close to what we’d call excellent sound, but even in the passage right before Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried, there is an incandescence, written into the music, which heretofore had been absent. The brass now ring out truly: so well, in fact, that we can hear the fluffs by the Scala players more clearly. The vocal reproduction seems better as well (and has always been better than the ’53 Ring) but it still occasionally matters where the singer is with regard to the microphone(s). In short, this remastering has given the playing and singing presence, which is just the quality it has been lacking.

And the cast is the cast–and it’s pretty remarkable. Kirsten Flagstad at 55 was still patrician, indeed, goddess-like, with the occasional high C ducked (the final one in Siegfried, for instance, although the one pages earlier had been rock solid, and at the close of the Dawn duet in Götterdämmerung), but the portrayal as a whole remains ravishing. Set Svanholm as the eponymous character in Siegfried uses his bright, young sound well, and if he tires at end of the opera, who can blame him? Max Lorenz as the last opera’s Siegfried does astoundingly bad things to the musical line for drama’s sake (particularly in the Act II confrontation scene) and to save himself vocally at the end of what was a long career, but he’s so involved, he’s almost forgiven. Gunther Treptow’s Siegmund is spontaneous and loving–a man who has found his way, only to lose his life, and while Hilde Konetzni is encompassing and solid as Sieglinde, she tends to keep her emotional distance a bit much. Alois Pernerstorfer’s Alberich is splendidly wicked, almost sophisticated in his hatred. Fredinand Frantz’s Wotan is kingly and firm, and his love for his children comes through. Josef Hermann’s Wanderer (why the change in Wotans? Who knows?) is a bit lightweight, but still effective. Furtwängler indulges in two cuts–one in mid-Brünnhilde-Wotan Q&A in Act II of Walküre and the other, more grievous, between Siegfied and the Wanderer in Act III of Siegfried. Should you own this Ring? Well, certainly not as your only one, but it is a crucial, living document, and the remastering sheds an (almost) entirely new light onto it.

Robert Levine

Given that we have had over sixty years to debate the various comparative merits of Furtwängler’s two live, Italian “Ring” cycles, I should first acknowledge that received wisdom opines that this 1950 La Scala “Ring” is the more incandescent. It is a stage performance rather than a series of concerts, and is, on balance and by a narrow margin, better cast but worse recorded.

This XR re-mastering from Pristine certainly puts paid to the that last objection; I soon found myself completely absorbed by the performance and quite forgetful of the sound problems in previous issues which have for many audiophiles rendered a great account almost unlistenable. I know that I first heard it in the 1970s on a set of LPs from the “Everest” label. The fact that I soon offloaded them speaks for itself. The LP issue from “Murray Hill” is by all accounts no better and both are wildly off-pitch.

Although Andrew Rose cannot compensate for the inevitable tape disintegration in the masters, he has been able to do a great deal of tidying and even reduce the odd percussive cough so we can now hear Furtwängler’s special gift of making the music really “sing seethe or melt” as Deryck Cooke so vividly described it. He is unmatched by any rival conductor in his ability to convey his deep understanding of how Wagner’s themes and leitmotifs interrelate and derive from each other. He confers an arcing, architectural, compositional intensity on the whole “Ring”, reflecting its unity as a true “Gesamtkunstwerk”.

However, no amount of fine re-engineering can eliminate one persistent irritation. This is the constant, relentless, pitiless coughing from a La Scala audience who were clearly all heavy smokers and so unacquainted with Wagner as to find the more demanding passages less than absorbing. They are especially bronchial during the orchestral introduction to “Zu neuen Taten”. By contrast, the invited RAI audience was angelically placid until the time came for applause. Obviously the La Scala recordings provide a broader, more theatrical acoustic whereas the RAI broadcasts are narrower with voices more forward. That said, comparison with Pristine’s own excellent re-mastering of the RAI cycle also reveals that Andrew Rose has been able to uncover a far richer, deeper, more rounded sound for La Scala from a master tape which was evidently recorded at considerably higher volume than the RAI one. You can even hear pages of music being turned in between the hacking. Neither orchestra will ever sound voluptuous but now you can properly hear Furtwängler’s intent to shape key phrases beautifully. Try, for example his exquisite moulding of the music which denotes the bond of love between the Volsungs in Act of “Die Walküre”. The climax to that act is stupendous, despite a blooper from the brass coming in a bar early on “Wälsungen Blut”. Similarly, he makes the “Magic Fire Music” dance in just the way Barenboim does not and the conclusion to “Götterdämmerung” becomes the overwhelming, cosmic experience it should be.

I should mention a further consideration for purists: Furtwängler sanctioned two sizeable cuts in the La Scala performances, one in Wotan’s second-act monologue in “Die Walküre” and another in the Siegfried-Wanderer confrontation in “Siegfried”. Neither seems to me to be of great importance but those who care about such things should stick with RAI.

Apart from these two sets, the other cycle which deserves consideration is the often overlooked and excellent one directed by Rudolf Moralt. This was recorded in war-scarred Vienna between 1948 and 1949 and featured many of the singers heard in Milan a year later.

In my previous review of the RAI cycle, regarding Furtwängler’s conducting I wrote, “In Milan, he is more driven and even at times manic, whereas in Rome the mood is broader and more brooding. His tempi at La Scala are almost as fast as Böhm’s at Bayreuth in the 1966-67 Philips recording; here at RAI the tone for the whole cycle is loftier and more deliberate, although never dull.” In that review, I was also minded to redress what I saw as somewhat unjust criticism of the RAI orchestra. I stand by that verdict but following my recent listening to this restored La Scala “Ring” I think it must now clearly be adjudged superior to the RAI; this especially as the singers, too, are inspired by the atmosphere of a live performance.

The great bonus of the 1950 “Ring” is the presence of Flagstad, here 54 years old. She is shorn of a few top notes but still hits all four top Cs in Act 2 of “Die Walküre” and both in the duet which concludes “Siegfried”, even if the second one is only touched on. She takes the optional low A flat in the closing note. By this stage, Set Svanholm, too, is understandably tiring, yelping a few top notes and inevitably playing second fiddle to a fresher Flagstad but that extended, half-hour duet remains thrilling. We are otherwise privileged to hear her only extant complete Brünnhilde sung in sovereign voice. The middle of the voice occasionally curdles into a matronly tone but she is rock-steady and for the most part the top still rings out nobly. Varnay for Krauss and Mödl for Furtwängler in 1953 were both great vocal actresses but for many, despite a certain marmoreal imperturbability, Flagstad’s vocal amplitude carries the day.

The other major singer common to both Furtwängler cycles and indeed to the Moralt set, is Ferdinand Frantz as Wotan. He had a big, grand, brazen bass-baritone but is in fresher and more expressive voice in 1950, wholly commanding and riding the orchestra at the end of “Die Walküre” but also softening his tone to bid his beloved daughter farewell.

For some, the tenors in the La Scala “Ring” jointly constitute a comparative blot on the set. Certainly by modern standards none is less than good and we would be happy to hear any of them. Treptow was a fine Tristan for Knappertsbusch and excellent throughout for Moralt. Here he undertakes an almost too virile Froh and a first-rate Siegmund. His tone can be metallic and his delivery sometimes percussive but he is credibly heroic. Set Svanholm copes manfully with Siegfried and shines in the forging scene. He is never really imposing but nor is he ever an embarrassment. Max Lorenz’s Siegfried is decidedly worn, despite his being only 48 at the time. The middle of his voice is hollow and he has largely lost the famous ring although the top notes, even the sustained top C on “Hoiho!”is still – just – there. On balance, Suthaus in 1953 is decidedly better than Lorenz and there isn’t that much to choose between Windgassen, Svanholm and Treptow.

For me, despite his fine voice, compared with Frantz, Josef Hermann is not very successful as the Wanderer in “Siegfried”. His neat, lightish baritone is simply miscast; his voice is not the kind to make us believe that it has the heft to summon Erda from the depths. Höngen is a bit unsteady as both Fricka and Erda but she is marvellously acute with the text. Likewise, Ludwig Weber is rocky but imposing in no fewer than four roles: Fasolt, Hunding, the Dragon Fafner and Hagen. Konetzni’s bell-like soprano creates a spirited Sieglinde who is no milksop. She is a little careful but touching as Gutrune. The Rhine daughters at La Scala are less starry than those for RAI, missing Jurinac, but still very fine. Both Donners are good but Mattiello has more ring to his tone than Poell. Sattler’s experienced Loge has less sap to his voice than Windgassen but he makes a plausibly wily intellectual. All Furtwängler’s singers were hand-picked by him, so none is less than good whichever performance you favour, although I still demur at his choice of Wanderer.

Documentation is minimal and no libretto is provided. However downloads include full scores of each of the operas which can be either viewed on-screen or printed out as desired. There is one technical issue which is obviously an oversight: at 2:58 in track 16, CD 4 of “Siegfried” there is an editing jump which will need correction.

Wagnerians everywhere have reason to be grateful to Pristine for resurrecting these justly celebrated performances.

Ralph Moore

Même si à l’origine elles n’étaient pas destinées à une publication discographique, nous pouvons vraiment nous estimer heureux d’avoir à notre disposition deux réalisations intégrales du Ring des Nibelungen, toutes deux italiennes, par Wilhelm Furtwängler ; car hélas, EMI s’y est pris trop tard, en 1954, l’année même de la mort du chef, pour son intégrale studio dont seule une admirable Walkyrie a vu le jour… Ainsi le plus grand interprète de Wagner, Wilhelm Furtwängler, n’a pas attendu la réouverture du Festival de Bayreuth en 1951 pour nous laisser un témoignage de L’Anneau du Nibelung enregistré à la Scala de Milan en mars-avril 1950, et il renouvellera ce témoignage trois ans plus tard à Rome pour la radio italienne RAI.

Tout a été dit au sujet de ces deux productions de légende : à l’actif de la version Scala, un excellent orchestre – même s’il ne peut concurrencer Vienne ou Berlin – et la crème des chanteurs de l’époque, parmi lesquels la Brünnhilde hiératique et insurpassable de Kirsten Flagstad, la voix sombre et incomparable de Ferdinand Frantz en Wotan, un Crépuscule des Dieux d’exception par la seule présence de Max Lorenz en Siegfried, le tout malheureusement entaché d’une prise de son médiocre et d’un public bien peu discret ; à l’actif de la version RAI, une bonne prise de son, des chanteurs plutôt équivalents et d’ailleurs parfois identiques à ceux de la version Scala, mais sans la présence de Flagstad ou Lorenz ; hélas l’orchestre, pourtant primordial chez Furtwängler, est inférieur… Le choix était donc difficile, et les fans de Wagner et/ou Furtwängler avaient donc tout intérêt à posséder les deux versions…

Or la publication de la version Scala 1950 par la Société Wilhelm Furtwängler remet allégrement tout en question ! Nous ne savons par quel miracle l’équipe habituelle, Sami Habra et Charles Eddi, a réalisé un tel transfert, mais en tout cas, le résultat sonore est stupéfiant de clarté et de transparence, et digne d’une excellente captation en mono des années 50. L’auteur de cette chronique, qui a une formation d’ingénieur électroacousticien, sait les heures et les heures de travail ardu et souvent pénible que nécessite ce résultat, d’autant plus qu’il s’applique à un ensemble d’une durée de plus de 14 heures : Sami Habra et Charles Eddi, par leur oreille exigeante et infaillible, sont parvenus non seulement à restaurer avec certitude l’ambiance originale de l’interprétation, mais également à enlever tous les bruits parasites lorsque ceux-ci n’interféraient pas avec le message musical. Il n’est donc guère étonnant que ce soit en une seule fois que fut accomplie l’écoute d’une grande partie de ce coffret, sans aucune fatigue – même au casque – et avec émerveillement, grâce à un son mono excellent et des plus homogènes et naturels : un véritable enchantement !

Le plus bel éloge qui puisse donc être fait, est de dire que l’on se croirait sur place. Et désormais, c’est cette réalisation de la Société Wilhelm Furtwängler française qui prévaut et doit impérativement être acquise pour goûter pleinement cette interprétation sans équivalent de l’immense chef allemand.

Michel Tibbaut

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UORC, EJS, Fonit Cetra, Murray Hill
Fonit Cetra, Virtuoso, Hunt, M&A, Urania, Gebhardt, Opera d’Oro, Line, Pristine, Archipel, SWF, PO
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A production by Otto Erhardt