Der Ring des Nibelungen

Hans Knappertsbusch
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
13 August 1956 (R), 14 August 1956 (W)
15 August 1956 (S), 17 August 1956 (G)
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


Classics Today

Three complete Hans Knappertsbusch Ring Cycles recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival exist via archival or broadcast tapes recorded at the performances. The 1957 and 1958 cycles have circulated on Cetra and Melodram LPs and CDs. By contrast, most of the 1956 cycle appeared for the first time when issued by Melodram and Music & Arts in 1997. Music & Arts has brought out this cycle in its midprice “Merit” series, with identical packaging and presentation.
br>Chiefly renowned for his Wagner interpretations, Knappertsbusch disliked recording as much as he abhorred rehearsals. He preferred to “wing it” in the theater, allowing the inspiration of the moment to guide the performance at hand, letting the chips fall where they might. Consequently, you never knew what you were going to get for the price of your ticket. For instance, there are wonderful moments aplenty throughout the 1957/58 Rings. But the stodgy, pedestrian, and often sloppy work that generally persists does not hold up under the microphone’s unforgiving scrutiny. Not that Knappertsbusch would have wanted these Rings issued, but that’s neither here nor there.
br>On the other hand, just about every bar of his 1956 Ring reveals that Kna could deliver first rate, even inspired goods when he put his mind to it. Even considering the tortoise-like pacing and massive textures, Knappertsbusch’s shaping of each opera boasts more pointed detail, greater animation within phrases, and sharper dramatic contours. His singers, in turn, respond with more vivid performances than their norm under this conductor. Perhaps the principals (Varnay, Neidlinger, Windgassen, Hotter, and Greindl) are in fresher vocal estate three years earlier for Clemens Krauss and Joseph Keilberth, yet their moment-to-moment involvement plus unusual care in making the words clear is never in question.
br>Both Siegfrieds were still relatively new roles for Wolfgang Windgassen, and his interpretation had evolved quite a bit in three years, especially in the opera named for the protagonist. The hero’s Act Two musings take on a new introspection, and there’s more intensity now to his crucial encounter with the Wanderer in Act Three. Die Walküre lets us hear Windgassen’s Bayreuth Siegmund for the first time; the tenor was an eleventh-hour replacement, and an effective one at that. Gré Brouwenstijn partners him as Sieglinde, and the soprano radiates more spontaneity here than in her underrated studio portrayal under Leinsdorf. In Götterdämerung Brouwenstijn’s inward and musicianly Gutrune breathes new life into a role that is often slighted. Hans Hotter brings immense authority to both the Rheingold and Walküre Wotans and the Wanderer in Siegfried, and is in fresher voice than for his contributions to the renowned Solti studio Ring. Astrid Varnay’s powerful Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde, by contrast, is a shade less steady than the 1951 Bayreuth performance under Knappertsbusch issued on Testament.
br>The booklet notes contain a valuable essay by Wagner specialist William Youngren, who dissects the performances point by point, underlining Knappertsbusch’s virtues and defects with rare perception and fairness. He rightly takes issue with Kna’s (not Wagner’s) abrupt and awkward ritards, yet praises the conductor’s cohesive yet unhurried traversal of Das Rheingold. Music & Arts reproduces these archival Bayreuth tapes at a higher decibel level than the Melodram edition, and with better side breaks, but you hear more tape hiss. The last notes of Götterdämmerung Act Two dovetail without warning into the Act Three Prelude. This happens on the Melodram set as well. Strange. All in all, this Ring makes as persuasive a case for Knappertsbusch’s Wagnerian prowess as the 1950 Bavarian Opera Tristan und Isolde and 1962 Bayreuth Parsifal.
br> Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 4
br> Jed Distler

Just how much of Wagner’s music did Wagner want you to hear? It is worth reading Frederic Spotts’ Bayreuth: a history of the Wagner festival which discusses Wagner’s sunken orchestra pit at his purpose-built Bayreuth Festspielhaus and further care as producer of the first Ring productions that the orchestra should never overwhelm the text. Spotts recounts Richard Strauss’s assertion that “Wagner the composer was willing to sacrifice his music for the sake of Wagner the dramatist”. The orchestra should never overwhelm the text or stage action as Wagner aimed to create a new form of ‘total artwork’ or ‘music-drama’.
br>Spotts describes how Bayreuth’s orchestra pit features a forward cowling and sound dampener at the rear which frame a unique sunken platform for orchestra and conductor on six wide steps, descending from the audience side towards the stage. In the theatre audience attention is further kept focused on the drama as the orchestra and light from the pit are hidden from view. Not everyone liked this setup. Wilhelm Furtwängler expressed doubts saying balances should be left to the conductor. Karajan, ever the egocentric, even wondered whether a gap could be sawed out so the audience could watch him conduct!
br>Someone who certainly thought he knew better, for recordings at least, was Decca producer John Culshaw. His pioneering stereo studio Ring, begun in 1957, rebalanced the orchestra with unmatched parity against the singers. Instrumental leitmotifs and sheer orchestral heft emerged as never before on record to create a theatre of the mind revealing new psychological depths for the home listener. Perhaps the absence of visual drama meant Culshaw could get away with the orchestral rebalance. Multi-mic wizardry, some would say gimmickry, ensured the text was not swamped. But would Wagner still have approved?
br>If nothing else Culshaw’s newly imagined aural stage forced open the debate. Later the 1955 live Bayreuth cycle conducted by Joseph Keilberth was finally published in 2006 as the true first stereo Ring and most critics preferred the reinstatement of the natural Bayreuth balances. Yet even there listeners’ perceptions are obviously modified through the engineers’ art. During eighty plus years of recording in Wagner’s Festspielhaus there were numerous microphone set-ups so there is varied representation on record of the authentic Bayreuth sound. Questions of orchestral balance affecting the drama in recordings remain.
br>The radio engineers behind this 1956 live Ring opted for an orchestral image far more diminished than the 1955 Keilberth Ring. Yes, the unique Bayreuth blended sound is certainly evident but Wagner’s orchestral sonorities are constantly under-represented. Timps, woodwind and brass might as well be half way down Bayreuth’s Green Hill. Worse the dynamic impact of Wagner’s miraculous score is often sunk. Try the orchestral explosion of joy and anticipation at the end of the Götterdämmerung duet where the brass and timpani lack the visceral presence to lift the spirits. Worse, the mighty cumulation that closes Götterdämmerung is underwhelming. Throughout the listener must mentally bring out the orchestral lines and imagine how magnificent Knappertsbusch’s orchestra might have sounded if the microphones had been sensibly placed. You might subsequently feel Culshaw had a point even if he took it too far.
br>Orchestral losses focus attention on the voices and luckily, for the most part, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner’s carefully nurtured 1950s vocal team really deliver. Hans Hotter is a totally satisfying Wotan; simply stunning in the Act 3 Walküre Farewell. His voice is beautifully graded from loud authority to hushed inwardness. This acting would befit a great Shakespearian tragedian tackling Lear. It is interesting to compare his lyric and more conversational delivery under the ebullient Krauss in 1953 with the greater emphasis on extended legato here. Interestingly a slight unsteadiness has crept in since the Krauss broadcast. Windgassen is yet again mostly a dream Siegfried and, amazingly, also covers as Siegmund for an indisposed Ramon Vinay. However Windgassen is a lot more accurate in singing on the note for Keilberth in 1955. Here Windgassen can push ahead of Knappertsbusch, noticeably in Walküre Act I.
br>I wanted to enjoy Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde, I really did. I’ve read her autobiography 55 years in 5 acts from cover to cover and am impressed with the roles and career trajectory of this extraordinary artist. Her stage debut began at the Metropolitan Opera as Sieglinde in 1941 aged only 23 and with less than a day’s notice. Varnay went on to sing at great opera houses in the Americas and Europe with signature roles including Brünnhilde, Elektra, Ortrud and Senta. This 1956 Brünnhilde confirms the characteristics for which Varnay was justly acclaimed: dramatic intensity, clear diction, generous legato and vocal heft. Yet Varnay’s constant swelling into notes is bothersome. The mannerism is sometimes so acute one wonders whether it is a tuning issue. And Varnay’s tone is fruity, sometimes even matronly, in the lower and middle registers. Brightness best appears when Varnay unfurls her thrilling top notes with greater emphasis on the head voice. Anne Evans for Barenboim may not have Varnay’s power but her precision and alluring tone are preferable.
br>Legendary reputations can mislead so do try to listen to Knappertsbusch’s conducting with fresh ears. There is magisterial command of line and the saturated orchestral palette. Grand passages such as the orchestral prelude to Act III Siegfried, Hagen’s Watch, Wotan’s kissing away Brünnhilde’s godhead and the entry of the gods into Walhalla have real seriousness of purpose and weight. Dramatic intensity is illumined from within rather than pressed upon Wagner’s score. Yet Act I Walküre is radiant rather than passionately engaged and Act III Siegfried curiously fails to go airborne at the close. Occasionally phrasing can turn sluggish. The Walküre Ride sounds less like the flying warriors we hear under Krauss and Furtwängler than tanks battling through muddy trenches. Such vagaries are all redeemed in the grandly elevated Immolation although both the sound engineering and Varnay are superior in Kna’s 1951 Götterdämmerung (Testament).
br>Maggi Payne’s remastering from an original set of broadcast tapes is impressive and there is an informative, occasionally critical, commentary in the booklet by William H Youngren. Youngren expresses “bewilderment” that Knappertsbusch shows “skill and insight” in Wotan’s difficult Walküre monologue yet conducts a “dreadful retard at bar 54 of the Prelude”. If only all record companies allowed booklet essay writers such freedoms! There is no libretto or cued synopsis. Interestingly Music & Arts can fit ‘monumental’ Knappertsbusch’s 1956 Walküre onto three CDs whilst the 1955 Keilberth (Testament) and 1953 Krauss (Opera D’Oro) are spread over four.
br>Poor engineering prevents this from being a first or even second Ring. Newcomers are best to snaffle Barenboim’s cycle at little extra cost. For an historic Bayreuth Ring turn first to 1953 Krauss or 1955 Keilberth, in fine stereo. The 1953 RAI Ring (EMI) is impossible to supersede in terms of Furtwängler’s conducting at least. If you must hear Knappertsbusch – and you should – cry “Heiaha! Heiaha! Hojotoho! Hojotoho!“ as you fly towards Götterdämmerung live at Bayreuth in 1951 (Testament) or at the Bavarian State Opera in 1955 (Orfeo). The conventional orchestral pit at Munich reveals completely different internal balances to the benefit of woodwinds, timpani and brass. Proof that Furtwängler was right in thinking Wagner should have trusted conductors more?
br> David Harbin

He looked like a granite statue come to life; he was brusque, witty and notoriously reluctant to rehearse; he fell from favour with the Nazis but wielded his baton in Nazi-occupied territories, and he was certainly among the greatest Wagnerian conductors of the last hundred years. But you had to catch him on a good night. Hans Knappertsbusch – or ‘Kna’ as he was affectionately known by many – had an unjustified reputation for slow tempi and slovenly ensemble, but listen to his ‘Immolation Scene’ with Astrid Varnay (Bayreuth, 1956) and you hear Brünnhilde’s apotheosis unfold with an unsurpassed sense of inevitability. It is the crowning glory of a valuable Bayreuth Ring cycle that Music & Arts has issued in astonishingly good mono sound, but that poses the inevitable problem: which Knappertsbusch Ring to buy? Here, I’m afraid, I need temporarily to don my collector’s anorak. There are three complete Kna Rings (1956-8, all from Bayreuth), plus two Götterdämmerungs (from Munich on Orfeo, and from Bayreuth 1951 – forthcoming from Testament), a host of fragments from the wartime Vienna State Opera (Koch) and various studio-recorded excerpts (Decca, EMI, etc). All are – or will be – worth hearing, though not necessarily worth owning. This present production peaks with an exceptional Das Rheingold, and includes a magisterial ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ from Hans Hotter and a fearsome Summoning of the Vassals with Josef Greindl as Hagen. Tempi are, at best, judicious, and at worst wilful, though nothing Knappertsbusch does is beyond musical reason. One major stumbling block is Die Walküre’s rhapsodic Act I, where Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegmund and Kna’s baton are consistently out-of-sync. There, the 1958 Ring (with Jon Vickers, on Arkadia) scores higher marks; but in all other respects, this Music & Arts set is the one to go for. It is an essential supplement to the Rings of Furtwängler (La Scala), Clemens Krauss (Bayreuth) and Solti (Vienna). Choosing a Kna Meistersinger is even more problematic in that Decca’s Vienna Philharmonic recording is now out at mid-price, Orfeo’s 1955 Bavarian State Opera live relay is newly imported by Classical Passions and there’s a 1952 Bayreuth performance (with Edelmann as Sachs) crossing the Pond from Music & Arts. Furthermore, in the case of the Orfeo set, there’s the complication of comparing Ferdinand Frantz’s lovably human Sachs for Kna with his more formal – though no less musical – studio reading under Rudolf Kempe (Berlin Philharmonic, EMI). Generally speaking, Kempe’s is the most consistently well-drilled option (the close of Act II is especially impressive); Kna’s Decca recording (with Paul Schöffler a noble Sachs) is more cautiously drawn, but the Orfeo production has a spontaneity, inner vitality and affable gait that spell joy in virtually every bar. Nothing drags; there are no longueurs, and Frantz’s cast companions include a superb Eva in Lisa della Casa and Gottlob Frick’s memorable Pogner. I doubt that the 1952 version will sound better, though Edelmann’s Sachs will prove an irresistible draw for some. Complicated? A less costly roster of comparisons fits neatly among the four CDs of Richard Wagner on Record, Preiser’s latest contribution to the ever-growing stock-pile of Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’. This particular miscellany features 88 worthy Wagnerian singers in an assortment of roles, with recordings dating from between the turn of the century and the early postwar period. Some names meant absolutely nothing to me, and Preiser’s lack of detailed annotation means that I’m still none the wiser – save that Gertrud Bindernagel was evidently a fine Isolde, and Gertrude Kappel an estimable Brünnhilde. Most, however, are far better known, the transfers are very good and there are some rarities – including a previously unissued Götterdämmerung sequence with Nanny Larsén-Todsen and Erik Enderlein under Leo Blech. All project their own very individual personalities, and they all sound as if they mean every note they sing – which is why listening to old vocal recordings is invariably such an enlightening experience. No one matched heart and voice more effectively than John McCormack, especially in art songs and Irish ballads. McCormack’s horn-recorded HMV and Victor 78s mix variously successful operatic arias with touching lighter fare, some with Fritz Kreisler on violin. Personal favourites include Braga’s ‘Angel’s Serenade’ and the politically loaded ‘The Wearing of the Green’. The voice itself suggests poetic sensibilities, sincere emotion and youthful masculinity in more-or-less constant accord, whereas the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling projected a virile, trumpeting tenor that could soften to the loveliest mezza voce. EMI’s splendid Jussi Björling Edition culls many rarities, most of them Swedish, and scatters them among the famous and well-loved, all in superlative Andrew Walter transfers. If you’re hesitant about hearing Verdi in Swedish, fear not: Björling’s singing could make virtually any language sound universal. Tito Schipa’s lyric tenor is perhaps more of an acquired taste and Preiser’s transfers sound less impressive than EMI’s for Björling, what with bass-heavy accompaniments and thin-toned reportage of the solo voice. However, the phrasing is so eloquent, the characterisation so utterly convincing (whether Ernesto, the Duke, Werther or Almaviva), that sonic inadequacies soon cease to register.

Si d’aucuns les estiment quelque peu dépassées de nos jours, Hans Knappertsbusch fut toujours considéré comme le gardien des grandes traditions brucknériennes et wagnériennes. Dès la réouverture du Festival de Bayreuth en 1951, les frères Wieland et Wolfgang Wagner, les petits-fils de Richard, firent appel à lui, même si leurs mises en scène correspondaient bien peu aux conceptions de l’illustre chef qui, en réaction, se désista en 1953. Toutefois les organisateurs du Festival parvinrent à le convaincre de revenir, ce qui nous valut sous sa direction un impressionnant total de cinquante-cinq Parsifal de 1951 à 1964, sauf bien sûr en 1953, la seule année de son absence ; six Ring en 1951, 1956, 1957 et 1958 ; treize Maîtres Chanteurs de Nuremberg en 1951, 1952 et 1960, et trois Vaisseau Fantôme en 1955.

Du Ring des Nibelungen donné en 1951 par le grand Kna, il ne subsiste apparemment que l’enregistrement du Crépuscule des Dieux réalisé par Decca et qui fut tardivement publié pour la première fois en 1999 par Testament (SBT4175) ; aussi accueillons avec gratitude ce premier Ring complet de Knappertsbusch en août 1956, et cela d’autant plus qu’il s’agit d’une édition Orfeo officielle cautionnée par Wolfgang Wagner, afin de mettre un terme à toute version « pirate », fût-elle techniquement bonne ou mauvaise.

Mais qu’en est-il de l’interprétation ? On ne s’attardera évidemment pas sur les prestations de chacun des innombrables chanteurs qui participaient à cet âge d’or du chant wagnérien ; toutefois il convient de mentionner Gustav Neidlinger qui fut le meilleur Alberich, d’une superbe éloquence, évitant la simple caricature du personnage ; Ludwig Suthaus se révèle excellent Loge ; Hans Hotter n’est plus à présenter, lui qui fut l’immense Wotan d’après-guerre ; Wolfgang Windgassen remplaça au pied levé Ramon Vinay, malade, dans le rôle de Siegmund, pour ensuite chanter, quelques jours plus tard, celui de Siegfried, et sa voix est constamment fraîche, vaillante et juvénile, quoique parfois légèrement trop basse d’intonation, problème de diapason dont il a rarement su se débarrasser ; Gré Brouwenstijn campe une Sieglinde passionnée, tandis qu’Astrid Varnay, idéale en Brünnhilde digne et somptueusement expressive, fait honneur à Kirsten Flagstad qui l’avait judicieusement recommandée aux frères Wagner.

La direction de Knappertsbusch est grandiose et puissante, et on lui pardonnera volontiers certaines habitudes probablement acquises lors de ses innombrables exécutions d’extraits symphoniques en concert : par exemple, si le fait d’opérer un net rallentando à la dernière citation du thème principal de la Chevauchée des Walkyries peut se justifier dans l’arrangement orchestral isolé, il constitue un non-sens si on l’applique à la page équivalente dans l’opéra même, brisant de la sorte la progression dramatique et le rythme mouvementé de l’action. Mais ce genre de défaut d’appréciation ne peut en rien occulter les nombreux instants de pur bonheur dont il nous gratifie tout au long de ces quinze heures de pure musique.

Michel Tibbaut | 20 décembre 2007

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Media Type/Label
GM, M&A, Orfeo, Andromeda, Pristine
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Technical Specifications
451 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 2.71 GiB (flac)
Broadcasts from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)
This is the second Ring cycle from the Bayreuth festival 1956, the first one was not broadcasted.