Der Ring des Nibelungen

Bernard Haitink
Chor und Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
November 1988 (R), Feb/March 1988 (W)
November 1990 (S), November 1991 (G)
Herkulessaal der Residenz München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



In the years 1988 to 1992 when the four parts of this Ring cycle were issued piecemeal they came into direct competition with the simultaneously produced DG cycle from Levine and Metropolitan forces. On top of this both companies had the same singer, James Morris, as Wotan – seemingly the only one at the time up to the requirements of this superhuman role. Generally speaking one can say that Levine’s reading is the grander whereas Haitink’s is leaner and lighter. This may sound like ruling Haitink out from the very beginning as being inferior, but ‘light’ in this context has nothing to do with lightweight – it rather indicates a springier gait as opposed to Levine’s more ponderous jog-trot. Both approaches can be valid but with the recent knowledge of Wagner’s instructions at the first Bayreuth production in 1876, recorded by his assistants, it seems that Haitink instinctively felt Wagner’s will. ‘Never drag’ was a recurring comment from the master and he knew best. The Hartmut Haenchen recordings – on both DVD and CD with different casts – blew away the old cob-webs but Haitink isn’t that far away either with light and rather airy textures and beautiful playing from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Initially I thought once or twice that a little more energy wouldn’t have come amiss but either I adjusted to it or he caught up with his intentions. The arrival of the giants in Das Rheingold is truly formidable and with state-of-the-art recording the impact is great. As with Haenchen I thought the prelude to Die Walküre was too streamlined – here my ideal is Furtwängler’s jagged and rather unwieldy approach. The same difference is evident in the Ride of the Walküre, but these are rather exceptions. By and large Haitink’s is a splendid reading and I need only mention the jubilant end to act II of Siegfried and the likewise exuberant prelude to act III. It should also be said that the whole build up to the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung is grandiose and is marred only by less than appealing singing from Brünnhilde. These highlights are not isolated ‘hits’ but part of a generally well conceived reading. From an orchestral point of view this set is utterly satisfying.

A look at the casts above reveals that EMI have assembled a group of singers in the highest division, some seasoned veterans and some who were fairly new at the time but have turned out to be eminent in their generation. The casting is also, with a few exceptions, very consistent, which contributes to making the cycle as a whole very coherent. Of the major roles it is only Fricka that is exchanged. In Das Rheingold Marjana Lipovšek depicts the mixed emotions of the frustrated wife with tenderness as well as biting anger and often sings in a beautiful bel canto style. Waltraud Meier in Die Walküre is even more beautiful and the sadness in Fricka’s long solo So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern is tangible and Deiner ew’gen Gattin heilige Ehre has a nobility that is almost sacred.

Towering presence characterises the two rulers of the elated Valhalla and the infernal Nibelheim. Theo Adam was for many years a leading Wotan, with two complete Ring recordings to his credit: Karl Böhm’s live set from Bayreuth in the mid-1960s and Marek Janowski’s studio set from the early 1980s. Here he is a wonderfully expressive and diabolic Alberich with superb enunciation. He has the ability to convey also the visual aspect of his reading through vocal means alone. His voice was never a particularly beautiful instrument and here, when he is well past sixty, the tone is sometimes unsteady and much of the reading is delivered in a kind of speech-song. One doesn’t expect Alberich to be anything but mean and repulsive but Adam manages to create a three-dimensional portrait of the dwarf. In his monologue in Das Rheingold, after he has been released, Bin ich nun frei?, it is possible to feel pity for him. But it is the evil side that is the most telling and when he spits out his damnation of the ring, Meinem Fluch fliehest du nicht!, it is really spine-chilling. He is just as expressive in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and especially in the latter opera his Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn? is memorable in its hushed intensity.

As his antithesis, Wotan, James Morris impresses greatly with untiring power and very often also lyrical sensitivity and warmth. A good instance is in the second act of Die Walküre when he defends the love of the twins. His depression after being forced to give in to Fricka’s demands, Was keinem in Worten ich künde, is low-voiced but strongly emotional. The long scenes with Brünnhilde are strongly charged and in the final monologue he almost challenges Hans Hotter. Der Augen leuchtendes Paar is truly moving. His is also a grand, authoritative Wanderer. Occasionally he is a bit rough-hewn but all through the cycle he is a pillar of strength, always committed, never bland. As a whole this is a reading to compete with the best.

Overall there is an impressive array of low male voices on this set. Hans Tschammer is a sonorous, noble and beautiful Fasolt. Kurt Rydl in those days was much steadier of voice than he has been lately and just as expressive as Fafner. In Siegfried he is nothing less than formidable. This is an adjective to apply also to Matti Salminen’s Hunding: black, malicious – but also warmly human when he first meets Siegmund. John Tomlinson, soon to become Bayreuth’s Wotan, is here a nasty Hagen, singing with black steady tone and impressive presence. Thomas Hampson as the weak Gunther in Götterdämmerung initially sounds uncharacteristically harsh and dry-voiced but in the second act he has recovered. Andreas Schmidt is a powerful Donner in Das Rheingold.

In the tenor department Peter Seiffert as Froh delivers a glowing Zur Burg führt die Brücke and Heinz Zednik is an oily Loge. Peter Haage’s Mime, light-voiced and lyrical, manages to bring out the duality of his character, the falseness as well as the occasional humanity, better than any other tenor I can recall. I haven’t heard Peter Schreier, who was widely praised for his assumption of the role on Janowski’s set, but this must be in the same division.

Of the tenor heroes Rainer Goldberg’s Siegmund is rather dry-voiced but he is sensitive with words and nuanced in his phrasing. Steely power is reserved for the big solos with an impressive Winterstürme crowning his achievement. He sang Siegfried on the competing Levine set. Siegmund on the Janowski recording was Siegfried Jerusalem but here he is upgraded to his namesake in the concluding two operas. Just as on the slightly later Bayreuth Ring under Barenboim (on both CD and DVD) he is superb. His tone lacks the baritonal darkness of a Melchior and it isn’t the most voluminous of voices. In the dialogues with Mime it is sometimes hard to tell who is singing. This is however the only drawback I can find in his vocal armoury. He is expressive, has excellent diction and beauty of tone and he phrases with the utmost musicality. The hot-tempered and not very likable young Siegfried is well depicted and the forging scene is thrilling and sung with a good deal of swagger, helped to no little degree by Haitink’s swinging conducting. But he also has great lyrical beauty. When he ponders on his parents, whom he never saw, he surpasses most other Siegfrieds with an unforced and natural outpouring of almost Mozartean elegance. The older Siegfried in Götterdämmerung is just as convincing with ardent and vital singing in the prologue but even this is surpassed by his death scene Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!

On the distaff side Marjana Lipovšek also appears as a Waltraute full of character. The Rhinemaidens are excellent in both their constellations. In Götterdämmerung the three Norns are starry casting. They are well contrasted with Jard van Nes’s rounded and warm portrayal. Anne Sofie von Otter is brighter and more intense and Jane Eaglen dramatic and brilliant – pointing forward to her career as a leading hochdramatisch soprano. The octet of Valkyries are splendid. Eva Johansson is a fresh Freia and Jadwiga Rappé an excellent Erda.

One of the finest assumptions in this Ring cycle is Cheryl Studer’s Sieglinde, relatively early in her recording career. She is youthful, eager and warm. Her combination of lyrical beauty and dramatic brilliance reaps laurels, not least in Der Männer Sippe, where the intensity is whipped up almost to ecstasy and true ecstasy is reached in the final duet of act I. Jessye Norman was a magnificent Sieglinde on the Levine set but Studer is much more believable through the greater sense of vulnerability. Eva-Maria Bundschuh is a good Gutrune in Götterdämmerung and might have been able to take on Brünnhilde as well. A somewhat surprising guest appearance is Kiri Te Kanawa as Woodbird. This is a role normally allotted to a bright light-voiced coloratura soprano, more twitteringly bird-like, but Kiri Te Kanawa lightens her voice admirably and it is a fine bonus to have her in an unlikely role.

I have left Eva Marton’s Brünnhilde to the last and hers is the achievement that is most problematic. No one can deny that she has the grand voice for the role and she has many moments of deep-probing insights. The final scene of Die Walküre is certainly deeply felt. She is also able to scale down her big voice as in the final scene of Siegfried, Heil dir, Sonne. The immolation scene in Götterdämmerung is involved and full of expression. But – and the extra bold type is intentional, since it is a strong but – very little of her singing is attractive as pure singing. Her once glorious instrument had by the late 1980s lost much of its lustre and steadiness. Following her through almost four years, from Die Walküre, recorded in February and March 1988 to Götterdämmerung recorded in November 1991, the vocal decline is obvious. The tone becomes more occluded and – most annoying of all – the already over-generous vibrato develops more and more into a wobble. Her diet of heavy roles had taken its toll. I was lucky enough to hear her somewhere around 1980 as Judith in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and then she was glorious. About that time she recorded Korngold’s Violanta – with Siegfried Jerusalem as on this Ring cycle as her lover – and she is great there. On an LP (Sefel Records SEFD 5024) published in 1984, she sings a wonderful Wagner program with an immolation scene to trump most other sopranos of the period. It is a vibrant voice even here but it is steady and crystal clear and with brilliance in the upper region that almost challenges that of Birgit Nilsson. The one she delivers a decade later for Haitink is only a shadow of the excellence on that LP.

Brünnhilde is central to any Ring cycle and question is: is Eva Marton’s less than appealing singing so serious a drawback that it rules this set out? I don’t think so. It is still a powerful reading of considerable merit and not every listener reacts negatively to wobbles and other voice defects. I also derived quite a lot of pleasure from her involved and convincing singing. Since this is the only real blot on this impressive enterprise I still rate it as one of the most recommendable Ring cycles in relatively recent years. Barenboim’s Bayreuth cycle – which is not a live recording – is a prime recommendation in either format (DVD or CD) with the same Siegfried as here, the wholly admirable Anne Evans as Brünnhilde and John Tomlinson’s authoritative Wotan. There is also the recent Adelaide set, live recorded, with tremendous SACD sound and excellent conducting by Asher Fisch. It also has Lisa Gasteen as a strong Brünnhilde, John Bröcheler a better than average Wotan and Stuart Skelton arguably the best recent Siegmund. Siegfried is sung by two different tenors and Gary Rideout as the young Siegfried is very good while his counterpart in Götterdämmerung is less successful. There are other cycles as well but on all counts Haitink’s is one of the frontrunners.

Göran Forsling

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EMI (R, W)
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512 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 3.2 GByte (flac)