Der Ring des Nibelungen

Günter Neuhold
Badischer Staatsopernchor, Badische Staatskapelle
Nov 1993-Apr 1995 (R)
Jan 1994-Apr 1995 (W)
Oct 1994-Apr 1995 (S), Apr-Jun 1995 (G)
Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


Classics Today

This Ring was taped live in Karlsruhe in 1993 and 1995, and while this isn’t news that will make true Wagnerians’ hearts beat faster, there are plenty of joys to be found in these 14 CDs, being sold at an incredible bargain price. The Badische Staatskapelle sounds slightly smaller than the usual Wagnerian orchestra, but rather than making the music seem slight, the reduction clarifies textures. Conductor Günter Neuhold leads without eccentricities. He tends to favor brisk tempos–somewhat short of Karl Böhm, however–and that’s very much in keeping with his lighter orchestra and lighter-than-usual singers. It’s almost an anti-Furtwänglerian approach; while both men have a sense of the huge arc Wagner has created, the older German invariably examines or underlines the mythological side of the tale, while Neuhold treats the characters as characters and not as symbols. Simpleminded? I don’t think so–just direct and no-nonsense.

The orchestra never buries the singers and is only let loose during non-vocal moments: the descent and ascent to and from Nibelheim, the finale of Rheingold, the storm music that opens Walküre and the Magic Fire Music, the preludes to each act of Siegfried (the third gets them truly riled up), Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. Even the Calling of the Vassals allows Hagen to remain in the forefront. I don’t know if this is the engineers’ doing or Neuhold’s, but it’s a fine idea.

The quality of the singers varies. I like John Wegner’s Wotan/Wanderer despite the fact that he’s clearly more baritone than bass-baritone. He’s remarkable in intimate moments: his second and third acts of Walküre are very moving, and he rises to grand heights when he’s furious with Brünnhilde; the final confrontation with Siegfried, taken very fast, is genuinely upsetting, particularly since we know the outcome. The voice may lack stature, but he does not–and he’s tireless. Carla Pohl’s Brünnhilde is a mixed bag. Except for the C at the close of the Götterdammerung duet with Siegfried, which is nasty but in pitch, her voice stops at B, which means the whipping up to the Cs in “Hojotoho” and the end of Siegfried are flat as a board. In general, don’t look to her for the big money notes; they tend to spread and turn sharp if they’re not flat. But she’s always dignified, and her transformation at the end of Siegfried is terrific, as is her Announcement of Death to Siegmund and her “Q & A” with Wotan. It’s hardly first class, but you’re left with a distinctly positive impression despite a big handful of notes.

We have two Siegfrieds. Wolfgang Neumann gets through the Forging Song fearlessly, but is quite breathless by its close, and while there’s an occasional sense of desperation in his final duet with big B, he simply refuses to give up, and when not resorting to a type of Sprechgesang, he’s impressive. Edward Cook is the second Siegfried as well as the Siegmund. He seems to realize that his voice is not quite big enough, but he doesn’t care, and therefore turns in two good performances on his own terms. Sieglinde is Gabriele Maria Ronge, with a fine voice and thorough involvement; her Gutrune is also good.

Zlatomira Nikolova is a top-notch Walküre Fricka and is only slightly less impressive as Waltraute in the last opera; Mette Ejsing’s Rheingold Erda is darkly colored and Ortrud Wenkel’s Siegfried Erda is amazingly gloomy (Neuhold varies her utterances’ tempos and dynamics sharply with the Wanderer’s for maximum effect) and her First Norn impresses as well. Oleg Bryjak makes a vivid, vile Alberich in all three operas; Frode Olsen’s Hunding is well snarled. The Mime of Michael Nowak is good in Rheingold; Hans-Jorg Weinschenk’s in Siegfried is splendid, even if he does resort to silly hooting just before Siegfried does him in (he’s a more straightforward Loge). The Hagen and giants could be bigger and better, and a soprano named Tiny Peters, who sings the Woodbird, sounds like a parrot. Rinegals and Valkyries sometimes resort to approximate yelling.

I’ve given this more time and space than I intended to, but because it’s so cheap and so respectable, notwithstanding an almost unknown cast (and venue), first-time Ring attemptees might just want to spend their money here to get into this behemoth of a work. The sound needs to be pumped up but is generally quite good; the live audience clearly was only un-bound to applaud at the close of each act. Although the libretto is in German, there’s a good English synopsis–but no information about singers or conductor or orchestra. Of course, if you own Böhm or Krauss or Solti or any one of another three or four Rings, you don’t need this at all–but that’s another story.

Artistic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 8

Robert Levine (I)

There are, to date, twenty-three complete performances of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy conducted by Moralt, Gebhardt, Furtwängler, Stiedry, Karajan, Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Solti, Kempe, Böhm, Swarowsky, Goodall, Boulez, Janowski, Haitink, Levine, Sawallisch, Barenboim and now by Günter Neuhold conducting the Badische Staatskapelle.

It should be made clear from the outset, but with no hint of appearing to be patronising, that there is no Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London or Gottlob Frick among the cast, nor a Polanski or Tomlinson. Karlsruhe is a provincial German opera house. There is no getting away from the fact that it is not in the premier league occupied by the likes of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne or Frankfurt. Having said that, one can still experience the customary thrills and emotional highs during the course of these fourteen wallet-packed CDs. No frills, there is a complete synopsis and German libretto, but no translation and absolutely no information about any of the cast. But then Brilliant Classics have to keep their costs down (and after all their complete Bach set runs to 160 discs) so that they can sell cheaply.

The sound is good, orchestral balance kept, Bayreuth-like, in the background unless they are unleashed in the preludes to each act, the journeys to and from Nibelheim, or later on Siegfried’s trek along the Rhine (an eventful journey it would appear, for he was Wolfgang Neumann when he set off but Edward Cook when we next hear him in Götterdämmerung, rather like Miss Elly in Dallas), the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried’s Funeral March. Rheingold flags at times, but the first act of Walküre gets off to a thrilling dash through the forest before the exhausted Siegmund slumps down before Hunding’s fireside. This act, the finest of all in The Ring in this reviewer’s opinion, contains passion and eroticism as well as threats of death and gloomy foreboding overshadowed by the sin of incest, and from ‘Winterstürme’ to the end of the act, including the extraction of the sword Nothung from the ash tree, this set begins to catch fire. Therein lies its problem. There are those whose singing is prone to dullness (such as Wegner’s disappointingly effortless Wotan which, apart from his angry entry searching for his errant daughter Brünnhilde in Act Three of Walküre, never makes much impact) and, as noted above, one wonders why two tenors are used for Siegfried.

As Sieglinde, Gabriela Maria Ronge is impassioned, dramatically fiery and clearly dying for her Siegmund (Edward Cook, who, in vocal terms, only just makes it to the end of the act) to come along to rescue her from the wife-beater Hunding, threateningly sung by Frode Olsen. Bryjak’s Alberich is also invested with a rich, dark bass, full of evil menace. The three Rhine maidens, the cause of the whole problem (why on earth do they tell Alberich that all he has to do is to renounce love and then the world is virtually his?), cavort and blend well in both the first and fourth evenings, Mime indulges in the usual semi-bleating characterisations as he tries to insinuate himself into Siegfried’s trust, while the eight daughters of Wotan “Hojotoho” their way through the sky to grand effect, each of them making the most of their brief solos and joining together with a wonderful combined sound of decibels. The Woodbird (her name is Tiny Peters so we are evidently talking wrens here) might have been one of them for she is rather too full-throated and tight-toned in the upper register, while Ortrun Wenkel’s Erda, never a purveyor of good news, is Mother Earth to the core. Fricka is the one character who, under threat from being overshadowed, often tends to come from behind when the Ring’s sopranos are judged (such as Helga Dernesch, Gabriele Schnaut and above all Waltraud Meier) and Zlatomira Nikolova is no exception on this set. Her encounter with Wotan in the first scene of the second act of Walküre leaves no holds barred in both dramatic and vocal terms, and even inspires Wegner to get off his vocal backside to a limited degree.

As Siegfried (Mark 1) Wolfgang Neumann’s is a voice you need to get used to, for he has two bad habits; his vibrato tends to cost the pitch its focal core, when he sings softly it becomes almost parlando (spoken) especially when he muses on the mother (Sieglinde) he never knew; either that or he has a habit of shouting when singing loudly. On the other hand Cook’s voice is not quite large enough but is at least free of his Doppelgänger’s habit of shouting. As Brünnhilde Carla Pohl’s bright soprano is at its best after twenty years rest asleep atop her mountain, in the final act of Siegfried, her weakness being one of forcing her sound and going sharp in the process.

In short this is not a set for Wagner devotees in search of top class singing (the orchestra is however consistently very good), but for those collectors who must have all of the complete sets available, or for those who are as yet uninitiated into this miraculous music, it is an inexpensive introduction without having to make do with just excerpts, and for that alone one should be grateful.

Christopher Fifield (II)

It is sixteen years since fellow MusicWeb International contributor Christopher Fifield wrote an approving review of this super-bargain Ring, so it is perhaps not too soon to revisit it in the light of issues since, especially as it is still available absurdly cheaply on the Membran, Documents and Brilliant labels, licensed from Bella Musica. As such, it serves as a highly recommendable introduction to the tetralogy for the novice, or indeed as a supplementary recording for the incurable Ring collector like me. It is perhaps most comparable to another budget Ring conducted by Hans Swarowsky much earlier in the 60’s, still available cheaply individually on Weltbild Classics or as a set on Profil, and has similar virtues and disadvantages, in that no-one could reasonably expect star voices of the kind featured in more celebrated cycles, yet both are faithful to the spirit of the work and provide a genuine experience of its thrills. Furthermore, both conductors preside over swift, propulsive, no-nonsense accounts of the scores and the orchestra’s competence is never in doubt.

Listening to this digital recording of live performances made me newly conscious of how habituated I had become to the many classic live performances from the 50’s graced by great artists but nonetheless in muddy, or brittle, mono sound; the benefit of these recordings from the 90’s is the amount of vocal and instrumental detail discernible. For instance, Flosshilde’s lower, mezzo-soprano line in the Rhine-daughters’ trios is so often obscure but gratefully audible here and the better balance between orchestra and singers provides a much clearer and more complete sound picture, permitting the listener to recreate the drama vividly in the mind’s eye. There is very little audience noise.

A further similarity between this set and Swarowsky’s is the presence of singers who rival more famous names in key roles, especially Alberich, Wotan and the Giants. Beginning with Das Rheingold, Oleg Bryjak here and Rolf Kühne for Swarowsky both rival Gustav Neidlinger’s Alberich for Solti for black, incisive malice. John Wegner has a firm, focused bass-baritone; it is a tireless, hard-edged voice able to surmount the formidable challenges of the role of Wotan, and the Giants are neatly contrasted, with Simon Yang offering an attractive, sympathetic Fasolt against veteran American bass Malcolm Smith’s gruffer, more saturnine and threatening Fafner. The Rhein-daughters are fine, homogeneous team and Wilja Ernst-Mosuraitis makes a firm, impassioned Fricka. The Freia is adequate, if a tad wobbly but Mette Ejsing’s Erda is wonderfully steady and gnomic. Loge is very musically sung by an aptly oily, light-voiced tenor who also handles the text well. The only real blot on the fist instalment of the tetralogy is the mercifully brief but painful contributions of the Froh; fortunately, Donner’s hammer-blow incantation is much more satisfactory, with Tero Hannula singing heroically and the moment of impact suitably impressive, even if nobody will ever top John Culshaw’s recreation for Decca.

I agree with Christopher Fifield that the opening scene of Die Walküre is the best in the whole Ring and crucial to the listener’s pleasure – and here it certainly passes muster. There is plenty of tension and dynamism in the opening pursuit music – the timpani are especially present; Edward Cook has an attractive, genuine Heldentenor reminiscent of James King without quite his heft, Gabriele Maria Ronge makes a strong, warm, feminine Sieglinde, as good as any I’ve heard anywhere. The orchestra plays their love music with real passion and feeling. Frode Olsen has almost too elegant and noble a tone for the brutal Hunding but is an imposing presence. The climax to the scene clearly stretches Cook; he has to pause and take a vocal running jump at the top A in his concluding phrase, but he gets there, while Ronge sails through her impassioned outburst – and her “Rysanek scream” when Siegmund pulls Nothung out of the Ash-tree is electrifying.

Zlatomira Nikolova is a dramatically alert, vocally secure Fricka, despite a little shrillness. The Valkyries are a fine brood. Wegner is not the most expressive of Wotans when it comes to delivering text, but he certainly comes alive in the scene where he tracks down and punishes Brünnhilde. She is the commendable South African dramatic soprano Carla Pohl, whose powerful voice is a bit “short” when it comes to her top notes; she sometimes has to stretch and occasionally just misses the mark, but is otherwise commanding, and makes her case to Wotan movingly in their long scene before her incarceration on the rock. Wegner’s “Leb wohl” and “Loge, hör!” are splendidly vocalised and the Magic Fire music dances winningly – conductors too often take that music too slowly for my taste. The work concludes in a blaze of golden sound, as it should.

For Siegfried, we have a new tenor, Wolfgang Neumann in the leading eponymous role and Hans-Jörg Weinschenk moves from Loge to become Mime, ensuring that we get a more restrained, musical account in the same manner as Julius Patzak for Furtwängler in Rome rather than the usual cackling psychopath. I was also pleased to see bass Simon Yang move from (the now deceased) Fasolt to Fafner, as he has a lovely voice. Sadly, there is no such advantage in the exchange of Edward Cook for Neumann, who has a dreadful, bleating wobble and an ugly tone, and whose performance is for me the weakest point of the whole cycle. It’s a relief when Wenger’s Wanderer heaves into view – or rather, earshot – for his riddling session with Mime. Neumann yells his way gamely through the Forging Scene and when he should be singing quietly he resorts to a kind of whining, droning Sprechstimme which is really irritating. Siegfried has so much music that he has to have an attractive voice if we are going to avoid boredom. For that reason, I enjoy Alberto Remedios, Jess Thomas, Bernd Aldenhoff, Set Svanholm and, to a lesser extent, Wolfgang Windgassen but, to quote a famous critical maxim from the “Gramophone” magazine, “It is time to complain when Mime outsings Siegfried”.

The Woodbird is adequate without being very ethereal but the best singing in the best singing on CD 3 comes from Fafner and in the opening of Act 3, from the exchange between the Wanderer and Ortrun Wenkel’s grave, steady Erda, although her top notes are a bit screamy. The orchestra plays beautifully in Brünnhilde’s Awakening Scene and Carla Pohl copes admirably, singing with warm, full tone and only occasionally pushing too hard but Neumann does not improve. At least he is consistent and stays the course in that horribly demanding music but compared with the finest recordings, the race to the finish is breathless.

There is no pretending that any of the singers has the “money notes” to give Götterdämmerung the glamour it assumes when the greatest Wagnerian singers tackle it, but it is nonetheless a dramatically coherent, decently sung account. The Hagen is lumpy and lacks the black bass sound required, but is suitably vicious, the Gunther has an obtrusive vibrato and yells, and neither lead singer can hang on to climactic phrases, yet the work still makes its impact, by virtue of the intensity of the orchestral playing and the evident sincerity and commitment of all concerned. Edwards Cook might have had a tenor one size too small, yet I was pleased to have him back as Siegfried, for the beauty of his timbre and the musicality of his delivery. Good singers, like the Rhine-daughters, whom we have already heard in the preceding instalments of the cycle, reprise their roles or, like the splendid Gabriele Maria Ronge, previously Sieglinde, return in two new ones, Gutrune and Third Norn – and she is excellent in both. Siegfried’s Funeral March is especially powerful; you would never guess that we are hearing a supposedly “provincial” German orchestra; they are first rate. Pohl makes a fine job of the Immolation Scene; she is clear-voiced, womanly and tireless. I suggest that anyone debating whether to acquire this set – although there is no need to hesitate given its current asking price – sample the concluding scene to gain a fair idea of its strengths.

Documentation may be sparse, but track listings and an English synopsis are provided, and how many super-bargain sets of the “Ring” are accompanied by a complete German libretto – admittedly without the English translation – and Arthur Rackham’s illustrations?

Ralph Moore | January 2018

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Bella Musica, Brilliant, TIM, Membran
Technical Specifications
488 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 3.0 GByte (flac)
A production by Jean-Louis Martinoty (1993/1995)