Herbert von Karajan
Berliner Philharmoniker
2-12 December 1968, 3 February 1969
Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedJess Thomas
MimeGerhard Stolze
WotanThomas Stewart
AlberichZoltán Kelemen
FafnerKarl Ridderbusch
ErdaOralia Dominguez
BrünnhildeHelga Dernesch
WaldvogelCatherine Gayer

In reviewing the Decca Siegfried I remarked that I had not fully realised before what a tremendous achievement the opera was, and I concluded, ‘Its inspired, almost unceasing, flow of invention, its melodic and harmonic wealth, its supremely imaginative scoring, constitute one of the miracles of music’. In the opera house one is bound to miss much that a close study of score and recording reveal at home, free of productions that ignore or compromise over Wagner’s stage directions – granting that the creation of a credible bear or dragon, or an anvil that cracks convincingly, and so on, is no easy task on the stage.

DG leave us to imagine the thunder claps that should accompany Wotan’s striking his spear on the ground and when Siegfried shatters it with his sword in the last Act. They also omit some other aural correspondences Culshaw brought in – few though these rightly were – but the most important difference that emerges in comparing the recordings as such is, of course, the balance between voices and orchestra. DG favour, as we well know, forward placing of the voices whereas Decca have sometimes erred in making them too subservient to the orchestra. The balance in Decca’s Siegfried, however, was remarkably good, and there was a sense of movement, as if on a stage in depth, that I do miss in the DG. But I do not want to exaggerate the matter as the orchestral detail remains commendably clear in this new issue.

The point is that Siegfried is an opera of nine dialogues, three in each Act, for the various pairs of characters, with a female voice – except for the bird – bringing tonal relief only in the final scene of the opera, and I must admit that I did begin to tire of the forward placing of the male voices by the time we had reached the last act. This brings me to the cast, which, with a few reservations, is absolutely first-rate.

I will take Gerhard Stolze’s Mime first of all as he sang the part in the Decca issue. DS-T was greatly irritated by him and there were some grounds for this. He indulged in too much whining and some hamming but I did, and still do, consider that his characterisation was most imaginative. Wagner asked for a ‘harsh and husky’ voice, an impossible demand. Stolze’s tone is certainly far from beautiful but not harsh or husky and it does convey the revolting malice of the evil dwarf more convincingly than I ever remember hearing in the opera house. I am glad to say that Stolze now sings all the notes in his part including the tittering laughs on the high notes indicated by Wagner; and his rhythmic precision is as notable as before. Karajan was well advised to cast him in the part and like a true artist he has clearly re-thought and subtilized his performance of it.

Thomas Stewart, as in DG’s Walküre, is again an impressive Wotan and uses his splendid voice to great effect. There are moments that show he has closely studied Hotter’s assumption of the part, notably in the last words Wotan utters to Siegfried before he disappears, ‘in complete darkness’, out of the Ring: ‘Zieh’ hin! Ich kann nicht hatten’. The intonations here are exactly those of Hotter. The Wotan of Siegfried is an old and weary god, who has lost his power to command, who is willing to let events take their course and is glad to opt out. Stewart’s young and resonant voice cannot convey this as Hotter did but he shows himself dignified, often sensitive, and is, I am sure, on the way to becoming a great exponent of this part. Hotter had a bad vocal patch in the riddle scene in Act 1 but recovered his form at the answer to Mime’s third question, ‘What race dwells on cloud hidden heights?’ Here he was superb, a god indeed, and at present Stewart cannot match up to him at such moments.

Keleman and Ridderbusch are, as in Rheingold, the Alberich and Fafner. Perhaps Keleman’s voice is a little light for ‘black Alberich’ but his rage at Wotan’s unexpected appearance in the forest is well and powerfully conveyed. The quarrel between him and Mime over the treasure in the cave is too much of a shouting match and is better done in the Decca set. Ridderbusch is a less terrifying Fafner than Boehme but still not a beast one would care to encounter! The Decca recording almost brings him into the room and here too, if not so vividly, he is frightening enough and, after being stabbed to the heart, pathetic.

Oralia Dominguez does not convey the mystery of Erda as well as Marga Hoffgen. Wotan consigns Erda to endless sleep and the part should have the hypnotic tone of one reluctantly awakened from a long slumber. This Dominguez does not quite succeed in expressing. Catherine Gayer, a rather tremulous Woodbird, is not as good as Joan Sutherland. This is a part that needs a very clearly drawn vocal line.

I liked Jess Thomas’s virile Siegfried immensely. He lacks the sensitivity Windgassen brought to the part in such scenes as the ‘Forest Murmurs’ but he has all the weight of tone the more mature but elderly artist was not able to give to the ‘Forging Song’, and is excellent in his utter contempt for Mime.

I am glad Karajan did not cast Crespin as Brünnhilde for that admirable artist was not really suited to her part in the DG Walküre. Dernesch has a lovely voice, pure and even throughout its compass and with a warm lower register, but her Brünnhilde is not very convincing when she has fully awoken to human love. Nilsson managed this better. She sings the awakening beautifully and in ‘Ewig war ich’ produces as thrilling a top C as Nilsson’s, and again at the close of the scene. Wagner’s inspiration deserts him in the last part of the duet. His son was born about the time he composed this scene and, as Robert Donnington says in his admirable book ‘Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols’, Wagner’s and Cosima’s personal elation evokes rather blatant music.

Karajan and Solti had at their disposal two splendid orchestras between whom I have no wish to draw comparisons, but the conductors vary considerably in their scale of dynamics. Solti has the ‘brooding motif’ at the start of the Prelude to Act 1 played mezzo-forte, Karajan pianissimo; Wagner marks it piano! In the Prelude to Act 2 I could barely hear, in the DG, the demisemiquaver runs on the double basses that lead to the entry of the timpani, but they came out clearly in the Decca. Both conductors unleash the full orchestra in the Prelude to Act 3 with thrilling effect and again in Siegfried’s ascent of the mountain to where Brünnhilde lies asleep. Karajan is a little more sensitive to the poetry of the ‘Forest Murmurs’ scene whilst Solti gets greater clarity in the orchestral passage preceeding Brünnhilde’s awakening, and so one might continue to the point of tedium.

One great difference must be stated between these two distinguished interpretations. As I remarked about the two Walküres, Solti has a rhythmic drive, a clear comprehension of the great design that I do not find in Karajan’s interpretation. This is more relaxed and he savours more the beauty of the short lyrical phrases that often come unexpectedly into the marvellous score. Those readers who are investing in the DG Ring will not be disappointed with this admirable performance and – in the line of its tradition – its recording.

Alec Robertson | November 1969

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
643 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.