Das Rheingold

Clemens Krauss
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
8 August 1953
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanHans Hotter
DonnerHermann Uhde
FrohGerhard Stolze
LogeErich Witte
FasoltLudwig Weber
FafnerJosef Greindl
AlberichGustav Neidlinger
MimePaul Kuën
FrickaIra Malaniuk
FreiaBruni Falcon
ErdaMaria von Ilosvay
WoglindeErika Zimmermann
WellgundeHetty Plümacher
FloßhildeGisela Litz

A couple of years ago, when I was at Bayreuth the American critic John Ardoin boldly declared to me that the greatest Ring on record was undoubtedly the 1953 Bayreuth cycle conducted by Clemens Krauss. l was taken aback at the time, but when I returned to London I managed to buy the records (not generally available) and was duly able to share in his enthusiasm. I don’t think these days, I would be so bold as to say that any single view of the vast work is the best, but I certainly place this one among the select, along with Bohm’s, Knappertsbusch’s and Furtwangler’s. Now, happily, it appears on CD so that everyone can make up their own minds about its merits.

Above all, it made me aware that there existed 35 years ago, though it may not have been realized then, an almost ideal Wagnerian ensemble. At that time opera-goers harked back to the great pre-war days of Leider, Lehmann, Melchior and Schorr, not noting that in their midst was a group of singers who, though they may not have had, in all respects, the calibre of their predecessors, were wonderfully equipped to deal with the vocal and histrionic demands of the cycle. In 1953, under a great conductor at Wagner’s own home theatre these artists were all in their prime. The cast was headed by Hotter as Wotan, here heard at last in his absolute prime in his most famous role, by turn imposing, magisterial, angry, anguished, ironical, philosophical, sensitive as and when the role demands—the Narration in Die Walkure is adumbration of all these qualities—and virtually tireless except right at the end of that work and at the start of the Third Act of Siegfried. As Andrew Porter reported in Opera that year from Bayreuth, he had never heard Hotter sound better. The tone is wholly secure, seldom woofy (as it was to become by the time of the Decca set—also available on CD), and it is used with a Lieder singer’s gifts for enunciating words as for instance at ”Nun ehrlichen Zwerg” in the question-and-answer session with Mime. The immense authority and stature of his portrayal is thus tempered throughout with the poetry and compassion of the stricken god; a classic portrayal.

As I recall from hearing them together in Die Walkure in Paris in 1957, Hotter and Varnay were an unequalled partnership in my experience (no doubt, Schorr and Leider were that for their generation). Varnay had the vocal opulence of Flagstad, if not quite the beauty of tone, and the cutting edge of Nilsson. She was a positive, exciting and vital artist, as is Behrens today, and her tone had warmth and strength from top to bottom; she used it unflinchingly, unsparingly to thrilling effect. Throughout here she is superb, accenting the text with variety and feeling, tireless in pouring out her rich, evocative tone, and rising at the end to tragic heights. I could sight innumerable examples of her deep understanding of her role. Here four—the pp plan ency of ”O sag Vater” in the final scene of Die Walkure, the smiling, affirming defence of the ring in her encounter with Waltraute, the sense of loneliness at ”Siegfried kennt mich nicht”, the sheer Wagnerian bel canto at ”Des Rheines schwimmende Tochter” in the Immolation (the whole of which is at once as firmly and movingly sung as any I know) must serve for all.

Her Siegfried is Windgassen, then in his first year of taking the role on at Bayreuth. I have never heard him in such fresh, consistent voice and the interpretation, in terms of poetic utterance—listen to the Forest Murmurs scene—and heroic attack—the whole final scene of Siegfried and most of Gotterdammerung—would be hard to surpass. I don’t think I have ever heard the Gotterdammerung Narration sung with such buoyant freshness by him or anyone else, or the death seem quite so touching. Unless you must have perfection he has to be excused a bad loss of memory in the second Forging song, and one or two other moments of inaccuracy because of his rounded enactment of the role, as rewarding as any on disc. The other unrivalled performance is the Alberich of Neidlinger, well enough known from other sets as to preclude another encomium from me, except to say that he, too, was here at the peak of his powers exuding malice, rage and power, nowhere more so than in his fury at Wotan’s appearance and apparent intervention in Act 2 of Siegfried.

Then there is Vinay’s Siegmund. It has all the dark, louring quality I recall. Lyrical passages are not his strength, but where the music requires passionate feeling and the expression of suffering as in so much of Siegmund’s role, he was—and is unsurpassed. His exchanges in the ”Todesverkundigung” with Varnay have particular intensity. Regina Resnik’s Sieglinde, is the single disappointment, quite moving in diction but dully sung.

The lesser roles, if they be that, were mostly cast with real Wagnerian voices and great singing actors. In a marvellously characterful Rheingold we meet Erich Witte’s unexaggerated, crafty Loge, keen with the text, reedy in tone, occasionally inclined to slide into a note, von llosvay’s grave Erda (both singers were stalwarts of Kempe’s Ring at Covent Garden in the 1950s, on which I was nurtured); Ludwig Weber’s sympathetic, impassioned Fasolt, freely but marvellously sung; Greindl’s imposing Fafner. Later he is a dour Hunding and implacable Hagen (he also in his high prime), each formidable: his calling of the vassals is at once exhilarating and menacing (the chorus are excellent), as it should be. Malaniuk is a firm, bossy Fricka, an imploring Waltraute, though more has been made of this role elsewhere. Paul Kuen is a nasty, brutish Mime, who really sings the part, but occasionally whimpers too much. Uhde is a nonpareil of a Gunther: I like the way he snarls ”So war es Siegfrieds Ende” towards the end of Act 2, then finds a kind of pained inwardness for ”Hagen, was thatest du?” after the murder. The Gutrune is much more positive than usual. There’s a thoroughly bad Freia, but good, steady Rhinemaidens.

Any worthwhile account of this cycle should reveal new facets of its greatness and renew one’s faith in it. That Krauss does by virtue, it seems to me, of a well-nigh perfect balance between its dramatic and spiritual aspects as much as by that indefinable ingredient of maintaining line and impetus even through the slowest passage as in the transformation into the Waltraute scene in Act 1 of the final drama. One marvels again at the sheer skill and beauty of the writing, not least in Acts 2 and 3 of Siegfried, unfashionably my favourites in the whole cycle because of their extraordinary variety of mood, invention and feeling. Krauss is, as in his Beethoven and Richard Strauss, as I recall them, adept at conveying both physical energy—the Ride of the Valkyries and Siegfried, Act 1—and incandescence. He is almost as successful as Furtwangler at achieving that saturated sound so essential in much of the cycle—you notice that in Siegfried’s encounter with the Rhinemaidens and in the thrusting close to the whole epic and in pondering on the meaning of the events with Wagner as in the Prelude to Gotterdammerung where he realizes the full horror of the betrayal music, and he makes the Funeral March at once as tragic and heroic as it should be.

In brief, he has mastered most of the elements for an ideal Ring and falters seldom: I thought the Prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried a little under-played, and there are a few passages of poor ensemble—Krauss had taken over from Keilberth only after the first cycle. Also the Bayreuth acoustic sometimes places the wind and horns too far in the distance, but the voices are forward and natural as you expect from this venue, giving the drama a startling immediacy available only on other live records of the work. There are a few stage noises a number of coughs, and a couple of sound fall-outs, but by and large the achievements far outweigh the drawbacks. I know that this economically arranged set is one I shall turn to often in the future for a cast not bettered anywhere else in the now-extensive Ring discography and for the dynamic force of the conducting. There is a German text, but no English translation.’

Alan Blyth | Issue 6/1988

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Media Type/Label
(Orfeo), Foyer, (Rodolphe), Gala, (Opera d’Oro), (Archipel), Myto, Documents, Pristine, Line, Urania
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Technical Specifications
648 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 670 MByte (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.