Der Ring des Nibelungen

Clemens Krauss
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
8 August 1953 (R), 9 August 1953 (W)
10 August 1953 (S), 12 August 1953 (G)
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


Classics Today

This first “authorized” edition of Clemens Krauss’ 1953 Bayreuth Ring cycle purportedly stems from the original Bavarian Radio master broadcast tapes. As such, we might expect a sonically superior product to supercede previous “non-official” CD incarnations from multi-generational sources, be it Opera D’Oro’s smooth, mid-range-dominant equalization or the brighter, hissier Foyer and Laudis versions.

As it happens, Orfeo’s sonic differences prove subtle at best. Quiet passages boast slightly more presence and definition, while the voices and strings seem to acquire a little extra warmth and bloom. And whereas the source tape for all previous Krauss Ring releases begins Siegfried Act 1 with the two bassoons at measure four, Orfeo’s source restores the first three measures of solo timpani. That said, Andrew Rose’s Pristine Audio digital download restorations offer a less constricted, more open, and heftier acoustic ambience.

Although most of the principal cast members can be heard to better sonic advantage in the live 1955 Decca Bayreuth Ring issued by Testament, you might argue that here Hans Hotter is in marginally fresher voice when it counts the most (Die Walküre’s final scene, the opening of Siegfried Act 3). On the other hand, Wolfgang Windgassen is not so vocally and dramatically secure with both Siegfried roles as he became later on–witness the Forging Song’s train wrecks. No complaints regarding Astrid Varnay’s powerfully projected Brünnhilde, Gustav Neidlinger’s amazing Alberich, and Regina Resnik in her youthful, most agile prime as Sieglinde. Krauss’ swift tempos certainly keep the music afloat and moving forward, reminding us that Bayreuth is a theater first, and a shrine second.

Should Pristine Audio’s interventionist transfer methods not suit your taste, Orfeo’s “legit” Krauss Ring release should be considered over cheaper CD and download alternatives. The booklet notes include a lengthy essay and full synopsis of all four operas, but no libretto.

Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 4

Jed Distler

New York Times

The idea of a “best” as applied to so sprawling and diverse an assortment of music as Wagner’s “Ring” may seem illusory, so I will proceed to proclaim the 1953 Bayreuth Festival “Ring” conducted by Clemens Krauss (Foyer 2011; 15 CD’s) the best on records.

Although it is now 40 years old, and it appeared publicly long after Georg Solti’s pioneering studio-recorded “Ring” on Decca/London, this set is actually a better documentation of the extraordinary post-World War II Bayreuth ensemble. True, Mr. Solti had Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde. But Krauss had Hans Hotter in his prime as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen in his first Bayreuth Siegfried in the freshest voice of his career and Astrid Varnay as a womanly, impassioned Brunnhilde.

The rest of the cast, with minor exceptions, matches the competition point for point and easily surpasses all other “Rings” for consistency (the same singer taking the same part throughout the cycle) and overall excellence. Josef Greindl, in surer voice than in most of his recordings, is properly unpleasant and mean as Fafner, Hunding and Hagen. Other singers include Ramon Vinay as Siegmund, Regina Resnik as Sieglinde, Hermann Uhde as Donner and Gunther, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, Paul Kuen as Mime, Ludwig Weber as Fasolt and Rita Streich as the Woodbird. If any of those names are unfamiliar to you, don’t worry: they are all terrific.

The sound, remarkably solid and natural for a live recording of that era, favors the voices in a way that doesn’t slight the orchestra. The source is presumably the tapings of the Decca/London team, which was routinely recording Bayreuth during this period, rather than Bavarian radio broadcasts.

But what lifts this “Ring” to pre-eminence is the conducting of Clemens Krauss. Best remembered today as a master of the music of anyone named Strauss (especially Johann Jr. and Richard) and the librettist of Richard Strauss’s valedictory opera “Capriccio,” Krauss here proved himself a supreme Wagnerian; his sudden death at 61 in May 1954 robbed the world of many more great Wagner performances.

In this “Ring,” his conducting combines the sweep and intensity of the Toscanini-Bohm modernist Wagner style with the Germanic brooding of Furtwangler in an utterly convincing blend of those seeming opposites. Tempos move forward purposefully, on the whole, but without slighting the music’s mystery and tragedy. And the intensely dramatic and ecstatic moments, those great outbursts to which Wagner rises with satisfying frequency, are delivered with blinding passion.

Hear this “Ring,” and find out what this music, and Richard Wagner, are all about

JOHN ROCKWELL | April 16, 1993

The Guardian

Yet another Ring cycle from the golden age that was Bayreuth in the 1950s, this time from the 1953 festival. Conductor Clemens Krauss was making his debut there, brought in as a last-minute replacement for Hans Knappertsbusch, who had withdrawn in protest at Wieland Wagner’s radical production. Astonishing though it is by today’s standards, the cast was the regular one at Bayreuth in those days, headed by Astrid Varnay as a wonderfully warm Brünnhilde and Hans Hotter as Wotan, his sound even more languidly beautiful than it is on the 1956 cycle conducted by Keilberth, which was released by Testament four years ago. The marginal disappointment here is Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried, who occasionally sounds under par, especially in the first act of Götterdämmerung, where his singing is painfully flat. Krauss’s conducting is the main interest here – more sensuous, more concerned with orchestral sonority than Keilberth, though sometimes at the expense of dramatic clarity. Manic Wagnerites (are there any other kind?) will snap this up, but those who have already invested in the Keilberth cycle (in fine stereo, rather than the slightly distant mono of the Orfeo set, too) can be reassured they still own the finest Ring cycle currently available on disc.

Andrew Clemnents | 30 September 2010

This reissue of the Clemens Krauss mono recording of the Ring from Bayreuth in 1953 is described by the Allegro Corporation, who are responsible for the presentation, as a “deluxe edition”. Although it is hardly in the same category as the genuinely “deluxe” reissue of the Solti Ring from Decca it is a considerable advance on the frequently perfunctory treatment given to historical reissues, coming as it does with four booklets containing complete texts and translations and a fifth booklet of 24 pages (entirely in English) giving not only synopses of the operas but three essays on the work itself. These essays include what is in effect an in-depth review of the performance from Robert Levine of Classics Today, which is admirably frank about the drawbacks of the recording while rightly praising many aspects of what is undoubtedly a most important issue. I shall refer to Levine’s comments at several points during the course of my own review.

Levine correctly identifies the two principal pluses of this recording as the conducting of Clemens Krauss and the superb singing cast which Bayreuth managed to assemble in 1953. He also notes that the fifty-year old mono sound is “excellent”, making the comment that “many believe it was the Decca records team that recorded all the Bayreuth performances in the ’50s.” This wish-fulfilling statement is fiction masquerading as fact. John Culshaw, the producer of the studio recording of the Solti Ring in Vienna which began five years later, notes in his autobiography Putting the record straight that Decca did indeed dispatch a recording team to Bayreuth in 1953, but after recording the dress rehearsal and opening night of Lohengrin they were recalled to London and a German team was substituted who promptly changed Decca’s microphone placements. The results were found “unacceptable for technical reasons” and Decca refused to issue them. Culshaw cites questions of balance, and elsewhere refers to the fact that at Bayreuth without careful microphone placement “the brass, which plays from an area under the stage, can sometimes sound muffled”. That is certainly the case here. Moreover in Ring Resounding Culshaw states that Gordon Parry persuaded the Decca authorities to record the Keilberth Ring in 1955 (recently reissued in stereo) with the implication that they needed persuasion since they were not accustomed to doing so.

There are elements which suggest strongly that the recording was never designed for commercial release – voices tend to come and go depending on their position on the stage. The orchestral balance is far from satisfactory with the distant-sounding trumpets often close to the threshold of inaudibility – as in their statement of the Gold motif which precede the Rhinemaiden’s paean of praise, CD 1 track 3 – where they should dominate the texture. The recording clearly derives from a single set of performances, with no possibility of patching errors from dress rehearsal tapes. Krauss only conducted one cycle of the Ring in 1953 since the other cycle was assigned to Keilberth. Oddly enough the Keilberth cycle, issued pseudonymously by Allegro, was the first complete Ring on LPs although threatened copyright suits ensured that its sojourn in the catalogue was short-lived.

Levine also states that the sound “has been re-mastered for these CDs to make it even clearer, with voice/orchestra balance more natural.” Again this is a rather dubious statement. The very opening phrase from Woglinde (CD 1, track 2) comes as a real shock, very close to the microphones and sounding louder than the full orchestral outburst which precedes her words. The laughter of the Rhinemaidens just before Alberich’s appearance is loud enough nearly to obscure the orchestral sound emanating from the pit. Afterwards the balance becomes more realistic as the characters move backwards across the stage (with some audible thumping) to the extent that Alberich’s mocking laugh at the end of the scene hardly registers. Neidlinger here, as in his later recording for Solti – which it closely resembles in every detail – employs Wagner’s notated laugh for Alberich in Siegfried, which is surely right. Levine does not comment upon the quality of the orchestral playing itself, which is scrawny in the extreme during the Rheingold Prelude. The strings in particular sounding rather unpleasant and the horns tubby rather than heroic. Happily things soon improve as the performance takes wing – and take wing it most certainly does.

Much of this is due to the appearance of Hans Hotter as Wotan. Throughout this cycle he is in much firmer voice than he was when he came to undertake the role for Solti in Walküre and Siegfried some ten years later. Culshaw states that he was not cast in Rheingold there because the “role no longer suited him”. There may well have been an element of special pleading here – at the time of the Rheingold sessions Hotter was under exclusive contract elsewhere – but his performance here does not begin to justify such a scathing comment. Time and again he produces insights into text and music that eluded George London in the Solti recording. His voice is always heroic and well placed without a suspicion of wobble. Nor do the top notes, sometimes a cause for concern in later years, create any sense of asthmatic hoarseness. What we have here is a Wotan at the height of his powers and the performance is electrifying.

In his booklet note Robert Levine mentions Wolfgang Windgassen’s error with a late entry in the Forging song – unusual for Windgassen, who was prone to running ahead of the beat rather than behind it – but does not mention a far worse error by Bruni Falcon as Freia, who completely misses out one whole phrase just before the entry of the Giants in Rheingold (end of CD1, track 5). Apart from this slip the drama of the opening of this scene is well realised by Krauss. That said, he seems to be hustled by Ira Malaniuk’s dramatically well observed Fricka who consistently pushes the tempo forward. However with the entry of the Giants themselves (CD1, track 6), there’s a very rough performance of Fasolt by Ludwig Weber, who almost totally misses the compassionate side of this lovelorn character. At the very start he slows down drastically from the tempo set by Krauss. One is constantly aware of his desire to take the music at a more moderate pace. His tuning is not all it should be either, going off pitch badly during the passage where the Giants seize Freia (end of CD1, track 9).

The other Gods are well taken. Gerhard Stolze is perhaps an unexpected choice for Froh, but the pungency of his character tenor is much less in evidence here than it would become, and he produces heroic tone with some degree of lyricism. Hermann Uhde is well cast as the blustering Donner, and Erich Witte is a personable Loge with plenty of engagement with the text. He also has the right smoothness of delivery for his Narration, although the trumpet again misses out on the pianissimo delivery of the Rhinegold theme during Loge’s colloquy with Fricka, vanishing totally beneath the voices (CD 1, track 9).

The anvils during the Descent to Nibelheim are a feeble bunch, completely ignoring Wagner’s requirement for a crescendo to fortissimo and back again. They remain resolutely at the same volume throughout. During the succeeding scene Alberich and Mime are in the safe hands of Gustav Neidlinger and Paul Kuen, who would reprise these roles five years later for Solti. Although Neidlinger’s backstage voice when invisible lacks the immediacy that Culshaw brought to the later recording, it remains well in the picture. What is less commendable is the manner in which the final bars before the entry of Wotan and Loge are artificially faded down to produce a most inelegant change of CD. Surely the break should have been made during the silent bar when Mime drops the Tarnhelm in panic, as it is in most other sets.

At the beginning of the second CD Krauss sets a very leisurely tempo for the opening section of Mime’s narration, tempting Kuen to push ahead of the orchestra and conclude a full half bar before them (track 2). However with the re-entry of Neidlinger and the extended confrontations between him, Hotter and Witte which constitute the remainder of the scene and the beginning of the next there is a real sense of dramatic involvement. This is assisted by superlative singing from all three principals and degrees of instinctive subtlety which Neidlinger failed to recapture for Solti five years later. It is just a shame that his instincts lead him to extremes in the delivery of his Curse (track 8). There he not only acquires the wrong sort of forcefulness but shakes his tuning loose to an unacceptable degree. He appears to be a full tone off pitch at two separate points. Solti delivers the orchestral peroration at a proper Sehr schnell which seems to elude Krauss, who is just a smidgeon too polite.

With the re-entry of the Giants, Weber is again remarkably unfeeling in the passage where he spies Freia’s hair through the piled-up hoard. At this point Wagner exceptionally gives a dynamic direction of p to the singer, but Weber simply ignores this, barnstorming through his notes and ending up shouting (track 10). Hotter brings a remarkable degree of sensitivity to his horror-struck exclamation when Fafner demands the Ring to fill up the crevice. Shortly thereafter Falcon as Freia sings both her cries of Hilfe! a beat too late, producing a most uncomfortable discord against Malaniuk’s Fricka. One is grateful that this is her last contribution to proceedings. After that Maria von Ilosvay delivers Erda’s Warning with great solemnity (track 11). The orchestral sound seems to come somewhat further forward during the Forging of the Rainbow Bridge, exceptionally well delivered by Uhde and leading into a splendid performance of the final scene.

Krauss is indeed a very good conductor of the Ring – his approach has plenty of weight when required. He delivers excitement too without adopting the extremes of speed of later Bayreuth performances by conductors such as Karl Böhm and Pierre Boulez. Occasionally he is unexpectedly slack – as at Donner’s Hier, ihr Riesen! which is hardly lebhaft as marked – but for much of the time he keeps a firm hand on proceedings. Despite the unflattering recorded sound he manages to rival Solti in the presence he gets from the orchestra. The strings in the Forging of the Rainbow Bridge sound like a completely transformed body from their feeble predecessors at the opening. It is interesting to speculate how his Wagnerian style might have developed – Hitler apparently regarded him as second only to Furtwängler – but his relatively early death robbed us of the opportunity to discover this.

Energy levels are maintained during the Prelude to Act One of Die Walküre, with the strings churning away at their repeated figurations with all the guts that one could wish. As the curtain rises and Siegmund enters the hut, we hear the sound of the wind from the storm outside – an effect that Culshaw omitted for Solti – and the opening scene is beautifully phrased. Both Regina Resnik and Ramon Vinay as the Volsung twins were shortly to convert downwards to mezzo and baritone respectively, but here their top notes are fine although the tone of both is darker than would be expected from the specified soprano and tenor. Vinay unfortunately goes wrong at the beginning of the second section of his narrative (CD1, track 6), getting half a bar behind for some six bars. Apart from that everything goes well, the orchestral balance is a decided improvement on Rheingold, and Krauss thankfully does not take the Spring song too quickly, just at a properly rhapsodic lilt. At the beginning of the Act Vinay is a little brusque – his call for Ein Quell! sounds like an impatient customer in a pub just before closing time (CD1, track 2) – but he soon settles down, with some impassioned mezza voce. Both he and Resnik sing their hearts out in the love duet, but bring plenty of subtlety to the words too. Greindl is a very black-sounding Hunding.

At the outset of Act Two Krauss sets a very fast pace, and thereby creates a difficulty for himself. Wagner specifically states (twice) that the tempo should be exactly maintained throughout Wotan’s opening address to Brünnhilde and in her Hoyotoho! (CD 2, end of track 1 and track 2). This produces a sense of driving energy which exactly fits the situation but because Krauss has pushed ahead so rapidly at the very beginning he has to slow down as the voices enter, and the sense of impetus is dissipated. Also here, once again, the orchestral balances are awry, with the trumpets’ delivery of the Sword theme – so important in the context of the plot at this point – frequently too quiet and sometimes obscured altogether. This is a shame, because Hotter is here at the height of his game, Malaniuk seems to be more relaxed about Krauss’s speeds, and Astrid Varnay is a spectacular Brünnhilde from the very off. During the early 1950s she and Martha Mödl were the two principal exponents of the role throughout the world, and frequently shared the part in the two annual Bayreuth cycles. Mödl for all her expressiveness had a somewhat curdled tone which could turn sour and drift into unsteadiness. Varnay had no such problems, and she yields few if any points here to Mödl in tenderness as she comforts her father and laments his decision to abandon Siegmund. In the long monologue at the centre of the Act (CD 2, track 7) Hotter colours his voice rather differently from his later performance for Solti, but every bit as effectively, although the orchestral balance in the climaxes is somewhat lacking in impact.

Krauss handles the following scene between the Volsung twins well but he seems to be nervous of boring the audience during the Todesverkundigung with its solemn cadences. These he tends to hassle in a manner which lacks the other-worldly atmosphere that the scene demands (CD 3, track 2). At the beginning of Act Three (CD 3, track 8) he launches the Ride of the Valkyries at one hell of a lick, maintaining a steady onward pressure that reduces some of the lines delivered by the warrior maidens to an unseemly gabble. His speed does not allow sufficient space for the brass to reverberate and the opening statement of the main theme on the horns is almost totally obliterated by the skirling woodwind and strings that surround them. Under the circumstances it may be cruel to point out that some of the girls, robbed of the chance to expand their tone, make a somewhat insignificant and uneven impression. Hotter too sounds out of sorts after his entry (CD 3, track 11), with the nobility of his tone underplayed. The rather ‘woofy’ sound noticeable in his later recordings comes to the fore for the first time in this cycle as he attempts to keep pace with Krauss’s driving delivery.

When Brünnhilde steps forward to receive her punishment, the tension momentarily slackens (CD 4, track 1). As her sisters attempt to intercede Krauss once again takes off and the ensemble threatens to come off the rails altogether as the voices pile unrhythmically one on top of the other. It is only when Brünnhilde and Wotan are left alone that the performance suddenly regains dramatic weight and the delivery by Varnay and Hotter of their long final scene is simply magnificent. There are unexpected moments, in the delivery of lines when Wotan (losing his temper) tells how he shattered the sword, or when Varnay fearfully asks what she is to suffer. These are unconventional but come off superbly (CD 4, track 4). During the Farewell Krauss allows Hotter all the time he needs to phrase his lines with affection and emotion. This he does in a firm voice which shows no sense of tiredness at the end of a long evening. He has to take more than one breath during his final phrase, and the strokes of his spear which summon Loge (CD 4, track 7) are conspicuous by their absence from Wieland Wagner’s minimalist production. These hardly impinge on what is a great experience both musically and dramatically. Even the orchestral balances seem to improve.

In Act One of Siegfried Paul Kuen’s Mime unaccountably enters a bar late in his description of fear (CD 2, track 1) and stays that way for a very uncomfortable eight bars groping desperately for the correct pitch. When Windgassen makes his late entry in the first verse of the Forging song (CD 2, track 2) he does not attempt to harmonise with the orchestra, simply ploughing ahead with his notes despite the discords that result. He then simply skips a bar in order to catch up. What follows is not much better. In a clearly desperate attempt to produce volume, Windgassen adopts a totally cavalier attitude to both rhythm and notes – sometimes pushing ahead of the beat, sometimes lagging behind, sometimes mangling the words and omitting whole phrases altogether. As for the hammering: John Culshaw in Ring resounding comments that when Decca were recording the Keilberth cycle two years later, the onstage hammering was “so loud and unrhythmical as to obliterate the voice of Siegfried”. An emergency patching session had to be arranged to correct this; I presume this is the version employed in the commercial release of that cycle. Now we can hear what he was complaining about: there are patches of notated hammering missing, the rhythm rarely conforms either to Wagner’s precise notation or to his carefully differentiated dynamics. Other strokes are added seemingly at random. Through all this Krauss keeps driving along, presumably hoping that the nightmare will soon be at an end. In the theatre this sort of approximation of an admittedly horrendously difficult scene might just be acceptable in a dramatic context. As part of an audio recording it is just unacceptable, an illustration of nearly everything that can go catastrophically wrong in a live performance.

Thankfully after the interval sanity is restored in the Second Act. Neidlinger and Hotter are, as one would expect, superb in their opening scene, striking sparks off each other both dramatically and musically. When Windgassen and Kuen return they too sound much more at ease. However the horn call (CD 3, track 2) suffers from considerable unsteadiness on sustained notes – which may be tape flutter. In the ensuing scene with Fafner Windgassen manages at various points to come out half a bar ahead and (twice) half a bar behind, the final time as he tastes the dragon’s blood. Kuen is no more satisfactory in the scene leading to his death; he avoids Gerhard Stolze’s caterwauling for Solti, but is no more accurate to the notes that Wagner has actually written. The unusually clear diction of Rita Streich as the Woodbird (luxury casting) cannot offset the generally sense of rhythmic sloppiness in this scene.

A similar moment of unease occurs during the opening bar of Act Three (CD 3, track 8), where the orchestra seem to take a couple of seconds to accelerate into Krauss’s driving tempo. The main problem with this crucial scene in the drama comes later. When Wotan asks Erda – Hotter and von Ilosvay both in good voice – to foresee what are his intentions, and she is unable to answer, Wagner screws up the dramatic tension with three notated beats of silence. These are additionally marked with a pause and the even more specific direction “Langes schweigen” (CD 3, end of track 10). Here Krauss allows no pause at all, and the sense of suspense and resolution is completely dissipated. Mind you, other sets compound the offence by even more unforgivably inserting a CD break at this point. In the later scenes the combination of Windgassen, Hotter and Varnay is pretty spectacular, although once again Windgassen displays a tendency to push ahead of the beat which actually infects Varnay as well at one point. He shows none of the signs of tiredness which can sometimes cause problems at the end of a long evening. We are told that 1953 was the first year in which he had sung Siegfried at Bayreuth. Although this pays dividends in terms of freshness of approach there is a penalty to be paid in his evident lack of familiarity with the difficult role; I shall return to this problem later.

In the opening of Götterdämmerung we are met with a very good trio of singers, with Regina Resnik not sounding at all mezzo-ish as the Third Norn. Windgassen, recovered from his exertions during Siegfried, is well matched with Varnay in their dawn duet. When we reach the Gibichung Hall we encounter Hermann Uhde as a properly heroic Gunther and the black-toned Greindl as his half-brother. Levine is very rude indeed about Natalie Hinsch-Gröndahl as Gutrune, describing her as “so awful that she only throws more light on how luminous the others are”. This contrasts with the view of William Youngren in Fanfare, who regarded her as “superb” although Paul Orgel in the same publication described her as a “weak link” and “unsteady”. This just goes to show how individual ears can hear things differently. On the other hand she is definitely not heard to best advantage in her scene with Siegfried in Act Two (CD 3, track 1), sounding at once blowsy and thin in tone.

Levine also comments unfavourably on the bass Josef Greindl, describing him as “otherwise wobbly and invariably ineffective on recordings” although he acknowledges that here he is “rock-hard and meaner than sin”. Having suffered through Greindl’s assumption of roles in Verdi and Beethoven on video (review) I would state unequivocally that he was not much better in the theatre. He certainly never has the slightest hint of warmth in his tone. His casting in operatic sets during the 1950s seems quite inexplicable, when one considers for example his implacable and totally unsympathetic assumption of the role of King Mark in the otherwise superb Furtwängler/Flagstad Tristan. Here in the Ring he is confined to entirely villainous characters, and the lack of warmth in his tone is less of a problem. In later years he could display a distressing tendency to sit on the flat side of the note. Here he could give an object lesson to his Gibichung siblings in accuracy of tuning. Uhde sounds decidedly uncomfortable during the duet where he swears blood brotherhood with Siegfried (CD 2, track 1).

One major plus with this set is the consistency of casting throughout – unlike very many rival recordings. Only one role is taken by different singers in two operas, and that is the part of Waltraute whose part in Götterdämmerung is so much more substantial than in Walküre. Ira Malaniuk gives a searching and intimate account of her narration (CD 2, track 5). When Windgassen arrives disguised as Gunther he shows that he did not stand in need of the electronic manipulation to which Culshaw subjected his voice in the Solti set. Act Two comes off very well indeed, with a superb choral contribution and Greindl sounding really menacing in his summoning of the vassals. The Stierhorn contributions, played on trombones, are not well balanced with some of the instruments sounding very much closer than others (CD 3. track 2). During the trio at the end of the Act the entry of the horns with the ‘Blood-brotherhood’ motif, as Gunther in horror contemplates the murder of Siegfried, is really badly articulated. The repeated notes are joined together in a manner than manages completely to obscure what they are actually playing (CD 3, track 8).

Act Three builds up a good head of steam, and is dramatically involving throughout. Again, though, there is a whole collection of errors which undermines the impact of the whole. Once more Windgassen is the main culprit. Just before his top C at the entry of the vassals his nerves lead him to enter a whole bar early (CD 4, track 3). Shortly after this, in his narration, he completely omits the line telling how he took the Ring and Tarnhelm from Fafner’s hoard. A couple of minutes later he gets ahead of the beat in his description of his awakening of Brünnhilde. The booklet with this issue tells us that 1953 was the first year that he sang the role of Siegfried at Bayreuth. To be frank throughout this performance there are plentiful signs that he hadn’t learnt it properly. On the other hand, nine years later Culshaw observed that his rhythm “had got slack”. Disastrously he tried to replace him for the Decca recording of Siegfried so the problem seems to have been endemic even in his later career. One must however observe with pleasure that Varnay delivers an excoriating account of the Immolation, and that Greindl’s Hagen roars out his final line with a regard for the written notes that is all too infrequent in more modern performances.

The new translation by Bill Parker and Rex Levang comes thankfully with – rather too heavily abridged – stage directions (in English only) which were for some unfathomable reason altogether omitted from the translations provided with some parts of the Solti set. However the idiom is very modern indeed and rather Transatlantic in tone, somewhat reminiscent of the translation by Peggie Cochrane which originally accompanied the Solti recordings but has long since been abandoned: Wotan exclaims “I paid for that dwelling with dirty money!” and the final line of the tetralogy is “Get away from the Ring!” which may be literally accurate but sounds somewhat over-chatty. The booklet could also have been more carefully proof-read. At one point a passage correctly ascribed to Gutrune in the German is inexplicably reassigned to Gunther in the translation (page 14). All the booklets – and the CD labels too – come with new artwork by John Martinez. This somewhat recalls Rackham reflected through art nouveau spectacles, although I am not quite sure what the crouching nude male on the back of each booklet is intended to convey. There are a few booklet photographs, although that of Clemens Krauss was clearly taken many years before his participation in this cycle.

The Krauss Ring has come in for some extremely enthusiastic praise from some quarters; Levine quotes James Rockwell of the New York Times describing it as “the best on records” and Alan Blyth in the Gramophone referring to it as “the most compelling and best-cast cycle” available. Blyth was notorious for his preference for vintage live performances as opposed to modern studio recordings, but despite the fact that he seems quite prepared to ignore the errors his comments are understandable; and his views are reinforced by the – admittedly often idiosyncratic – recommendations of the Rough Guide to Opera. Ronald Grames in Fanfare agreed, describing the set as “one of the finest – if not the finest – performance of the tetralogy available”, a verdict with which Colin Clarke in the same publication agreed when reviewing the Orfeo release in 2011. Neither mention any errors in the performance. The cycle has also been released by Pristine Audio and was considerably re-mastered for that reissue by Andrew Rose with results that Paul Orgel in Fanfare described as “less congested” and allowing “many previously obscured details” to emerge. He noted that a “loud cough” and “squeak” in the opening bars of Siegfried had been successfully expunged by Pristine. Here they are back, along with plentiful evidence of a bronchitic audience. The three bars of timpani roll which begin the Prelude – which had disappeared in some previous issues of the recording such as that by Archipel, but was restored by Pristine – is once again missing. Indeed the sound in this new release is so much of an advance on the Archipel issue (the only version which I had available for comparison) that it sounds like a different recording altogether, and a much better one to boot.

However the layout on CD represents a step backwards from Archipel, with for example an unnecessary side break inserted into Act Three of Walküre, where Archipel managed to fit the whole of that opera onto three CDs. We are also given unwanted and superfluous breaks in Acts Two and Three of Siegfried, and Acts Two and Three of Götterdämmerung, where the music could easily have been presented unbroken on a single side. There seems to be no good reason for this, except a misguided desire to equalise the lengths of the CD sides. It represents a real black mark against this issue since it could so easily have been avoided. The unavoidable side break in Act One of Siegfried, badly judged in the Decca set for Solti, is even worse chosen here, splitting the music in the middle of an orchestral phrase. Indeed the set as a whole includes nine breaks in the music between CD sides, whereas the Solti re-mastering has only six. In the event only four would actually have been required here.

At the end of the day the recorded sound, despite the massive improvement of the re-mastering, still leaves quite a lot to be desired, to the extent that this could not possibly be considered as the sole representation of the Ring in a collection. Then again no complete recording could ever be perfect – I mentioned several serious concerns about the Decca Ring in my earlier review – and this performance, with its generally superlative singing and conducting, must be counted among the greatest of live recordings of the cycle. It is well worthy of a place alongside the Goodall Ring (in English) as a second traversal of the music for those who rightly regard the Ring as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Those of a sensitive disposition should still avoid the end of Act One of Siegfried. Prospective purchasers might find the clearly more interventionist re-mastering on Pristine to be even better, even if not much can be done about the performance errors. Given these errors, surely an even more preferable alternative with many of the same principal singers – Hotter, Varnay, Windgassen, Vinay, Kuen, Weber, Greindl, Neidlinger – is the Keilberth Bayreuth recording from two years later, in stereo sound and incontrovertibly produced by Decca engineers.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


Der von Orfeo jüngst veröffentlichte Mitschnitt von Wagners ‘Ring des Nibelungen’ mit Clemens Krauss aus dem Jahr 1953 darf als eine der überzeugendsten Gesamtaufnahmen des ‘Rings’ gelten.

Ließen sich größere Gegensätze denken als jene zwischen den beiden Gesamteinspielungen von Richard Wagners ‘Ring des Nibelungen’, die in jüngerer bzw. jüngster Zeit als Mitschnitte vom Grünen Hügel in Zusammenarbeit mit den Bayreuther Festspielen erschienen? Auf der einen Seite eine Aufzeichnung der ‘Ring’-Aufführungen aus dem Jahr 2008 mit Christian Thielemann am Pult, auf der anderen der legendäre ‘Ring’-Zyklus aus dem Jahr 1953 mit Clemens Krauss, der nun von Orfeo in der Serie ‚Orfeo d’Or‘ in beispielhafter Weise veröffentlicht wurde. – Beispielhaft auch wegen der editorischen Sorgfalt: Neben Fotos der beteiligten Sänger findet man im umfangreichen Booklet nicht nur einen ausführlichen, kenntnisreichen Essay zu Geschichte, Kontext und Rezeption von Wagners ‘Ring’, sondern auch über die Umstände in Bayreuth und die Besonderheiten ebendieser ‘Ring’-Aufführungen unter Clemens Krauss, bei denen Wieland Wagner Regie führte; hinzu kommt eine detaillierte Inhaltsangabe, und das alles vorbildlich in drei Sprachen (deutsch, englisch, französisch).

Den größten Gegensatz zu Thielemanns Zugriff bietet vorliegender (bisher unter Wagnerianern lediglich als klanglich dürftige Kopie zirkulierender) großartiger ‘Ring’ neben der durchweg um Längen besseren Qualität der Sängerinnen und Sänger vor allem wegen der dramaturgischen Zielsicherheit von Clemens Krauss, einem bereits in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts bedeutenden Wagner-Dirigenten. Wo Thielemann Einzelheiten klangsensualistisch auswalzt und an zentralen Momenten riesige Ausrufezeichen setzt (Vorsicht, bedeutsam!), setzt Clemens Krauss auf eine fantastisch schlanke, fokussierte Präsentation des dramatischen Fortgangs. Hier geht es hörbar darum, ein Geschehen voranzubringen, eine Handlung musikalisch mal zu untermalen, mal durch die Musik in Gang zu bringen, zu befeuern. Und so leuchtet und funkelt das Orchester, wo dies am Platze ist, ohne stets bedeutungsschwer eingedunkelt zu werden, faucht und donnert, wo nötig, züngelt und schmettert. Was Clemens Krauss vollkommen fremd war, ist die klangliche Politur um ihrer selbst willen; hier ist alles einbettet in den dramaturgisch geschickt vorangetriebenen Strom. Freilich, so manches Detail im Orchester gerät dabei unter die Räder, und auch die technischen Begrenzungen der Mono-Aufnahmen zeitigen zuweilen manche unglückliche Balance im Orchester – aber all diese Kleinigkeiten fallen ob der herrlich spannungsreichen Ballungen und befreienden Auflösungen überhaupt nicht ins Gewicht.

Seine Faszination gewinnt dieser wunderbare Mitschnitt jedoch vornehmlich wegen der herausragenden Sängerinnen und Sänger. Auf diesem schlank geführten Klanguntergrund können die famosen Sänger ihre vokale Dramatik entfalten, ohne Angst haben zu müssen, sich gegenüber der orchestralen Kräfte nicht mehr behaupten zu können; Krauss überdröhnte seine Sänger nicht, sondern trug ihre Partien. Und die sind durchweg erstklassig, zuweilen grandios gestaltet. Dieser ‘Ring’ bietet an vokalen Kräften auf, was in dieser Zeit Rang und Namen hatte: von Astrid Varnay bis Josef Greindl, von Gustav Neidlinger bis Ira Malaniuk, von Regina Resnik bis Wolfgang Windgassen, von Ramón Vinay bis Rita Streich, von Maria von Ilosvay bis Hermann Uhde usw. – ein Treffen der großen und größten Sänger. Und so ist auch insgesamt deren Leistung zu bezeichnen.

Natürlich ist das sängerische Niveau nicht durchweg gleich hoch, was bei Live-Mitschnitten nicht erstaunt. Und so zeigt etwa der – über weiteste Strecken, das muss man freilich herausstellen, kraftvoll agierende – Wolfgang Windgassen zuweilen manch intonatorische Eintrübung. Derlei Abstriche macht man aber willigst, werden sie doch mehr als ausgeglichen: Mit einer klangvollen, aber keineswegs zu füllig wirkenden Sieglinde von Regine Resnik, Astrid Varnay als Brünnhilde, die mit einer markerschütternden Leistung aufwartet, einem Hans Hotter als Wotan, der Würde und innere Dramatik vermittelt, ohne dass das Bedeutungsschwere sich in seiner Stimmgebung widerspiegelte; dasselbe gilt für Gustav Neidlingers phänomenale Alberich-Darstellung, bei der das Böse sich nicht in jeder Phrase stimmlich artikuliert, sondern eher subkutan durch minimale Ausdrucksverstärkungen erreicht wird. Nicht zu vergessen auch Josef Greindl, dessen Bass hin und wieder etwas füllig auf die Musik zugreift, im großen Ganzen aber zweifellos zu überzeugen weiß. – Es ließe sich ähnlich Erfreuliches über ‚Nebendarsteller‘ sagen. Allein, die unzähligen positiven Überraschungen dieses legendären Mitschnitts lassen sich schnell zusammenfassen: Großartiges Dirigat und zuweilen frappierend gelungene Gesangsleistungen. Selige Vergangenheit.

Tobias W. Pfleger

Legendäre ‘Ring’-Aufnahme in bester Tonqualität

Von allen historischen Aufnahmen des Rings ist diese wohl eine der legendärsten. Lange, bevor Orfeo sich entschloss, diesen Live-Mitschnitt aus dem Jahre 1953 zu veröffentlichen, gab es schon mehrere Plattenfirmen, die diesen Bayreuther ‘Ring’ veröffentlichten, meist allerdings in klanglich wenig überzeugendem Gewand. Der große Vorteil dieser Orfeo-Veröffentichung ist natürlich seine exzellente Klangqualität, die uns dieses Tondokument erst richtig schätzen lässt. Clemens Krauss hat nur 1953 ‘Ring’ und Parsifal als Einspringer für Hans Knappertsbusch auf dem Grünen Hügel dirigiert, der sich wegen Streitigkeiten zurückgezogen hatte, ab 1954 allerdings wieder im Graben des Festspielorchesters stehen sollte.

Ob eine weitere Zusammenarbeit mit Krauss zustande gekommen wäre weiß man nicht; der Dirigent ist im Frühjahr 1954 unerwartet gestorben. In der Besetzung spiegelt dich das neue Bayreuther Sängerensemble wieder, das während 15 Jahren die Wagner-Interpretation maßgeblich formen sollte. Krauss dirigiert diesen Ring recht spannungsvoll und setzt mit seinem klaren, dynamischen Konzept neue Maßstäbe, die sicherlich besser zu Wieland Wagners Inszenierung passten als Knappertsbuschs eher breites, pathetisches Dirigat des frühen Neu-Bayreuth.

Der hier vorliegende Mitschnitt dokumentiert den zweiten Ring-Zyklus von 1953. Die Premiere, die ebenfalls als Tonträger erhältlich ist, wurde von Joseph Keilberth mit den gleichen Sängern (Ausnahme: die Besetzung der Brünnhilde, Martha Mödl bei Keilberth, Astrid Varnay bei Krauss) dirigiert. Hans Hotter war neben Ferdinand Frantz der konkurrenzlose Wotan der Fünfzigerjahre. Wolfgang Windgassen war ein frischer, jugendlicher und psychologisch präziser Siegfried, Astrid Varnay eine stimmgewaltige Brünnhilde, Gustav Neidlinger der beste Alberich aller Zeiten. Glänzend auch Erich Witte als Loge und Josef Greindl als Hunding und Hagen. Sehr beliebt im Bayreuth der Fünfzigerjahre war der Tenor Ramon Vinay, dessen raue Stimme hervorragend zu dem Charakter des Siegmund passte.Ira Malaniuk, Maria von Ilosvay, Regina Resnik, Hermann Uhde, Paul Kuën, Ludwig Weber, sie alle standen für Wagner-Gesang allererster Güte und für ein Ensemble, das bis heute kaum überboten wurde. Dies ist also ein ‘Ring’, der auf der gleichen Stufe steht wie die Bayreuther Mitschnitte von Keilberth (1952), Knappertsbusch (1956), Kempe (1960) und (mit einigen Abstrichen) Böhm (1966/67).

Alain Steffen

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Media Type/Label
Foyer, Rodolphe, Gala, Opera d’Oro, Archipel, Documents, Pristine, Line
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Technical Specifications
648 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 3.95 GByte (flac)
Broadcasts from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (1951)