Der Ring des Nibelungen

Rudolf Kempe
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Date/Location
25 September 1957 (R)
27 September 1957 (W)
1 October 1957 (S), 4 October 1957 (G)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre

Siegfried

Götterdämmerung
Gallery
Reviews
Classics Today

Given that Testament has re-released its extraordinary, excellent-sounding 1955 Bayreuth Ring cycle as an attractively priced boxed set, it seems strange for the label to so quickly bring out yet another so-called “historic” Ring. This one preserves performances given at Covent Garden in the fall of 1957, conducted by Rudolf Kempe. Although Testament plays coy regarding the recordings’ provenance, they actually are BBC transmissions taken off the air by a home recording enthusiast (I gather the BBC master tapes don’t exist). The sound quality is not great, yet you easily can discern a realistic and listenable soundstage in which the voices, the orchestra, and venue congeal. The closing of Die Walküre’s second act best illustrates my point, where the rapidly changing on- and off-stage activity emerges in clear and tangible perspective.

Listeners familiar with this Ring via earlier, illegitimate incarnations are all too aware of the frequent radio static and crosstalk, to say nothing of tape wear and tear in the form of wow, flutter, drop outs, and pitch snags. Fortunately, Testament’s transfer guru Paul Bailey has considerably smoothed out, if not entirely eliminated, these problems. He’s even managed to tame that horrific barrage of static crackle at the start of Götterdämmerung’s Act 1 Scene 3 so that the voices now dominate, rather than the noise. Tape hiss is reduced, resulting in less brightness on top, but more bass and mid-range information.

Save for some less than stellar soft brass playing, plus inconsistent first desk work that ranges from wooden to reasonably expressive, the Covent Garden forces respond well to Kempe’s expertly paced and often inspired leadership. Knowing Kempe’s genius for evoking orchestral color, you could only imagine how the fiery Die Walküre Act 1 Prelude, Das Rheingold’s final pages, or the eloquently unfolding Siegfried’s Funeral March in Götterdämmerung Act 3 must have resonated in the flesh. The strong cast certainly helps.

Hans Hotter’s Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried, Hermann Uhde’s Gunther, and Ramon Vinay’s Siegmund stand out. It’s interesting to hear Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde triumvirate prior to her peak international years. Her staggeringly secure vocalism and laser-like projection is all there, if not the lyrical tenderness and greater nuance she’d bring to her later recorded Rings.

As Mime, Peter Klein is inclined to emote and exaggerate in Das Rheingold, yet he appreciably tones down his act in time for Siegfried. Equally outstanding on both vocal and dramatic levels are Otakar Kraus’ Alberich and Georgine von Milinkovic’s Fricka; and if you’ve always wanted to hear Joan Sutherland on playful, agile form as Woglinde, here’s your chance (not to slight her Rheinmaiden colleagues Una Hale and Marjorie Thomas!). The 13 discs sell for the price of six, and you can download the librettos as PDF files from Testament’s website (www.testament.co.uk). Not essential, but possibly supplemental for specialist collectors and Wagner mavens.

Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 4

Jed Distler

classical-music.com

Testament’s second Ring, appearing a mere two years after its predecessor, shifts the venue from Bayreuth to Covent Garden and moves forward from 1955 to 1957. Its focus too differs – whereas vivid stereo sound was the transforming element of the Keilberth/Bayreuth Ring, the artistry of conductor Rudolf Kempe is the feature Testament chooses to highlight in this new release. Rudolf Kempe’s personal yet unostentatious approach emerges from generally leisurely pacing that never becomes heavy. Notoriously opposed to bombast as he was, Kempe seeks out lyrical ways of elucidating Wagner’s music – for example, he conceives of the ‘Young Siegfried’ motif not as an exuberantly energetic outburst, but rather as an artless, instinctive sound of nature. Kempe’s flowing style occasionally foregoes optimal grandeur and incisiveness (as in both the prelude to and ending of Siegfried, Act III), but his momentum also sometimes spills over into impulsive haste (at the end of Walküre, Act I, for example). What most haunts the memory is Kempe’s reverent treatment of moments that evoke sombreness or nostalgia (such as Woglinde’s ‘Nur wer der Minne Macht versagt’, the Wanderer’s ‘Kenntest du mich, kühner Spross’, or the Rhinemaidens’ sadness-tinged sporting at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, Act III), all of which seem to tap into a vein of profound, timeless truth. In short, Kempe’s humane, often poetic Ring nourishes the spirit. This cast features some singers familiar from other recordings – Hans Hotter’s Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson’s Brünnhilde (gleaming in tone for Götterdämmerung but quite rough at ‘War es so schmählich’ in Walküre, Act III), Hermann Uhde’s Gunther, and Ramón Vinay’s Siegmund in particular are known quantities, and appear here in largely representative form. Less frequently recorded singers who have strong outings include Otakar Kraus – whose Alberich is fervent, well sung, spontaneous-sounding, and poignantly sympathetic – and Sylvia Fisher, who portrays Sieglinde’s strong emotions with feverish intensity. Erich Witte’s Loge is often so understated as to make an almost bland impression; by contrast, Kurt Böhme’s blatant insistence that Hagen is The Villain destroys the brooding quality that makes this character sinister, while Böhme’s dry sound and broad touches are all wrong for the beauty- and honour-loving Fasolt. Smaller roles are variably cast, but among the singers involved is no less than Joan Sutherland as Woglinde. The recorded sound favours brass and winds, while singers are caught more naturally (that is, less prominently) than in most commercial and broadcast recordings. The sound is basically clear and steady, save for a progressively bad stretch extending from the middle of Götterdämmerung Act I all the way through Act II. Most listeners who can tolerate the sound of this set, however, will probably prefer Clemens Krauss’s trenchant, vital 1953 Bayreuth production, Kempe’s touching humanity notwithstanding.

David Breckbill

The Guardian

It’s only a few months since Testament released the last instalment of The Ring conducted by Josef Keilberth – stereo recordings from Bayreuth in 1955 that make up what is arguably the finest cycle available on disc. Now, with less fanfare, the company has released another complete cycle; this one is taken from performances at Covent Garden in 1957. It’s a more utilitarian product than the Keilberth – the recordings, taken from private tapes of the BBC relays, are mono, and librettos have to be downloaded from the Testament website. Yet with a cast that is close to the optimum for Ring cycles in the late 1950s, the set provides the perfect complement to Keilberth’s secure, mordantly dramatic performance, and shows that while Covent Garden’s postwar revival is usually reckoned to date from Georg Solti’s appointment as music director in 1961, before his arrival the company was more than capable of mustering world-class performances.

Being able to call upon Hans Hotter as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried and Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde is an immense bonus. Hotter and Windgassen were then still at the height of their formidable powers, while Nilsson’s greatest days were ahead of her, though she was already a matchless Wagnerian. And when the supporting cast includes Otakar Kraus as Alberich, Ramon Vinay as Siegmund, Sylvia Fisher as Sieglinde, Georgine von Milinikov as Fricka and Kurt Böhme as Hagen, as well as the young Joan Sutherland as one of the Rhinemaidens, all swept along by Kempe’s wonderfully lyrical, intensely expressive conducting, the performances have a certainty and sense of corporate belief that are hard to resist.

Perhaps Kempe’s lyricism doesn’t always measure up completely to the darker moments in the drama. There’s more anguish to be found in Walküre, for instance, than he allows, more bleakness in Götterdämmerung, and the recording quality is at best acceptable. But the virtues of this set far outweigh the drawbacks, and the best of it is gloriously compelling.

Andrew Clements | 30 May 2008

Rating
(8/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
Testament, Walhall Eternity
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Technical Specifications
501 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 3.13 GByte (flac)
Remarks
Broadcast
A production by Rudolf Hartmann (1954)