Richard Wagner
Der Ring des Nibelungen — I. Das Rheingold

Media Review / Comparison


2013-05-25 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-09 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-12 — Brushed up for better readability

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883): Der Ring des Nibelungen — I. Das Rheingold

No, this is not a post on the occasion of the composer’s birthday — the “Ring” has been laying on my desk for months, and now that I’m extremely busy at work, this appears to be the only thing that I manage for my blog (lots of listening, short review/comments) — I have a number of posts “in the making” and hope to complete these while listening through this monster cycle…

Wilhelm Furtwängler, Orchestra Sinfonica della Radio Italiana

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Furtwängler, CD coverRichard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wilhelm Furtwängler, Orchestra Sinfonica della Radio Italiana
Recorded 1953, live, for radio broadcasting (for the soloists see below)

EMI classics 9 08161 2 (13 CDs, mono); ℗ 1972 / 1990 / © 2011
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Furtwängler, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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Marek Janowski, Staatskapelle Dresden, Staatsopernchor Dresden

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Janowski, CD coverRichard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Marek Janowski, Staatskapelle Dresden, Staatsopernchor Dresden
Recorded 1980 – 1983, Lukaskirche, Dresden (for the soloists see below)

Sony Music / RCA 88691915482 (14 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2012
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Janowski, UPC-A barcode
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—


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This is really just a quick review — my Wagner collection is small (in terms of compositions, not playing time!), and I do not have the intent to be or become a Wagner specialist. It’s just that in my vinyl days (now banned to the basement) I used to have two recordings of Wagner operas with Wilhelm Furtwängler (“Der Ring des Nibelungen” and “Tristan und Isolde”), both of which I have now re-acquired on CD.

With the “Ring” (of which I only ever listened to the first two parts, “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre”) I was looking for a more recent recording, just to be able to have some means to assessing the value of these old Furtwängler recordings. The selection of the recording with Marek Janowski was the result of a (quick) search through the BBC Radio 3 discussion forum — I did not listen to samples (a mistake, probably), but (sub-consciously) took into account remarks that I still remembered about the recordings with Karajan, Solti, Böhm (I remember reading a critique that stated that all of these have their limitations / draw-backs, etc.) — after all, there was a reason why 38 years ago I chose Furtwängler!

Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886 – 1954) recorded “Das Rheingold” on October 26th, 1953, in Rome — this is a live recording for radio broadcasting. His soloists are

  • Wotan: Ferdinand Frantz
  • Fricka: Ira Malaniuk
  • Loge: Wolfgang Windgassen
  • Alberich: Gustav Neidlinger
  • Mime: Julius Patzak
  • Donner: Alfred Poell
  • Froh: Lorenz Fehenberger
  • Freia: Elisabeth Grümmer
  • Erda: Ruth Siewert
  • Fasolt: Josef Greindl
  • Fafner: Gottlob Frick
  • Woglinde: Sena Jurinac
  • Wellgunde: Magda Gabory
  • Flosshilde: Hilde Rössl-Majdan

Janowski

Marek Janowski (*1939) recorded “Das Rheingold” on December 8th – 11th, 1980, in the Lukaskirche in Dresden. His soloists are

  • Wotan: Theo Adam
  • Fricka: Yvonne Minton
  • Loge: Peter Schreier
  • Alberich: Siegmund Nimsgern
  • Mime: Christian Vogel
  • Donner: Karl-Heinz Stryczek
  • Froh: Eberhard Büchner
  • Freia: Marita Napier
  • Erda: Ortrun Wenkel
  • Fasolt: Roland Bracht
  • Fafner: Matti Salminen
  • Woglinde: Lucia Popp
  • Wellgunde: Uta Priew
  • Flosshilde: Hanna Schwarz

Quick Comparison:

It’s not easy to compare two recordings that are so different in age and recording technique; my expectations were that the newer recording technique, newer / better orchestra, etc. would provide for a superior listening experience, possibly leaving the Furtwängler as a “historic / legacy benchmark” — however

Janowski

Marek Janowski does indeed profit from a better recording technique: this is stereo, the recording provides a space / stage experience (even though it was recorded in a church!), much more transparency (even though also that recording is now 33 years old!), and there are indeed some highlights that I like with this recording, but there are definitely also lots of downsides:

Pros:

  • Much better orchestra, more transparent, more detail, good sound (certainly compared to Furtwängler’s)
  • The Prelude is much more vivid, evokes the impression of waves playing on the water. the reflexes of the light playing on the surface (reminds me of Bedřich Smetana’a “Vltava”!), more of a “crescendo experience” than with Furtwängler, see below.
  • Siegmund Nimsgern‘s Alberich is superb — excellent voice, large vocal volume, pretty much dominating the scene (after all, he is “Der Nibelung”!)
  • Peter Schreier‘s Loge is sharp, devious, deceitful, very clear
  • Matti Salminen‘s voice is fairly heavy, but impressive, adapted to a giant’s role!
  • Overall, Janowski prefers a more fluent tempo, is more dramatic and vivid.

Cons:

  • Much to my disappointment, most other singers, but especially Wotan (Theo Adam), Fricka (Yvonne Minton), Donner (Karl-Heinz Stryczek), Fasolt (Roland Bracht), Freia (Marita Napier), and Erda (Ortrun Wenkel), all use an very heavy, slow vibrato — a commented on the radio recently called this “tired, worn out”; I’m sensitive to excess vibrato anyway — this here seriously affects my listening experience, making it hard to enjoy this recording!
    Even Peter Schreier is sometimes singing with heavy vibrato — what a contrast to what my wife and I experienced when we heard him sing Bach’s Schemelli-Lieder with organ-accompaniment, back in 1982 — an entire concert sung sotto voce, in a big church in Schaffhausen (of course, he did not have any problem “filling the church” with his voice, even at that level!). The worst part of this is that Wotan’s role (Theo Adam) is bigger and almost omnipresent in this opera.
  • The hammering on anvils in Mime’s place sounds way too harmless — rather like a herd of sheep with bells, and also Donner’s hammer in the final scene reminds me of a triangle (maybe this was a tribute to the fact that the recording was made in a church?).

Summary:

  • Overall duration: 2h 20′
  • Average rating (relative only): 4.25

Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler‘s recording is now 60 years old, the sound is mono (no “scenic experience” even though this was a live recording!), very limited, the orchestra sound fairly poor (hard to say whether that’s just the recording technique, or whether the orchestra is playing poorly — it certainly is not the biggest orchestra of that time). Furtwängler’s tempi are often rather broad (certainly does not make it easier for the singers!), the dynamics rather narrow (that’s likely a limitation of the recording technique). All this affects my rating to some degree — nevertheless, I still draw more listening pleasure from this recording than from the newer one by Janowski:

Pros:

  • I can hardly imagine how anybody today could ever gather that many great voices in one single recording: they are all very impressive, maybe with the exception of Fricka (Ira Malaniuk) who uses the heaviest vibrato in this performance, and maybe Fasolt (Josef Greindl) whose vibrato is at the limit — but otherwise all voices are exceptional (that’s even more amazing because this is a live recording: there is barely any sign of tiring with these singers!); Alfred Poell (Donner), the two giants (Josef GreindlGottlob Frick), as well as Alberich (Gustav Neidlinger) and Wotan (Ferdinand Frantz) are all exceptional, and they all are really forming an ensemble in terms of singing culture; even the three Rheintöchter (Woglinde, Wellgunde, Floßhilde) are more homogeneous than those in Janowski’s recording.
  • The hammering on anvils sounds more like it, and also Donner’s hammer is impressive, if not frightening (and so is the thunder that follows!)

Cons:

  • Besides the obvious limitation in the sound, the tempi are often somewhat broad, maybe lacking drama, excitement, and the one voice with an excess vibrato, there really is little to be criticized in this recording!

Summary:

  • Overall duration: 2h 35′ (that’s 10% slower than Janowski!)
  • Average rating (relative only): 4.05

Conclusion

As stated above, I actually prefer Furtwängler’s recording — despite the slightly lower rating (which is mostly due to the limitation in the sound technique, especially with the orchestra).

(to be continued…)



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