Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Solti Ring: Das Rheingold

I'm slowly working my way through the legendary studio recording of The Ring of the Nibelung recorded in Vienna between 1958 and 1964 with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

After listening to Das Rheingold,  I think that the reputation of this recording is well deserved.  This was an ambitious feat of audio engineering when it was done in the mid twentieth century.  At the time it was released there was no complete version of the entire Ring cycle readily available to the record buying public.  The recording took advantage of advances in stereo and recording technology and the long-playing album or "LP."

The producers wished to have the total experience of Wagner's music dramas captured on disc.  Using the idea of the "theater of the mind" the recording features sound effects like thunder, sword clashes, hammers striking anvils and the like, to convey to the listener what is going on in the story.

Known for his aggressive conducting and vibrant tempos, Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) was one of the great Wagner conductors of all time.   The producers also went to great lengths to bring in the best singing talent available.  

Gustav Neidlinger (1910-1991)

The first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold, was recorded between September 24th and October 8, 1958.  It starred George London as Wotan,  Eberhard Wachter as Donner, Waldemar Kmentt as Froh, Set Svanholm as Loge, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, Paul Kuen as Mime, Walter Kreppal as Fasolt, Kurt Bohme as Fafner, Kirsten Flagstad as Fricka, Claire Watson as Freia, Jean Madeira as Erda, Oda Balsborg as Woglinde, Hetty Plumacher as Wellgunde and Ira Malanuik as Flosshilde.

A youthful Kirsten Flagstad as Brunhilde

Gustav Neidlinger's (1910-1991) performance as Alberich in this recording is considered by some to be one of the best Alberich's of all time.  This recording also features one of the final performances of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962).  Flagstad was considered by many to be the greatest dramatic soprano of all time.  Writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Desmond Shawe-Taylor said, "No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone."  Her performances at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1930s caused a sensation.  While performing at the Met Flagstad did the whole prima donna thing and had an explosive feud with her co-star, tenor Lauritz Melchoir.  A Norwegian, Flagstad was heavily criticized for her decision to leave the United States and return to be with her husband in Nazi occupied Norway.  Flagstad suffered from a poor public opinion of her for many years during and after the war.   The aging Flagstad was recruited to sing the part of Fricka in the Decca studio recording, and, true to form, her pitch perfect voice resounds in this recording.

Flagstad about the time of the Solti studio recording.

I like my Wagner to be played loud and fast like the heavy metal version of classical music and Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic deliver.  The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music says this:  "The immediacy and pacing are thrilling, while the sound-effects of the final scenes, including Donner's hammer blow and the rainbow bridge, have never been matched since.  Solti gives a magnificent reading of the score, crisp, dramatic and direct.  Vocally, the set is held together by the unforgettable singing of Neidlinger as Alberich.  He vocalizes with wonderful precision and makes the character of the dwarf develop from the comic creature of the opening scene to the demented monster of the last.  Flagstad learned the part of Fricka especially for this recording, and her performance makes one regret that she never took the role on the stage.  George London is sometimes a little rough, but this is a dramatic portrayal of the young Wotan.  Svanholm could be more characterful as Loge, but again it is a relief to hear the part really sung.  An outstanding achievement.  

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