Thu, Dec 19, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Classical DVD reviews

WAGNER’S VISION, by Bayreuth

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter




Various artists

Documents 297900 to 297949

In August we reviewed a set of historic recordings featuring Hans Hotter, the so-called Wotan of the Century. Now, at the end of 2013, the bicentenary of the birth of Richard Wagner, it’s appropriate to consider another massive boxed set of historic recordings of his operas.

This time it’s all from Bayreuth, the theater Wagner had built specifically for the performance of his works, and that ever since has been the high temple of all Wagnerites. There are 50 CDs in all, and although many items have been issued before, it makes a hugely attractive bundle nevertheless.

The range is vast, though mostly concentrating on the immediate post-war years. Hence you have stars such as Hotter himself, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, Josef Greindl, Ramon Vinay, the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Martha Modl, Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson.

There are 11 complete operas here, including the entire Ring cycle. This is made up of Clemens Krauss’ 1953 Das Rheingold (of which more below); Hans Knapertsbusch’s 1958 Die Walkure with Jon Vickers and Rysanek; Joseph Keilberth’s 1953 Siegfried with Windgassen, Hotter and Modl; and Rudolf Kempe’s 1960 Gotterdammerung with Hans Hopf and Birgit Nilsson.

As the entire corpus is available as MP3 downloads, the Ring opera I would recommend to beginners, and indeed to everyone, is Krauss’ fabulous Das Rheingold. It’s not that it’s by far the shortest of the four operas that makes it enticing — I personally wanted it to go on forever.

Firstly, the sound is remarkably good for something recorded from a stage performance 60 years ago. Next, Hotter as Wotan and Erich Witte as Loge (singing for once, rather than half-declaiming the role as later became fashionable) make an incomparable pair. But most importantly, Krauss coaxes from the Bayreuth orchestra the most astonishingly dynamic performance, going for Wagner’s various effects, whether they are semi-comic such as the entry of the giants Fasolt and Fafner, or sublime such as the “rainbow bridge” music at the end, with unparalleled energy and dedication. This really is a Das Rheingold to treasure.

The other opera that moved me almost to tears on this set was Lohengrin. The complete version given is from 1959, under the Croatian conductor Lavro von Matacic, with Sandor Konya as the swan knight and Elisabeth Gummer as Elsa. But what affected me were the extracts offered from two other recordings, those from Eugen Jochum in 1954 and Keilberth in 1953.

In these, the magical music of the vorspiel (introduction), so plangently echoed as the story moves towards its tragic climax, was wholly engrossing and beautiful. To think that this entire boxed set is selling for a mere US$70 (NT$2,074) is to wonder why supplies weren’t sold out on the day of issue.

An ultra-historic feature of the collection is the inclusion of several items recorded at Bayreuth’s Hotel Sonne in 1904. These are brief recital highlights sung by a single soloist to piano accompaniment, such as Emilie Feuge-Gleiss singing the wood-bird’s music from Siegfried. That these come from nearer Wagner’s day than ours takes my breath away.

One of this year’s biggest Wagner events was the new production of his final opera, Parsifal, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Several things marked it out — Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Rene Pape as Gurnemanz and Peter Mattei as Amfortas, plus the futuristic, “post-apocalyptic” setting of Francois Girard’s production.

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