horizontal line

In this 50-CD, handsomely packaged boxed set from Membran label’s Documents division, there are recordings of all Wagner’s ‘canonical’ operas: that is the ten from Der fliegende Holländer onwards, in performances given between 1943 and 1960 in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the opera house that Wagner built to his own specifications.

There are also highlights from earlier performances, some of them from the 1930s, and some studio recordings from as early as 1904 made in the Hotel Sonne in Bayreuth, with piano accompaniment. Fortunately there aren’t many of the latter, for not only is the sound primitive, as one would expect, but the renderings of excerpts from the operas are excruciatingly badly sung, or more accurately shouted, by performers who seem to have been trained by Cosima, Wagner’s widow, to concentrate on the words – and to hell with the notes.

The performances have been, on the whole, very well chosen. They derive mostly from Bavarian Radio archives, and were recorded on tapes for distribution to various radio stations. The sophistication of the recordings is astonishing, and well up to the standards of at least many commercial studio recordings of the period. The acoustic is not, usually, like what one hears in the Festspielhaus itself; but in my opinion that is all to the good. The voices and orchestra are in excellent balance, while in the theatre itself the voices predominate over the orchestra to a degree that I find disconcerting. The casts of the 1950s performances are, mainly, of a level that has never been equalled since.

Take the Ring cycle: during those years Hans Hotter was always the Wotan, setting a standard which will never be surpassed. Wolfgang Windgassen was always the Siegfried, and although he is not the most heroic of tenors, he is the most poetic and word-sensitive, and he doesn’t tire. The Brünnhildes are Astrid Varnay, Martha Mödl and Birgit Nilsson, three supreme but utterly individual artists. The casts are strong all the way through, and the list of conductors is impressive, including the arch-Wagnerian Hans Knappertsbusch, Herbert von Karajan in tremendous accounts of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, and Joseph Keilberth, who was less highly esteemed then than he is now.

There is also a complete Meistersinger from 1943, in which the superb cast is conducted by another great figure, Hermann Abendroth. The recording has quite remarkable sound. Abendroth alternated that year with Furtwängler, greatest of Wagner conductors, who worked with an inferior cast but with amazing results; extracts from his performance are here too.

For the Ring we have largely consistent casts, but four different conductors: Clemens Krauss to get things offto a lucid, intensely dramatic start; Knappertsbusch to realise to the full the pathos of the Ring’s most tragic drama; Keilberth for a light-footed account of Siegfried; and then, anomalously, Rudolf Kempe for Götterdämmerung, where there are major cast changes, but which was chosen, presumably, because it was the first time that Nilsson had sung Brünnhilde in Bayreuth, and they were determined to get her powerful performance in.

The accompanying booklet is quite thick, in German and English, with a few illustrations and nothing about the recordings. There are extracts from Wagner himself on Bayreuth, and from his successors and some commentators. That is helpful, but notes on the recordings and the performers would have been more helpful still.

I don’t imagine many people buying this set as their first foray into Wagner, though as long as they got hold of texts it would actually be an excellent buy, priced at less than £1 a disc. Most people, I take it, would buy more recent recordings, in digital sound. However, it can’t be said too often that to get inside Wagner’s works you need performers who themselves were inside them to a degree that is seldom encountered today, especially in respect of inflecting the words with meaning at the same time as sustaining a musical line. Almost all the singers here, including the Chilean Ramón Vinay, were trained in a tradition which insisted on the clearest enunciation combined with as lyrical a style as is compatible with that. Compare Vinay and Domingo (not represented here, of course): two Hispanics, one making the most of the language, the other mangling it.

The main cause for regret is the absence of some of the very greatest Wagner singers, who did indeed sing at Bayreuth but weren’t recorded there: the most obvious are Lauritz Melchior, indisputably the greatest heroic tenor; and Frida Leider, stupendous Isolde and Brünnhilde of the 1930s. It seems a bit pedantic not to include them simply because they weren’t recorded at the right spot. There are a few misattributions, too, of performances that weren’t given in Bayreuth but have been passed off as having been. All told, however, this collection of recordings represents a remarkable achievement.

Michael Tanner Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Opera Now, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing