Performing the “Ring&rdquo
What are we to do about Richard Wagner? Nothing in the years since his death in 1883 has succeeded in mitigating the essential unpleasantness of his personality. Indeed, few men in the history of art can have been so unfortunate in so many of their admirers; few can have had a world outlook of such unparalleled evil erected in the image of their ideas of art and life. Whatever else Wagner was, the Nazis found a hero in him. And whatever else he was, this worshipper of power wherever he found it remains one of the famous anti-Semites of history.
It thus might have been thought that Wagner—man and artist alike—would have forever lain entombed in the ruins of Hitler’s Valhalla. But on the contrary, admiration for Wagner’s art, which even during the darkest days of World War II had not been completely extinguished among Germany’s Western enemies, began a steady rise after 1945. The first sign of this popularity was the worldwide interest in the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, devoted as always to the performance of Wagner’s ten major operas. The 1951 festival, which featured a revolutionary staging by the composer’s grandson, Wieland Wagner, of both Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen, has now been folowed by the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the festival in 1876. Since Bayreuth was established as a stage for the presentation of the Ring, it is only fitting that the centennial season should have presented still another controversial production of that cycle, this time by the young French director, Patrice Chéreau.
Apart from the vast number of performances of his music the world over in recent years, the publishing industry has also been busy supply the Wagner market. At long last, Ernest Newman’s classic biography has been reprinted, and in paperback.1 In the last two years, Hans Gal’s short biography has appeared in English translation,2 and we now have, inter alia, a small picture book by the Verdi specialist Charles Osborne,3 a consideration of the tangled relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche by the singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,4 and a detailed examination of Wagner’s compositional sketches for the Ring by Curt von Westernhagen.5 Two large-format volumes have also been produced for the gift trade, one a collection of documents and illustrations,6 and the other a history of the Bayreuth Festival by Hans Mayer.7
Since the treatment of Wagner’s life is naturally marked by perplexity that such greatness could have been produced by so tarnished an instrument, it is not surprising that much of the major concentration in this Wagner “boom” should be on the works themselves, and in particular, given then-greater excellence, on the operas of Wagner’s maturity: Tristan und Isolde (1865), Die Meistersinger (1868), Parsifal (1882), and the four parts of the Ring—Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Siegfried (1876), and Götterdämmerung (1876). And of these, it is the Ring which has attracted the greatest amount of intellectual concern. This giant creation myth, beginning and ending in the waters of the Rhine, includes in its approximately fourteen hours of music drama all the primitive instinctual emotions of love and lust, ambition and greed, incest and betrayal, envy and hate, played out by a fascinating mixture of gods with limited powers, strong giants and cunning dwarfs, and heroic but doomed men and women.
The plot of the Ring, an amalgamation of the Volsunga Saga, the Nibelungenlied, the Eddie poems, and Wagner’s own personal touches, is a complex story of events antecedent to the action of the operas as well as events occurring offstage. The Ring is started when the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich, forswears love and robs the Rhine of its gold. From the gold he forces the other Nibelungs to forge for him a ring which gives the wearer world dominion. The great god Wotan, upon the advice of the tricky fire god Loge, steals the treasure from Alberich in order to pay the giants for building Valhalla, the fortress from which the gods hope to rule the world. Alberich places a curse upon the future owners of the ring, and the gods take possession of their new home.
In order to deal with his two problems—defending Valhalla and restoring the treasure (which he has not kept, but which he did steal)—Wotan starts two new families. The children of one family, sired by Wotan and a mortal woman, are Siegmund and Sieglinde. These two fall in love, though Sieglinde is already married. Their union is condemned by Fricka, Wotan’s consort, who is the guardian of the family. Wotan thus must let Siegmund die. When Brünnhilde, the daughter of Wotan and the earth goddess Erda—Wotan’s second family—attempts to protect the doomed Siegmund, Wotan casts her out from among the gods and sentences her to remain asleep on a rock surrounded by fire until she is awakened by a fearless hero. Both father and daughter know this hero will be Siegfried, the as-yet-unborn son of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Siegfried is brought up in the forest by Mime, the smith brother of Alberich. Mime is unable to forge a proper sword for the future hero, but, acting out Wotan’s prophecy to Mime, Siegfried forges the sword himself out of the fragments of his father’s shattered weapon. With it he slays Fafner, the dragon into which one of the giants has turned himself in order to protect the treasure. Then, after killing Mime, in whom he has divined murderous intentions, Siegfried goes forward, armed with sword and ring, to awaken and win Brünnhilde, and then out into the world in search of adventure.
On his travels, he meets two Gibichungs, Gunter and Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, the son of Alberich, who has been plotting to recover the treasure. Even before Siegfried arrives, Hagen has proposed that the hero be induced by magic to forget Brünnhilde and win her for Gunter, while Siegfried himself will marry Gutrune. Siegfried, drugged by a potion, agrees, and overpowers the unwitting Brünnhilde. Hagen then suggests vengeance to the betrayed Brünnhilde, and she supplies him with the information necessary to kill Siegfried, which he treacherously does. Brünnhilde, at last aware that he whom she had loved had not betrayed her but had instead been betrayed, realizes the working out of both the curse and the fate of the gods. She takes the ring from the dead Siegfried and immolates herself. As the waters of the Rhine rise to reclaim the ring and the gold, the fire sets Valhalla ablaze and the gods go up in flames.
From the time of its writing, the Ring has tempted critics to find an explanation of its inner meaning. What was perhaps Wagner’s conscious purpose—to demonstrate the power of love to redeem—has long seemed insufficient to account for either the massiveness of the work’s structure or the awesome power it possesses to move its audience. Until the past generation, undoubtedly the most impressive interpretation of the Ring in extra-musical terms was that of George Bernard Shaw. In The Perfect Wagnerite (1899), Shaw found the Ring to be an allegory of capitalism, a vivid portrayal of the exploitation of labor in the interests of a greedy moneyed class blinded to humanity by the worship of gold.
In point of fact, support for Shaw’s theory could be found in Wagner’s early political allegiances; he had been a close friend of the anarchist Bakunin and was himself an active participant in the German revolution of 1848-49, sufering exile for his efforts. But unfortunately Shaw’s explanation suffered a fate common to all such reductive attempts to interpret works of art; the glorious mystery of the Ring remained intact long after the ingenious analysis had first been found obvious and finally trivial and irrelevant.
Where Shaw’s socialist scheme failed, psychology eventually stepped in. The regnant psychological explanation of the Ring is of the Jungian variety; no extended Freudian interpretation has yet appeared. Thus in Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols,8 Robert Donington assimilates Wagner’s combination of Nordic myth and Schopenhauerian pessimism to the vocabulary of depth psychology, and sees the Ring as a symbolic story both of Wagner’s own psychic struggles on the road to emotional maturity and of mankind’s reliance on archetypal fantasies and patterns as a means of understanding the world.
Whatever may be said of such interpretations—one may question whether they do anything more than substitute a sophisticated myth for a primitive one—it cannot be denied that depth psychology has had a significant influence on the way Wagner in general and the Ring in particular have been staged since World War II. It was Wieland Wagner’s intelligence—as well as a desire to distance himself from his mother’s enthusiastic support of Hitler—which led him consciously to bring to bear upon his grandfather’s operas those 20th-century insights of psychology and anthropology which had not previously been allowed admittance to the Bayreuth shrine.
In keeping with the modern conception of the racial unconscious and its origin in primitivism, Wieland banished realistic elements as well as bright light from his Bayreuth Ring productions. In their place, he substituted in 1951 the Weltenscheibe, a large raised disc on which all the action was to take place in an atmosphere of darkness and gloom broken only by the occasionally spotlighted singers. The disc and the gloom combined to present each character as a lonely symbolic figure battling with all-powerful instincts and natural forces.
This style—dubbed “neo-Bayreuth” when it has been used by others outside the control of the Wagner family as well as by the Wagners themselves—has become the prevailing orthodoxy in Ring productions. In the form devised by Herbert von Karajan for the 1967 Salzburg Easter Festival, it became the basis for the Metropolitan Opera production finally seen complete in New York in 1975. Recently, however, Bayreuth itself has returned to a kind of Marxist interpretation of the Ring, in the realistic new production staged by Chéreau at the 1976 centennial. Here the audience was presented with well-dressed capitalists, with Mime as an old Jew, and with the gods’ fortress Valhalla as Wall Street; the production, in the words of the New Yorker, offered “a bleak look at the dehumanized society spawned by the Industrial Revolution.”
There seems little chance that the new Bayreuth production—or anything similarly audacious—will be seen in New York in the near future. Indeed, no plans have so far been announced for doing the Ring again in New York at all; it is significant that the 1975 Metropolitan production was the first at that opera house since the 1961 season. The San Francisco Opera does do individual operas from the cycle with fair frequency, and Seattle has been presenting a full Ring in both German and English. But the Seattle production, to judge from the critical response, has not been of international quality, and in any case the Metropolitan remains, for better or worse, in artistic and financial resources the premier opera company in the United States.
Exactly how much the Ring must be seen to be experienced is a difficult question to answer. Richard Wagner was himself disillusioned with the staging—nominally under his control—of the first Bayreuth production. He is often quoted to this effect:
How I abhor the atmosphere of grease paint and mummery! When I think that a character like Kundry will henceforth be mimed, I am at once reminded of those disgusting masquerades, and now that I have created the invisible orchestra [a reference to the hidden, recessed orchestra pit at Bayreuth], I would like to invent the invisible stage.
These words were cited by Wieland Wagner to head an important 1951 article entitled “Tradition and Innovation,” in which he not only defended new approaches to staging but also admitted that Wagner’s is a music
which transmits [the composer’s] visions in so expressive a language that it is well-nigh impossible to duplicate the vision for the eye. The onlooker will inevitably fall behind the listener, even though the scenic problems may happily have been solved . . . we must still admit that the stage can, at its best, provide only a sparse reflection of that which is triumphantly conveyed from the orchestra pit.
In any case, while one need hardly deny the added dimension which is provided by visual means, today’s recorded versions of the Ring provide, in the absence of staged performances, a magnificent opportunity to experience the music.
Until recently, the phonograph literature of this music was anything but plentiful, although excerpts have long been available, including performances by some of the greatest voices ever to sing Wagner. Available today on LP transfers, the work of Frieda Leider,9 Lauritz Melchior,10 and Friedrich Schorr11 shaped the standards by which their successors have been judged. The sound of these records, advanced for their day, remains acceptable, if of limited brilliance and depth.
Yet, of all opera, this music may be the least amenable to extraction of its highlights. Such skimming certainly does violence to Wagner’s basic goal, the replacement of the succession of set pieces formerly characteristic of opera—arias, ensembles, and interludes—by an integrated and continuous flow of dramatic plot and musical development. As a result of the music’s great length and the creative nature of the works themselves, adequate representation of the Ring on records awaited the arrival of the LP in 1948. But even then, coverage was slow in coming. Though LP transfers were made of the 1935 Bruno Walter-Lotte Lehmann-Melchoir Act I of Die Walküre12 and of the 1945 Walküre Act III13 with Artur Rodzinski, Helen Traubel, and Herbert Janssen, the longest new recording in the early years of the LP was another Walküre Act III,14 this time from Bayreuth with Herbert von Karajan, Astrid Varnay, and Sigurd Björling. From Rheingold there was as yet nothing, and from Siegfried and Götterdämmerung only the very end of each opera, passages which had been obtainable in several versions on 78’s.
In the early 50’s, however, a complete Ring was a gleam in the eye of John Culshaw, a young producer with English Decca. He had been involved in Decca’s abortive attempt to record the Ring in Bayreuth in 1951. Later, he had encouraged Decca to release what he felt to be an insufficient—but complete—Götterdämmerung from Oslo with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde.15 Finally, in 1958, he was able to go ahead with a recording of Rheingold—using Flagstad, at the end of her career, as Fricka—with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.16 This recording, released to the widest critical enthusiasm and unexpectedly large commercial success, inaugurated the present era of the Ring on records. It was followed by Siegfried17 in 1962, Götterdämmerung18 in 1964, and finally, though out of order, Walküre19 in 1965. Not to be outdone, Deutsche Grammophon, between 1967 and 1970, recorded Karajan’s Salzburg production with the Berlin Philharmonic.20
These two complete sets are “studio” recordings (as is a third “budget” effort on Westminster with Hans Swarowsky conducting the Southwest German Philharmonic). Although made in a hall, they were done in sections, repeated as necessary, without the presence of an audience; not until later were the parts assembled into a complete performance. Such a procedure—though it runs the risk of losing both spontaneity and the sense of cohesion and integration which can only result from a performance done before people and progressing straight through from beginning to end—nonetheless provides the ultimate in control over recording characteristics and errors of notes and balances. As a result, these recordings must inevitably be considered the norm; “live” recordings, even though perhaps pieced together out of several performances, must always justify their technical shortcomings and (relatively) inferior recorded sound by their special feeling of life and drama.
Such “live” recordings of the Ring do exist. One was made in Bayreuth in 1966 and 1967 at festival performances and rehearsals conducted by Karl Böhm.21 Another, an English National Opera production, is three-quarters of the way toward commercial release on EMI. Rheingold,22 Walküre23 (both marketed here by Angel), and Siegfried24 have already been issued, with Götterdämmerung soon to follow (most of Act III has been available for several years in a studio recording on another label25). These recordings, made during actual performances, are conducted by the Englishman Reginald Goodall, feature English (and Commonwealth) singers, and are sung in English.
Two live performances in the more usual meaning of the term are also available, both of them conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. The first preserves the Ring cycle at La Scala in 1950,26 and is distinguished by the presence of Flagstad as Brünnhilde. In this case, though the tapes on which these recordings are based were obviously made for radio broadcast rather than commercial release, it is impossible to know the extent to which they have been pieced together, as each cycle was given three times during the 1950 season, and tapes of at least two of those cycles are in existence. This Ring, which is currently available at an absurdly low price, only reached a wide market in 1976; a later Furtwängler cycle,27 initially broadcast at a concert performancer (sung but not staged) in Rome in 1953, was released after many years of legal difficulties in 1972.
Nor do these commercially available discs exhaust present opportunities to hear the Ring. In recent years, due to the proliferation of tape recorders, every important broadcast has been caught on tape, and a flourishing, if for legal reasons necessarily quiet, market has grown up around them. Many Rings are available in this form; among them are the performances from Bayreuth in 1957 conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, from the Met in 1975 with Sixten Ehrling, and the 1976 Bayreuth cycle staged by Chéreau and led by Pierre Boulez. Unfortunately, the recorded sound of these “private” tapes is highly variable, ranging from excellent in the 1975 Met broadcasts to opaque and fuzzy in those from Bayreuth.
Taken all together, these recorded performances provide a remarkable chance not only to hear the music of the Ring but also to examine how this masterpiece of the 19th century has been interpreted by different artists over a period encompassing more than a generation. The first cycle, from La Scala in 1950, uses a star pre-war cast and conductor, while in 1976 at Bayreuth the cast was comprised of singers relatively young and little known in this country, and the conductor, Boulez, was from a non-German tradition and in any case new to the music. Here, then, is an entire history of musical performance concentrated on what is perhaps the largest single integrated body of music ever written. By scrutinizing the way it has been done, we may learn where these operas are, where they have been, and perhaps even where they may be going.
The obvious place to start is with the singing. As might be expected in performances involving so many people, the range of quality is enormous. It is also not surprising that no one cast contains all the best singers, and that no singer is always in his or her best voice. One cannot, however, help noticing how many good singers these records offer. At the same time, few remain in the mind as memorable.
In considering, for example, the central role of Brünnhilde, it is clear that the challenge is so great that the response must be imperfect. (Perhaps this reflects the truth contained in Artur Schnabel’s remark that he only wanted to perform music that was better than he could play it.) The Brünnhildes in these performances include the most important Wagnerian sopranos of our time. Among them, in addition to Flagstad, are Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Martha Mödl, and Helga Dernesch. Flagstad’s, in the first Furtwängler records, remains the most beautiful sound; Nilsson, on both the Böhm and Solti sets as well as the 1975 Met broadcasts, is chiefly remarkable for the physical strength and ease of her vocalism. Like Flagstad, though more impassioned, she seems unable to delineate varied moods in her singing. For such an achievement one must go to Mödi and Varnay, the Brünnhildes of the later Furtwängler and the Knappertsbusch Rings. But here, as always in singing, dramatic personal qualities conflict with pure vocal beauty; Dernesch, in the Karajan set, offers what may be the best available compromise.
Among the leading male roles—Siegmund in Walküre, Siegfried in the last two operas of the cycle, and the Wotans of Rheingold, Walküre, and Siegfried (where Wotan is called the Wanderer)—there are perhaps even fewer singers of the highest stature. Of the nine singers doing Wotan, only one, Ferdinand Frantz (in both Furtwängler sets), bears comparison with such earlier singers as Schorr, Rudolf Bockelmann,28 and, at least on one excerpt, Alexander Kipnis.29 And even Frantz does not demonstrate the roundness and individuality of character which a singer must convey to be more than vocally arresting. The situation is little different among the Siegmunds and Siegfrieds of these performances; only Jon Vickers, Karajan’s Siegmund, is of a classic level, though Helge Brilioth in Karajan’s Götterdämmerung is perhaps the most nearly adequate Siegfried of our time.
In the smaller though still often frighteningly difficult male and female roles, there are many fine singers. Among the performances which will not easily be equaled may be mentioned the hauntingly fragile Sieglinde of Gundula Janowitz in the Karajan Walküre, the Mime of Julius Patzak on the later Furtwängler discs, and the Fricka of Josephine Veasey (Karajan). In general, the men seem more comfortable and less wobbly than the women throughout the entire range of these performances.
Beyond the individual merit of the singers involved, and with the exception of one set, every Ring discussed here provides singing easily sufficient to communicate the music. Moreover, even after making allowances for technical quality and the conditions under which each recording was made, no one set can be said to be vocally vastly better or worse than another. The exception is the Bayreuth Ring of 1976, where the vocalism justified Harold Schonberg’s earlier comment that as far as dramatic sopranos and heroic tenors are concerned, “we are in trouble on a worldwide basis.” The work of this youngish cast seems especially discouraging coming as it does on the heels of the 1975 Met broadcasts, which were marked by some excellent singing from a remarkably old cast. Many reservations apply as well to the singing in the English National Opera Ring, where the tenors sound all too often as if they were singing light opera, the lower male voices are over-smooth and avuncular, and the women tend to sound plummy and tremulous.
One has the impression that, aside from the specific vocal styles of the English National Opera singers, their difficulties stem in part from the use of English as the language of performance. Much has been made of the new translation clone for the production by the well-known English music critic, Andrew Porter.30 The translation is clear and simple, and, as such things go, singable. But three comments suggest themselves. First, despite what are obviously the best efforts of singers and recording engineers alike, many, if not most, of the words are lost; this is invariably true when the music is loud, and often even when it is soft. This would seem to undercut the basic reason for doing opera in English—so that the audience can follow the story. Still, there is no reason to believe that an English-speaking audience is in any worse position than a German audience listening to a performance in the original; the music simply is not kind to an easy perception of the text.
Second, and more serious, is the effect the characteristic sounds of the English language have on the listener’s perception of the music. The distinctiveness of one vocal music as opposed to another is determined by more than pitch and rhythm, melodic contours and phrasing; it is also determined by the very sounds of the words, whatever their meaning. Such is especially the case in the Ring, where Wagner writes in a highly personal, alliterative German style. What is lost and distorted in translation may easily be demonstrated by listening to recordings of excerpts from the Ring in French. Here the singers involved, Marjorie Lawrence31 and Germaine Lubin.32 are significant Wagnerians of the 1930’s. And yet the mere sound of the words, with their French vowels and consonants, makes one think involuntarily of the music of Massenet. (Remarkably, this is true not only of Germaine Lubin but also of the younger singer, Marjorie Lawrence, even though she was not French but Australian!)
Finally, and most important, the use of a translated text, rather than bringing the performer and the audience closer to a work of art, may well erect an additional barrier to it. Opera, like any other art form, is the product of an entire cultural complex which shapes a composer’s innermost thought since birth and which finds concrete expression in the language in which he writes. To learn foreign languages in order to perform French or German or Italian or Russian works is of course an added burden for a singer, but art asks a great deal from its performers, just as it does from its audiences.
If the English National Opera productions were presented as something in the nature of a necessary substitute, to be recommended on the basis of their didactic and pedagogic service, it would not be hard to welcome them; if they were instructive and enjoyable as well, that would be quite enough to ask. But it would seem that in the minds of their promoters, these productions have a special textual and therefore artistic value. In the notes accompanying the ENO recording of Rheingold, Peter Moores, whose foundation is supporting the records, writes:
Often the translation can not only make the work comprehensible and thus available and immediate to each member of the audience by speaking to him in his own language, but also clarify a text which exists in a dated or obscure form.
And he goes on to recommend a review of the ENO’s Siegfried by a German critic writing in Die Welt:
The English are now the owners of the 20th-century Ring while we, with our teeth that are losing their bite, still have to chew away at the language of Wagner, which sounds more and more discordant as the years go by.
Would this be argued about Shakespeare in Spanish, or about Racine in Italian? Or is this approach good only for opera, which some see in any case as an intellectually déclassé art? One wonders whether all the claims for the English-language Ring are really fully believed in by its proponents, or whether the real meaning of all the ballyhoo surrounding this and similar efforts is not in the first instance part of an attempt to encourage local artists, and in the wider sense part of the campaign to boost the flagging self-confidence of today’s troubled England.
Although one cannot deny the high importance of singing in this music, even more fundamental is the role of the conductor. In these mature works of Wagner the orchestra is the foundation of the drama, extending and commenting on the work of the singers, and often serving as the sole carrier of the theatrical as well as of the musical material. An orchestra of such size and complexity is powerless without a leader; to conduct a Ring cycle is to undertake perhaps the most important task which can face a performing musician.
A conductor may be an inspiring force, responsible for the basic conception of a performance as well as for its execution. Or he may be a traffic cop, a manager striving for the most orderly and efficient use of the widely disparate artistic forces which make up his vocal and orchestral cast. Of the eight conductors represented in these recordings, Karl Böhm is the best exemplar of the manager. His 1966-67 Bayreuth recordings are first-class instances of the work of the Kapellmeister. Clear, efficient, forward in tempo, and healthy in momentum, his efforts enable the music to be heard to advantage. The same can be said for his singers. Without injecting much of his own personality into the music, he gets on with his work, leaving the audience satisfied, if perhaps not terribly moved. In a like vein, though lacking something of Böhm’s polished vitality, is the work of Sixten Ehrling at the Met in 1975.
The case of Pierre Boulez is more complicated. Though lacking the immense experience of a Böhm, he too is clear and efficient, as well as inclined to quickness. A general feature of his work, here as elsewhere, is the curiously unaccented playing of the orchestra, an avoidance of strong beats or of stress at the beginning of bars. The musical effect is to combine local flatness and placidity with a long-run accumulation (due to the lack of rubato) of a good deal of momentum. The removal of sentimentality from his conducting is welcome in an age of glamor conductors; whether Boulez will ever make any deeply felt personal contribution to this music remains to be seen.
The work of Georg Solti in his Ring set is difficult to evaluate. He seems to have concentrated upon the exaggeration of short-range effects, and in particular upon giving more prominence to the brass than has any other conductor. Many of these effects are startling, as are his frequent sharp changes of tempo in excess of Wagner’s indications. Regardless of the individual excellence of many passages, his Ring lacks an overall conception, whether musical or perhaps philosophical, that would go beyond the separate characters and their scenes to the question of the wider image of the entire work.
This qualified appraisal of Solti’s Ring owes something to the fact that his recording is so clearly a phonographic document, a revelation of what advanced techniques can do to supply the listener with what he misses through the absence of staging. These techniques involve the addition of sound effects like crowd noises and thunderstorms, various exaggerated clanking noises produced by a literal following of Wagner’s stage instructions, and special acoustical environments for several of the characters. This triumph of the recording over the music may well be the result in this case of a parallel triumph of the producer—John Culshaw—over the conductor. In his book about the making of the Ring records,33 Culshaw tells how Solti had to be convinced some time after the music had been recorded of the Tightness of adding some non-musical noises (no doubt suggested by Wagner’s direction that Gutrune and others emit horrified cries as Siegfried’s arm rises when Hagen attempts to snatch the ring from his hand) toward the end of the last act of Götterdämmerung:
For some reason Solti was against any sound at the point, possibly because he felt it might interfere with the hushed music that accompanies Brünnhilde’s entrance. At the time [when the music was being recorded] we had more urgent things to worry about, so I determined to add the sound of the cries afterwards. (I felt sure that Solti would accept the point as dramatically valid once he had heard it done properly, and this turned out to be true, though he still does not let his singers do it in a stage production.)
The “hushed music” Culshaw refers to consists in fact of three chords drawn from earlier material but in this form suggesting strongly the Dresden Amen which Wagner used in Parsifal (where it is called the motive of the Grail); Culshaw’s exaggerated introduction of “the sound of the cries” robs the passage of its architectural function in setting off Brünnhilde’s taking of all the action of the opera into her own hands. The quotation conveys very well the extraordinary role played by Culshaw in the making of the Solti Ring.
An overall conception of the Ring is precisely what Wilhelm Furtwängler, in both his sets, provides. Solid, rich, built up from the deepest instruments of the orchestra, his Ring offers a musical tribute to Wagner’s dedication of the operas: lm Vertrauen auf den deutschen Geist entworfen (“Conceived with trust in the German Spirit”). The Furtwängler performances—of which the earlier is more dramatic and the later more reflective—are also notable for the conductor’s mastery of pacing, and his absolute justice in balancing contrast and continuity of Both dynamics and tempi; fortunately, the recorded sound of his performances, though by no means up to the brilliant level of the Solti set, is good enough to communicate what. Furtwängler does. Compared to him, Knappertsbusch and Goodall are so heavy and over-serious as to strain even the German-opera lover’s tolerance of boredom. Goodall in particular favors tempi so slow and so stodgy that his performances become stuck in self-contemplation.
If Böhm is the highest type of the efficient conductor, and Furtwängler the noble German traditionalist, Herbert von Karajan has provided a new, singularly different, and vastly moving conception of the Ring. In the past, Karajan’s conducting has often been called ice-cold; his Ring recordings have suffered a similar criticism, and his Götterdämmerung in particular has been described as a “positive glorification of evil.” True, there is in Karajan’s Ring very little of uplift, of optimism, or of justification for the brutal and indeed evil nature of so much of what goes on in the operas, and it is possible to see what is meant when his performance is called cold—it is humanly unredeeming. Yet Karajan has been able to contain this brutal world within the limits of art because he presents it to us as a dream heard clearly, but as if from another place. Through magnificent orchestral clarity, transparent recording, and the careful husbanding of his beautiful but often small voices, Karajan has created a Ring that is bearable because the strength of its vision is matched by the unreality of that vision. There is in Karajan’s conception nothing to comfort us save the knowledge that we can survive the nightmare. That he has succeeded in projecting and even imposing this frightening conception is the surest sign of his achievement as perhaps the most significant conductor to emerge since World War II.
It is doubtful that Karajan’s achievement, requiring as it does a great conductor, hand-picked forces, and a particular tolerance and insight from the audience, can ever become a norm for the performance of the Ring. Yet whatever the level of performances may be in the future, the music, which triumphs through its performances, triumphs equally in spite of them. Performances are necessary, but they are transient. This may not be a comforting thought to performers, but lovers of the music, which endures forever, may find in it a peculiarly satisfying reassurance.
1 The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols., Cambridge University Press, 2429 pp., $33.95.
2 Richard Wagner, Stein & Day, 226 pp., $8.95.
3 Wagner and His World, Scribner's, 128 pp., $8.95.
4 Wagner and Nietzsche, Seabury, 232 pp., $12.95.
5 The Forging of the “Ring,” Cambridge University Press, 248 pp., $18.95.
6 Wagner: A Documentary Study, edited by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack, and Egon Voss, Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $37.50.
7 Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, Rizzoli, 248 pp., $18.50.
8 St. Martin's, 342 pp., $4.95 (paper).
9 Angel COLH 105.
10 Seraphim IB 6086.
11 Angel COLH 105; Preiser LV 23; Preiser LV 125.
12 Seraphim 60190.
13 Odyssey 32260018E.
14 Electrola IC 181-03 035/36M.
15 London 4603 (deleted); all of the music sung by Flagstad from this performance is currently available on Richmond RS-62019.
16 London OSA 1309.
17 London OSA 1508.
18 London OSA 1604.
19 London OSA 1509.
20 Deutsche Grammophon 2720051.
21 Philips 6747037.
22 Angel SDC 3825.
23 Angel SELX 3826.
24 EMI SLS 875.
25 Unicorn UNS 245/6.
26 Murray Hill 940477.
27 Seraphim IC-6076, IE-6077, 1E-6078, 1E-6079.
28 Preiser LV 165.
29 Preiser LV 165.
30 The Ring of the Nibelung (German text with English translation), Norton, 329 pp., $15.00.
31 Preiser LV 133.
32 Preiser LV 225.
33 Ring Resounding, Viking, 278 pp., 17.50. Culshaw's broadcast talks on the Ring have been collected in Reflections on Wagner's Ring, Viking, 105 pp., $6.95.