The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, in action.The last decade has seen a slew of bargain-box reissues of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The latest of these, issued by EMI on May 17th in North America to (hopefully) coincide with the composer's 198th birthday, is Wilhelm Furtwängler's second recording of the four operas, made for Italian radio in 1953.
Furtwängler is celebrating his 125th birthday this year. One of the most controversial, and important Wagner interpreters of the 20th century, he was a born Romantic. Specializing in Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven, he conducted with an organic feel, letting tempos fluctuate in order to mine greater meanings and depths of expression. On these discs, new and exciting details of the score come forth. As expected, the orchestra stretches and flexes under his baton, taking the music in fascinating new directions.
Examples of this idiosyncratic approach include an ultra-slow version of the charging Act III prelude from Siegfried, the rapid Rhine Journey, and the devastating heaviness brought out in Hagen's Watch.. This is always one of the most difficult parts of Götterdämmerung, and the maestro does the right thing: speeding up with anticipation as the scene changes back to Brunnhilde's rock, and then pausing, seeming to stop breathing as the next scene starts.
Big climactic moments, like the Entrance of the Gods, the Magic Fire scene and of course, the Immolation are heard with a new freshness that makes this set hold up on repeated listens. The orchestra plays beyond their abilities, as the maestro makes his Italian band sound like Bayreuth's finest. And yes, it's in mono sound, but the voices sound fresh and immediate, with details leaping out of the orchestra. There is an audience--they applaud enthusiastically at the end of each act--but they make minimal noise otherwise.
The singing is very good. Ludwig Suthaus recorded Tristan with Furtwängler in 1952, and that experience pays off in his Siegfried. Wolfgang Windgassen sings Siegmund here, a rarity for the tenor who preferred the role of Siegfried. (He also sings Loge in Das Rheingold.) Soprano Martha Mödl was recorded here at the height of her powers. brings all of her resources to Brünnhilde, creating a compelling portrait over three operas.
These discs also preserve Ferdinand Frantz' memorable portrayal as Wotan, the deal-breaking god of Das Rheingold, the tormented father in Die Walküre and the sad and lonely Wanderer of Siegfried. This is a towering performance. Gottlob Frick is a brutish Hunding. Josef Griendl a memorable, venomous Hagen. And in Siegfried, tenor Julius Patzak shows that the role of Mime can be sung, not screeched.
Wagner lovers and Furtwängler aficionados probably own this set already. But if you've only heard of the conductor, or only heard whispers of his legendary podium prowess, this is worth checking out. Sure, the packaging is ugly and somewhat unimaginative. There's no libretto included. But for top-notch Wagner at about $4 per disc, the price is certainly right.