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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

RECORD KEEPING | Karajan’s Ring Gets The High End Audio Treatment

By Paul E. Robinson on September 24, 2017

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen. Gundula Janowitz. Jon Vickers; Régine Crespin; Thomas Stewart; Jess Thomas; Helga Dernesch; Karl Ridderbusch, et al. Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan. DG 479 7354 Blu-ray Disc Pure Audio Limited Edition.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen. Gundula Janowitz. Jon Vickers; Régine Crespin; Thomas Stewart; Jess Thomas; Helga Dernesch; Karl Ridderbusch, et al. Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan. DG 479 7354 Blu-ray Disc Pure Audio Limited Edition.

In 1967 the first instalment of Karajan’s Ring cycle was one of the most highly anticipated recordings of the year. Just two years before, Decca Records had completed its project of making the first-ever complete recording of the Ring with Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic and with John Culshaw as producer.

The Solti-Culshaw Ring was highly praised, but at the time Solti was a much less experienced Wagnerian than Karajan. Karajan had made his mark conducting the Ring in Bayreuth in 1951 and again at the Vienna State Opera when he was artistic director in the years 1956-64. Then Karajan created the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967 for the primary purpose of producing a Ring cycle, with himself as both conductor and stage director.

Not only that, Karajan planned to transfer the same production to the Metropolitan Opera. A recorded Ring cycle based on this production was an integral part of this vision. Karajan persuaded Deutsche Grammophon to record the Ring in the studio with the same performers he had engaged for his Salzburg production. But this was a recording with a difference and a difference that was of enormous benefit to Karajan as he struggled to finance his grandiose project. Karajan’s plan was to make the recording some months before the stage production, then use the recordings in stage rehearsals with the singers. This scheme greatly reduced the cost of rehearsals because the orchestra was not needed for nearly as many rehearsals. In effect, DG was helping to subsidize the production. Karajan presented the four parts of the Ring in successive years at the Salzburg Easter Festival between 1967 and 1970, and the recordings were made between 1966 and 1969 with Hans Weber as producer and Günter Hermanns as recording engineer and initially released as LPs.

Deutsche Grammophon has now released Karajan’s Ring in a digitally remastered version on a single Blu-ray Disc in what DG calls High Fidelity Pure Audio. It is perhaps astonishing that so much music can be put on a single disc, but this is Blu-ray technology. But Blu-ray is not only about quantity but quality. The dynamic range is far greater than that available on conventional digital recordings. Unfortunately, this also means that the disc is only playable on Blu-ray players or Playstation.

When the Karajan Ring recordings were originally released, they were generally well-received but with reservations. Some of the criticism had to do with the recorded sound. In the Decca Ring recordings, producer John Culshaw had set about to create a unique home listening experience. The sound effects were spectacular, and one had the impression not of sitting in the audience of an opera house but of being in the orchestra or onstage. The Karajan Ring recording, on the other hand, was far more conventional with more naturalistic sound effects and an orchestral sound that was beautiful in its own right but never as overwhelming as the Culshaw recording. While the new Blu-ray remastering offers greater dynamic range than the original LP recordings the sound is still lacking in real bass, the percussion still seems to be in the next room, and the recording perspective suffers in comparison with Decca’s Ring. While the Decca Ring could be described as three-dimensional DG’s Ring seems merely two-dimensional.

There was also criticism of the casting — always a major problem for any Ring cycle. Heldentenors capable of singing Siegmund and Siegfried are rare in any generation and real Brünnhildes even harder to find. On top of that Culshaw and his team had already snapped up the best Wagnerian singers for their just-completed recording; contractually, with few exceptions, Karajan and DG couldn’t touch them. For example, Birgit Nilsson was everybody’s first choice for Brünnhilde, but she was unavailable for Karajan’s recording. Interestingly, she did sing in most of his Die Walküre performances at the Met in 1967 and 1968. Régine Crespin was Karajan’s surprising choice for Brünnhilde in his recording of Die Walküre, and she was wonderful in the role. But even Karajan thought she was a little lightweight for Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and he chose instead the 29-year-old Austrian soprano Helga Dernesch. She turned out to be disappointing. There were flashes of brilliance, but at other times she seemed to be learning as she went along and often sang out of tune.

Arguably, Jon Vickers was the finest Siegmund of his generation and he is magnificent here. Vickers soft-singing in “Winterstürme” in Act One is magical. So too his heart-breaking rendering of the “Todesverkündigung” scene in Act Two, with Crespin, an ideal partner. But Vickers refused to take on the role of Siegfried for Karajan or anyone else. Karajan had to settle for the sturdy Jess Thomas in Siegfried and the seriously underpowered Helga Brilioth for Götterdämmerung.

For me, the highlights of Karajan’s Ring cycle are the performances of Jon Vickers, Gundula Janowitz and Crespin in Die Walküre. The long recitative passages in the Ring can be tiresome, but Karajan manages to make them consistently engrossing with careful attention to the text, especially in the scenes with Thomas Stewart as Wotan. Karl Rudderbusch is thrilling as Hagen, and the Three Norns — Lili Chookasian, Christa Ludwig and Katharina Ligendza could hardly be better.

Karajan has a very strong cast for Das Rheingold with Zoltán Keleman excellent as Alberich and Gerhard Stolze, one of the greatest of all Wagnerian character actors, as Loge. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a surprising choice as Wotan. He never sang the role on stage, not even for the Salzburg Easter Festival, and his voice is clearly too light for the part. But on a recording, his beauty of sound and thoughtful rendering of the text makes his Wotan a much more thoughtful and sympathetic character than usual.

As one might expect, the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is superb throughout the cycle with Karajan finding passages of exquisite beauty which have escaped the eyes and ears of many other conductors. Overall Karajan’s Ring cycle is far from perfect — as if such a thing were possible with a work so long and complex — but it has a sound and textual understanding that makes it unique. But ultimately what made Karajan’s Ring cycle so impressive was not only the interpretation of the music and the words but the unity of word, text and visual presentation. In addition to conducting the Ring Karajan was also the stage director and worked closely with set designer Günther Schneider-Siemmsen to create a Ring that was abstract and contemporary but which was also true to Wagner’s vision. The sets and the lighting projections evolved with the music and the drama from the beginning of Das Rheingold to the end of Götterdämmerung. It was a remarkable technical and artistic achievement and those who saw it will never forget it. If Karajan had had his way there would have been a film record of the whole production. Unfortunately, he only got to make a film of Das Rheingold and it was made in a studio in Munich in 1978, years after the original Salzburg production Schneider-Siemssen’s contribution and pales by comparison. But for a glimpse of what Karajan had in mind, it may still be available on DVD (DG 440 073 4390). The Solti-Culshaw Ring was remastered in 2012 and recently released as a boxed set of 16 CDs (Decca 478 8370).

CD box set available from amazon.ca.

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Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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