Richard Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Clemens Krauss
Composed by: Richard Wagner
Clemens Krauss's appearances at the Bayreuth Festival were limited to a single season. The conductor of the world premières of four operas by Richard Strauss, he was - at the height of his career - in charge of the Bavarian and Vienna State Operas as well as the Salzburg Festival. The calibre of his conducting at the 1953 Bayreuth Festival is summed up by a remark attributed to Wieland Wagner, who on hearing his chosen tempo for the Ride of the Valkyries is said to have commented that this was exactly how he had always imagined and wanted it conducted. This first Ring under Krauss was intended to launch a new era not just in terms of the conductor's choice of tempos but also on account of Krauss's ability to generate a palpable tension between the stage and the "mystic abyss" of the orchestra pit and to invest that relationship with a very real energy. That nothing came of this plan was the result of Krauss's tragically premature death in Mexico in the spring of 1954, while he was on tour there. Only a short time earlier his brilliant international career, which had started up again very quickly after the Second World War, had suffered a setback when the coveted post of director of the Vienna State Opera went to Böhm rather than Krauss. There were no discordant notes, however, when it came to Krauss's work with his singers at the Bayreuth Festival. This was the third Festival since its reopening in 1951, and it included a number of new singers in leading roles. One of these singers was Wolfgang Windgassen, who had made his Bayreuth Festival début in 1951 as Parsifal and as the young god Froh in Das Rheingold. In 1953 he sang the two Siegfrieds, improving perceptibly throughout the cycle and delivering a particularly fine account of the final act of Göttterdämmerung. He remained Bayreuth's Siegfried of choice until 1958. His successor as Froh was Gerhard Stolze, whose powerful tone and clarity of diction made it seem as if he, too, was destined for heldentenor roles, and it was not long before rumours began to circulate that he would be Windgassen's successor as Tristan. Ultimately, however, it was character roles such as David, Loge and Mime that became his speciality. As Mime, there is no doubt that it was Paul Kuën who was the most sought-after singer in this part throughout the 1950s. It was a role he sang in opera houses from Munich to the Met and also, of course, in Bayreuth, where he was equally comfortable with the transparency of Keilberth's chamber-like textures as he was with Krauss's impulsive drive. The same is true of Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, his monolithic vocal presence and expressive power virtually unsurpassable in this role. As his stage progeny, Hagen in Götterdämmerung, Josef Greindl scored a personal triumph that placed the coping stone on a season in which he had already sung King Henry in the new production of Lohengrin that opened the Festival and, in earlier parts of the Ring, both Fafner and Hunding. Hans Hotter had made his Bayreuth début only a year earlier, but by 1953 he was already an institution on the Green Hill. His Wotan under Clemens Krauss followed on from three Strauss premières under the same conductor: Friedenstag, Capriccio and - its unofficial première - Die Liebe der Danae. In every case, Hotter, with Krauss's help, combined authority with poetry, an aura of divinity with psychological subtlety and human weakness. Ira Malaniuk assumed the two roles of Fricka and Waltraute and thus it fell to her to draw Wotan's attention to those weaknesses and, as Waltraute, to report on them to Brünnhilde. She had first sung Fricka in Bayreuth the previous year, taking over at short notice from an ailing colleague, but now she became a Festival stalwart with her mellifluous mezzo-soprano voice. That she was later followed in the role by Regina Resnik was a development that few could have anticipated in 1953, when this legendary singer, famous above all for her appearances in all the great American opera houses, was still performing soprano roles, albeit with a darker and more sensuous tone colour than one often hears in these roles. As Sieglinde, her tone blended particularly well with that of Ramón Vinay, a former baritone who, following his sensational début as Tristan in 1952, returned in 1953 not only for more performances of this uniquely gruelling part but also as Parsifal and Siegmund, in every case creating a furore. One of his two partners as Isolde that summer was Astrid Varnay, who was also appearing as Ortrud and Brünnhilde and in doing so demonstrating her credentials as arguably the most versatile hochdramatisch soprano of her generation. That this was not undertaken at the cost of a vocal levelling down is clear from her development under Kraus from the "wish-maid" of Die Walküre to the redemptive figure of Götterdämmerung, which few singers have succeeded as well as she did in turning into the unforgettable high point of the cycle. And yet this Bayreuth Festival was no competition or display of vocal prowess but a team effort, as is clear from the total commitment of singers such as Ludwig Weber, who in 1953 appeared not only as Gurnemanz and King Marke but also as the bass soloist in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Paul Hindemith and as a touchingly sensitive Fasolt in Das Rheingold, while Hermann Uhde, having held the reins for Hans Hotter as the Rheingold Wotan in 1952, now appeared as Donner and Gunther in the Ring - luxury casting indeed - and as a brilliant Telramund in Lohengrin. Cameos such as Erich Witte's mercurial Loge, Natalie Hinsch-Gröndahl's Gutrune, whose handling of both words and music was no less sophisticated than Witte's, and Rita Streich's lively Woodbird were all relatively short-lived assumptions, making one regret that not all singers and voice types can be given the same scope to develop in Bayreuth. All the more remarkable, therefore, is the impression of unity created by Krauss's conducting during his only appearances at the Festival. It almost defies belief that he sorted out the right balance from the very outset, the sounds rising up from the covered pit finally finding adequate and unoccluded expression in the present CDs, which are taken from the original tapes. All the easier is it to overlook the fact that the price to be paid for his taut tempos and his ability to run the whole gamut from feather-like lightness to crushing power is sometimes a lack of coordination between pit and stage. This only serves to increase the sense of spontaneity enshrined in this live recording. Wagner himself once said that a perfect performance of Tristan und Isolde would drive people mad, a remark one is tempted to apply to the present performance of the Ring. Given Bayreuth's status as a workshop, it is a matter for deep regret that Krauss had only one summer to shape his musical vision of Wagner's works on the hallowed stage of the Festspielhaus.