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Open Features: Wagner's "Ring'' Cycle In 105 Minutes

Huddersfield Recorded Music Society members had a special treat this week.

Jim Bostwick introduced them to the first complete cycle recorded in stereo of Richard Wagner's four "Ring'' operas - some say the best ever recordings of these monumental works.

Jim told how the recordings have remained "hidden'' for more than 50 years, then, with wit and humour, outlined the "extravagent'' plot of the Ring saga.

The four operas comprising the "Ring'' cycle - Das Rheingold,
Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung - take some 15 hours to perform.

Jim, in a talk laced with musical highlights, summed up the tale in 105 enjoyable minutes.

1955 Keilberth “Ring”

Joseph Keilberth was the conductor of the first complete cycle of the saga recorded in stereo at Bayreuth live performances between 24th and 28th July 1955.

For this project, two companies were literally in the ‘Ring’ fighting it out – EMI’s Columbia and Decca. Each company had contracted artists singing and, whereas, arrangements existed whereby artists could be swapped so that each company could issue their own records, the first stereo ‘Ring’ was a different matter altogether. Decca had the edge technically over Columbia. Walter Legge, Columbia’s producer, was not interested in stereo - he had accomplished legendary mono productions which commanded the highest respect and do so even today. The technical side of the business was not his strength.

Decca was very different. Wartime projects like radar and sonar, the latter being important for improving microphones, gave them a significant technical edge. Their recordings were particularly prized by the Festival director, Wieland Wagner, and he was receptive to capturing his productions with the increased realism of stereo.

A young Peter Andry was Decca’s producer together with a legendary team of engineers headed by Kenneth Wilkinson whose task it was to rig the additional microphones needed for stereo in such a way that they would not be visible.

It would have been a major coup for Decca to get the venture to commercial fruition and EMI knew it. For over fifty years this important audio document was shelved. It is surprising given subsequent events, that Decca kept the tapes at all, for after Peter Andry left Decca for a better salary at EMI, John Culshaw, Decca’s producer and conductor Georg Solti were committed to making the first studio-based stereo ‘Ring’, without any of the compromises imposed by live performances.

Why did it take over fifty years? I think the 50 year copyright law we enjoy in this country helped both Testament and Decca. Testament knew of the recordings because Peter Andry had written of them in his biography and Decca, whilst not interested in issuing themselves, were willing to come to a commercial arrangement for Testament to do so. The financial risk was Testament’s not Decca’s.

Well, fascinating as all that is we’re here to hear.

Rhinegold places us near and in the river Rhine. Three Rhinemaidens are swimming about teasing one another, their role to guard the gold which lies on the river-bed. From their conversation they’re not the sharpest knives in the box and their boredom is relieved by an opportunity for some flirtatious sport with a dwarfish gnome, Alberich, who has come up for fresh air from his underground lair. He quickly succumbs to their comely charms only to have his hopes cruelly dashed by each in turn. In the process of their taunting, one lets slip that any man who would renounce love, then make the gold into a ring, would be master of the world, but no man would reject love, surely. Well, Alberich thinks he’s quite happy to replace love with lust – as master of the world, he can have whatever he wants. So to the distress of the three maidens, he dives into the waters, steals the gold and makes off with it back to the underground world of Nibelheim, cackling as he goes.

Jutta Vulpius, Elisabeth Schärtel and Maria Graf are the maidens and Gustav Neidlinger is Alberich with the Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival conducted by Joseph Keilberth.

He fashions the gold into a ring, terrorises his workers in Nibelheim to find more gold, makes another dwarf, the smith Mime, forge him a special chain-mail helmet which allows Alberich to affect any disguise he wishes.

Meanwhile, high above, the god Wotan has entered into a crooked deal with two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to build him and his fellow gods and goddesses, a palace, Valhalla. Job done, the giants come for their payment. They quickly realise what a scoundrel Wotan is and as hostage make off with the goddess Freia, keeper of the enchanted orchard where the gods’ answer to eternal life in the form of apples, are grown. Without Freia’s tending, the apples wither and the gods start to age and lose their vigour. Wotan’s nagging wife, Fricka, is no comfort to him and just reminds him constantly what a looser he is.

Wotan has one friend, not blessed with godship, called Loge, who nonetheless, has magic up his sleeves – he can summon fire for instance.

But where is he when you need him most.

He turns up in the nick of time, telling Wotan he hasn’t been idle but searching everywhere for the wherewithal to redeem Freia and suggests that the two of them should go into Nibelheim where a solution to their problems may be found with the wicked Alberich and his gold.

A first chance to hear Hans Hotter’s Wotan & Rudolf Lustig as Loge as they descend to Nibelheim past the clinking anvils.

They encounter Alberich in his tyrannical lair. With his cloak of invisibility made possible with Mime’s helmet; he is everywhere and nowhere, punishing any who are not doing his bidding.

Wotan and Loge flatter the helmet’s capabilities and feign terror when Alberich disguises himself as a fearsome dragon. ‘But what about something small that can hide in any crevice’, asks the cunning Loge, ‘that would be really something’. Sensing nothing, Alberich offers to become a toad.

Now captured, magic helmet removed and tied up, Alberich, is taken back as Wotan’s prisoner. The ransom demand for his release is the golden horde. Alberich quickly complies commanding his workers bring all the gold up from Nibelheim, for he knows with the ring still in his possession, there is plenty more gold down there. Wotan, however, has designs on the ring for himself and he rips it from Alberich’s finger before letting him loose.

‘Am I now free? Really free?’, Alberich scorns.

Now follows a vital part of the total ‘Ring’ plot. Alberich puts a fearsome curse upon the ring – it shall bring no joy or comfort to any wearer – it will consume whoever acquires it. It will be nothing but trouble.

The power of the curse is soon demonstrated when the builders Fasolt and Fafner return with Freia of the golden apples.

‘OK we’ll exchange Freia for the gold, reluctantly mind, pile it up so we can’t catch any glimpse of her’, demands Fafner. The horde forms the golden bricks of the wall but there is one last chink with only the gold of the ring to fill it. It’s on Wotan’s finger and he doesn’t want to part with it, can’t the giants be satisfied with what they have? Well no, Freia can still be glimpsed through a crack.

He bows for the present to the inevitable and puts the ring with the horde. The giants surely now must be satisfied.

Fasolt , sung by Ludwig Weber, the first victim of Alberich’s curse, clubbed to death by his brother, Fafner (Josef Greindl), who now makes off with the lot.

Freia free to tend the apples – the gods regain their vigour and they take their places in the palace of Valhalla via a rainbow bridge. But Loge knows that all will not be well.

Some unspecified time has elapsed before part 2 – Die Walküre.

This part of the tetralogy is about Wotan trying to solve a tricky problem – how to get the ring back. He’s tainted goods, so he can’t do it but needs someone pretty innocent who can. He begets two children with an unspecified mortal, twins Sieglinde and Siegmund, and pins his hopes on Siegmund, who grows into a strapping lad after losing all contact and memory of his sister, mother and father.

The prelude musically pictures a terrifying scramble through forest with Siegmund successfully fleeing would-be assassins. Exhausted he takes refuge in a forest-dwelling. The woman of the house takes pity on his plight and brings him some refreshment. Straight away there is some mysterious chemistry between them. She explains that he is in the house of Hunding, her husband, who at the moment is out, but on his return will surely afford sanctuary. They exchange stories. He isn’t very lucky at anything – she isn’t very happily married to Hunding. He understands why when Hunding gets back. It turns out, that the tribe that Hunding comes from are sworn enemies of the Walsung tribe to which Siegmund belongs. The custom of hospitality vouches Siegmund safe until the morning, when essentially, Hunding will do his best to kill him. So that’s how it is until she slips a sleeping draught into her husband’s equivalent of Horlicks.

When Hunding is asleep, she begs Siegmund to take advantage and make his escape. When she is out of the room, he remembers that his father had promised him a sword would be there for him in his hour of need. Surely that must be now. And then there is this strange feeling of attraction to Hunding’s unhappy wife – the way she looked at him. She returns and again urges him to take his leave. He tells her ‘No, it is your presence gives me life’.

She then tells how an old man had come to the house during the celebrations of her unhappy union and fearless of the gathering, had thrust a sword into an ash-tree growing in their parlour. The old man issued a challenge that, hereafter, the tree would only yield the sword to one worthy to wield it. Much to her delight Siegmund announces that it is he who will withdraw the sword and that she will be his bride. The siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde are reunited.

What follows is the most passionate of all music, perhaps eclipsing the taboo of incest, before the pair escape together into the night.

Sieglinde was Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn and Siegmund was the Chilean baritone turned helden-tenor Ramón Vinay.

The remainder of Walkure is all about what happens to Siegmund and Sieglinde and particularly Sieglinde. Fricka takes Hunding’s side because his marriage has been violated and she nags Wotan that in the fighting which is to come he must not intervene on the pair’s behalf. Reluctantly he agrees and commands his flying aides, the Valkyries, to do likewise. Of course, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde thinks she knows Wotan’s mind and after Siegmund is killed, his sword, Notung, shattered, she rescues Sieglinde and the precious bits of metal. She persuades her sisters to lend Sieglinde one of their horses and she will forestall Wotan and his anger, taking it on the chin herself.

Of course, Sieglinde is distraught and only wants to die in order to join him in the hereafter until Brunnhilde tells her she carries his child, a fact unknown until now. For Sieglinde this changes everything and she takes the horse and sword fragments and escapes eastward to the forests.

We cannot really end Walkure without some reference to what happens to Brunnhilde when Wotan arrives positively livid at the turn of events. The six Valkyries try to protect their sister from his wrath but to no avail. Eventually she steps forward to take her punishment. At first he condemns her to become the property of any passing mortal who will find her defenceless on a rocky bluff – but he relents, she really had read his mind accurately afterall.

Only a brave hero shall rescue her from her rock which he, with Loge’s help, will surround with fire after singing a very fond farewell and putting her into a trance-like sleep.

Part 3, Siegfried will be that brave hero.

Siegfried is very stupid – stupid in the sense that he knows nothing of fear, women, human-love, treachery or the ulterior motives of others.

Sieglinde finds herself at the end of her flight at the forge of Mime, the once-employed, crafty smith for Alberich. He takes her in and helps deliver the baby Siegfried in her extremis before she dies. It’s his role to raise this strong lad, try to mend the broken sword and when he’s old enough, get him to take on Fafner, now in permanent dragon disguise, guarding the horde he acquired in Rhinegold, kill him and bring back the ring for Mime. When the job is done, Mime intends to poison Siegfried.

Mime has consistently failed to weld the steel pieces back together and Siegfried is contemptuous of him to the point of loathing. Mime is quick to point out that, but for him, he wouldn’t be here at all. Such sentiments are wasted on Siegfried who decides that if you want a job done properly, you’d better do it yourself. At the forge with sparks flying, Siegfried’s hammer tames and tempers the steel which will again become Notung, his father’s sword. Mime jabbers away completely ignored by Siegfried intent only on his task, the final proof of the sword’s power when it splits the anvil in two.

Mime is Paul Kuen and Siegfried the vocally heroic Wolfgang Windgassen.

Siegfried has his trusty sword and hopes to learn about fear by slaying the dragon Fafner. Mime guides him to the cave. Should Fafner and Siegfried manage to slay each other, that would suite Mime. He promises he’ll have something very refreshing for Siegfried when the task is done. He stupidly blabbers his real intent and Siegfried beheads him – he never really liked him anyway.

It’s quite a sad encounter with Fafner, Siegfried doesn’t learn about fear during the process of striking at the dragon’s heart but the dragon’s blood he inadvertently sucks from his arm enables him to understand bird-song. A bird tells him where he may find a bride but it is a quest only for the bravest hero – one who knows no fear. With the ring and full of confidence he sets out for the rocky crag. He is tested on the way by a Wanderer – it is Wotan in disguise – who tries to stop him. Siegfried shatters the Wanderer’s spear and now, unimpeded, quickly progresses to his goal. Once within the ring of fire he sees the sleeping form of what he assumes to be a man in armour, Brunnhilde’s breast-plate, gleaming, but perhaps not so flattering of her figure. He cuts the bindings to reveal the true contents – ‘Das ist kein Mann’, ‘This is no man’ he cries and it is the sleeping Brunnhilde who sends the first shivers of fear through his being. He presses his lips against hers and she awakes to greet the sun and her hero.

Astrid Varnay, Swedish soprano and Wolfgang Windgassen continue to the end of the opera with ever increasing vocal competitiveness.

And so to the dénouement which is Götterdämmerung. We are now in the mortal world – the gods can only watch now as the accursed ring brings forth deception, heartbreak, anger, death, vengeance and destruction before it is finally washed clean by the river of its source.

After the opening prelude Brunnhilde and Siegfried fresh from their unwitnessed passion swear abiding love one for the other. They exchange gifts – the ring for Brunnhilde – her horse, Grane, for Siegfried to take on his adventures – adventures which will lead him into a cruel deception organised by Hagen, son of Alberich, whereby a drugged drink will make Siegfried forget all about Brunnhilde and set his heart instead on Gutrune and for her brother, Gunther, he will fetch Brunnhilde to be his bride. Before this, however, Hagen needs to find out about his encounter with the dragon and what booty he acquired. Siegfried tells him of the ring and that he gifted it to the most wonderful woman in the world, Brunnhilde. ‘And did you take anything else?’ ‘Only this chain-mail helmet thing but I don’t know what it does’. Hagen, of course, knows all about it and its magical power. Siegfried is completely innocent or naïve or both.

‘Well let’s drink to friendship and brotherhood’, says Hagen. If it were pantomime the audience would be shouting at Siegfried, ‘Don’t do it’. But to no avail. The die is cast. He drinks to his beloved Brunnhilde but just as quickly forgets all about her succumbing instantly to the charms of Gutrune. Wearing the helmet, he becomes Gunter in disguise and sets out for Brunnhilde.

Meanwhile back at Brunnhilde’s rock, she has been visited by one of her sisters, Waltraute, who pleads with her to give up the ring, return it to the Rhinemaidens and so cleanse it of its corruption. Since it is her love token from Siegfried, she will not under any persuasion part with it. Prophetically, Waltraute, tells her of the doom which will engulf the gods and all. ‘Be off, I see my Siegfried is returning for me.’ But she is immediately betrayed. His pledge to her of the ring also betrayed for he takes it back to give to another.

In a dream, Alberich visits his son Hagen and tells him he must get the ring back so that the Nibelungs and chiefly himself will again be all powerful.

In the closing scenes an embittered Brunnhilde seeks vengeance and Hagen arranges it – perhaps a hunting accident – but not before another drink restores Siegfried’s memory. Of course, he now reveals his love of Brunnhilde and Gunther is outraged at his cuckolding. Here’s Hagen’s motive to avenge both Brunnhilde and Gunther. With Siegfried dead, he’ll take the ring for himself.

The music is totally convincing of Siegfried’s innocence in his dying moments.

Hagen is sung by Josef Greindl, Gunther, Hermann Uhde with the male voices of the Festival chorus. (10’ talk time to here)

The famous funeral march brings Siegfried’s body back to the great hall. Gutrune is devastated. This was no accident. At first she blames her brother Gunther for this crime but Hagen admits his deed and steps forward to take what is in law, the property of Gutrune – Siegfried’s ring. Gunther intervenes on his sister’s behalf – the ring is rightfully hers. Hagen slays him to have the ring himself but Brunnhilde steps forward and takes complete command. ‘Stop your crying and noisy clamour. She, whom you all betrayed, his wife has come for vengeance’. Only Gutrune dares to blame her, citing jealousy as Brunnhilde’s motive for this tragedy. ‘Be quiet poor wretch. You were never his real wife.’ Gutrune now turns on Hagen for advising about the drink of forgetfulness.

Serenely, Brunnhilde commands that a funeral pyre shall be built at the side of the Rhine to consume the body of her beloved. She reclaims the ring and proclaims her eternal love for Siegfried before climbing onto her horse, riding into the flames.

The god’s great hall Valhalla collapses – the Rhine bursts its banks thus enabling the ring to be returned but not before a desperate attempt by Hagen to retrieve it. The Rhinemaidens drag him under the waves.





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