Keilberth’s Ring

Like Shakespeare, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) remains our contemporary, another opportunity for relentless re-interpretation. Because Wagner created music-dramas, he presents more demands in presentation than does Shakespeare. How is the score to be connected to the text? Beyond establishing that relationship, he strove after a total-work-of-art in which the aural and the visual merge as in synaesthesia. That effect anticipated the darkened cinema in full colour surround sound.

With Darwin and Marx, Wagner stands as an intellect who continues to fashion expectations. If his poetry was uneven, its dramatic form foreshadowed Freud in its exploration of unconscious desire. What seems to be stasis or repetition in the story-telling is the penetration of psychological meaning. Wagner’s impact on the music of the future was epitomized by the uncertain tonality of the opening chord in Tristan und Isolde (1857), with Debussy as one of its heirs. Wagner’s influences spread to visual artists, from Manet to the Surrealists, to writers as diverse as Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot, and to philosophers such as Nietzsche and Adorno.

Wagner’s revolutionary politics determined him to build a festival stage (Festspielhaus) for the community, in line with those of the Classical Greeks. He designed his own theatre, raising the funds for its construction in the Bavarian township of Bayreuth where he staged the first complete cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876. Six years passed before he returned to mount his final work, Parsifal. The second Ring cycle was not given until 1896 under the direction of his widow, Cosima, and their only son, the 27-year old Siegfried.

Now, a re-mastering from the Testament label of the 1955 performance of the Ring cycle from Bayreuth helps us to re-evaluate how an abstract production related to the music when conducted by Joseph Keilberth. Reviewers have been rapturous, gliding over the $440 price tag.

In the years immediately after the Second World War, disciples of “The Master” emphasised the division between the scores and the scribbling. In that contest, Tristanites laud Wagner’s music: the Wagnerians still chase after the pontificating, Jungian archetypes and a racialised aesthetic. By extolling the innocent pleasure from sonorous chromaticism, the latter seek to assuage the guilty conscience of worshipping with a High Priest of anti-Semitism. The choice can never be so simple.

Without doubt, the tenderness in Tristan counters the conventional ignorance that Wagner is raucous and bombastic. The lyricism that flows throughout Der Ring can be appreciated once the ear has been tuned by Tristan. Yet Tristan exemplifies the canker in Wagner’s ethic – that love climaxes in death.

Even those of us repelled by Wagnerianism nonetheless can be fascinated by “the case of Wagner” which takes up so many of the conflicts that shape our world: the Jew as bearer of the Modern, environmental despoliation, sexual liberation, anarchism and the redemptive power of art.

Wagner’s grandsons inherited these burdens when they revived the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. The stripped-down style of the two new productions that year proved a matrix for stage design in all realms of stagecraft.

The publicity around the Keilberth set repeats the ploy of splitting the composer from the ideologue. The politics that swirled through Bayreuth in the 1950s have been neglected. Instead, commentators confine themselves to denouncing the record companies that kept these performances from us for fifty years.

Our appreciation will be more astute once we distinguish the voices off. Wagner’s purposes and achievements, the intimacy of his heirs with Hitler, and the post-war German Miracle within NATO can no more be avoided in a consideration of the Keilberth Ring than the noise from moving the scenery has been wiped from the tapes.

Threats from within and without the theatre confronted the brothers Wagner before the Festival could again “Honour your German Masters”, a phrase from the close of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, which continues to disturb Hitler’s victims as much as that comedy had thrilled him while he rehearsed his speeches to the rhythms of its overture.

The rehabilitation of Wagner was one strand in elevating Germany from enemy in the anti-fascist war into ally in the Cold War. Bayreuth was 60 kilometers from the border with East Germany. Until 1957, US officers used one of the Wagner houses as a casino. Had World War III broken out, Warsaw Pact troops would have smashed through the Wagner’s wooden Festspielhaus before the first NATO bombers struck Moscow.

De-Nazification in the British Zone had not got far beyond the High Command before elements in Whitehall reverted to their hopes for an anti-Bolshevik alliance with “good Germans”. Washington did not close both its eyes to mass murderers until 1951 after the pursuit of Nazi bureaucrats and businessmen had been denounced as a Communist conspiracy. When Bayreuth re-opened, Hitler’s bankers, judges and industrialists were back at their desks; his rocket scientists and spy masters were safe with the Pentagon and CIA.

Because De-Nazification limped on as a critique of German Kultur, these geo-political issues reverberated inside the Festspielhaus. The allegations against conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler of complicity with Nazism were the subject of a recent film, Taking Sides. His traducers charge that he should have quit Germany long before he did in 1945, whereas he had convinced himself that staying was an act of resistance. In 1951, the Wagners invited him to open their first post-war season by conducting Beethoven’s Ninth.

London’s musical establishment of the late 1940s welcomed to Covent Garden a procession of Wagner conductors and directors who had pandered to Hitler and Goebbels. The most acclaimed of the local Wagner conductors had been a fascist party activist and later a knight of the realm, “Reggie” Goodall.

Although a bomb had struck the back of Wagner’s house, Wahnfried, something nasty remained in its woodshed. Winifred Williams had married the Wagner heir, Siegfried, in 1915, bearing him two sons, Wieland and Wolfgang. Before being widowed in 1930, Winifred had made her house a physical and emotional retreat for one of the ultra-Nationalist inspired by “the music of the future”. Adolf Hitler became “Uncle Wolfie” to her boys.

In power from 1933, Hitler took up residence with the Wagner household during the Festivals, donating 50,000 marks each year from his personal funds and arranging for tax exemption. For a time, Winifred used her connection to continue employing Jewish musicians. She reveled in the Nazi banners around the theatre but declined to paint swastikas onto the performers’ shields. The programs regurgitated foulness from Wagner’s essays.

For the 1942 Festival, the authorities brought in recuperating troops from the Eastern Front. Thereafter, Bayreuth was scaled down to only Die Meistersinger. Had the moral of Gotterdamerung (Self-Destruction of the Gods) been too pointed even for SS officers?

Histrionics are never confined to one side of the footlights, remarked Anna Russell, remembered for her send-up of Der Ring. So it was when the Brothers Wagner moved to reopen the Festival. Conflicts flared inside their extended family and around the conductor’s desk.

The grandsons divided the tasks. Wieland conceived the 1951 productions. Wolfgang concentrated on management. Recognising that this allocation put him at a disadvantage, Wolfgang took up directing in 1953. His son, Gottfried, recalled how his father forbade him to play with his “yankee” cousins who lived next door. The rivalries between the “manager” and the “artist” saw the families maintain separate tables and boxes during the Festival.

The conductors denounced each other for having been the bigger Nazi while themselves behaving like little Fuhrers. Hans Knappertsbusch shared the re-opening with the young Herbert von Karajan, Nazi Party member from 1933. To prove his worth, Karajan insisted on his own lavatory and refused to begin a rehearsal of Die Meistersinger while Furtwangler remained in the theatre. Next year, Karajan tried to prove his superiority to Richard Wagner by rearranging the orchestra. When he had to admit that he had been wrong, he never returned.

Knappertsbusch had the reputation as the greatest Wagner conductor but he was too enmeshed in the beard-and-helmet mentality to appreciate the abstract productions of Parsifal and the Ring in 1951. For one of the 1953 cycles, Wieland brought in another Nazi lickspittle, Clemens Krauss, but he died in the following May.

Out of the storms erupting from the pit, Keilberth became an anchor. Invited for 1952, he had sole charge of the Ring from 1954 to 1957. The Testament set is from his fourth year. By then, the Bayreuth forces had regained the cohesion that had been frayed by not having mounted a cycle since 1942.

Knappertsbusch’s bullying drove Keilberth to drink. He once consoled himself with five litres of white wine before setting out to drive down town for a nightcap. Wolfgang summoned the police who wedged Keilberth’s VW between their vehicles to steer it into a parking lot.

Recorded sound
Entire Ring cycles had been recorded more than 30 years before one appeared in the shops. The explanation for the delay was at first technical; during the 1950s, the reason became more commercial.

Although phonographs were popular by 1906, many people went on being introduced to Wagner through Liszt transcriptions on pianola rolls. That approach appealed because a gramophone had to be wound by hand, its needle changed for each side, and the platters turned over. Devotees of classical music bought two machines, and instructed a child or servant on how to minimise the interruptions and scratches.

From the 1920s, the wireless extended acquaintance with classical music, though the reception was often woeful. Commercial stations were part of this enlightenment. For instance, after Wotan won the 1936 Melbourne Cup at 100 to one, the network that had re-laid the race around Australia immediately broadcast Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, followed by Lawrence Tippett singing Wotan.

With playing times of under four minutes a side, 78 rpm recording needed some 120 platters for the Ring’s sixteen hours. By 1951, the long-play recording had made marketing a complete Ring feasible. Bringing those 38 LPs to the point of sale fell under the curse placed on the ring in Wagner’s music-drama.

Before Germany’s economic Miracle, its artists were scratching for cash. The moral of Der Ring is that gold and power destroy love, nature and art. The pursuit of money by the Festival organisers and by the recording companies spotlighted the difficulties in learning that lesson. The Wagners traded rights for the different music-dramas to competing companies. Artists had exclusive contracts with various labels. Releases could be negotiated, but with difficulty.

Both Decca and EMI sent teams to the 1951 Festival. Head office permission for Decca’s team to record the sole performance of Der Ring to be conducted by Knappertsbusch came late. The results on stage were too scrappy to release until the final part, Gotterdammerung. The attempt to produce that segment alone came to naught. The suspicion was that EMI’s Walter Legge blocked a release for his wife, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who had had the run-on part of Woglinde.

Then stereo arrived. What had only just become technically possible was no longer necessarily profitable. Could the affluent be persuaded to replace their recently acquired long-playing mono record-players and 33rpm collections? Hire purchase again rode to the rescue.

In 1958, Decca released Das Rheingold with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti. The rest of the cycle followed over the next seven years to sell 18 million sets, some 200 million CDs. The Three Tenors run second with 22 million.

Decca’s recording director, John Culshaw, aimed at a sound suited to living rooms. He believed that each medium demanded its own acoustic. Even a perfect recording from stage must distort in a domestic setting. (Does that make it impossible to convey Wagner on I-Pods?)

The following judgements of the Keilberth’s Ring come with a caution. What seem to be a singer’s difficulties might result from the recording. Too often, the voices appear to be arrive from backstage, off-stage or through speaking trumpets. The quality of the recordings might also account for why syllables, words and even phrases are absent. The volume rises and falls within scenes. The first disk is about half as loud as the second. These fluctuations blight any response to Keilberth’s direction of the orchestra, which can sound as if recorded acoustically.

Nothing can excuse breaking off the third disk in Siegfried four minutes before the end of the First Scene of Act Three, and after a mere 58 minutes.

The set contains several stunning performances though not from two of the three male principals. Hans Hotter as Wotan and Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried sound so uneven as to disappoint.

Hotter is uninspiring for his long Act II passage in Die Walkure before managing its lamentation which puts less demand on his volume. The whispered recapitulation is also expressive, more so than his singing.

Windgassen’s Siegfried has fewer lapses, reaching the fullness and determination demanded of a fearless hero. When he disguises himself, he eschews distortion by speaking rather than singing; he then shifts to a deeper register, not a different voice. He has trouble reproducing the wood-bird’s tune until his third go.

By contrast, the Alberich of Gustav Neidlinger bounds forth full-throated, his rage under control, with verve cutting into each syllable.

Culminating a survey of the four largest roles with Astrid Varnay as Brunnhilde is doubly fitting, both for her achievements in the part and the importance of that character. Brunnhilde dominates the cycle, vocally, dramatically and morally, even before “all wisdom” is entrusted to her.

Varnay always has had her champions. Recordings as Isolde testified to her capacities. In 1987, Munich audiences paid tribute by applauding her entrance for a mute part in Berg’s Lulu. Yet, she never attained the celebrity status of Flagstad or Nilsson.

In 1955, Varnay displayed her power to affect her listeners, whether Wotan or us. She revives at Siegfried’s kiss with sweet strength, playful and penetrating. Her articulation intensifies the emotion as her syllables flow with the music to convey its significance. Her pleading dissolves into a stream of fire.

In the 1953 cycle under Krauss, her Brunnhilde was more imperious and several degrees richer. Indeed, these two Brunnhildes sound as if they were sung by different people, to the advantage of the earlier version on mono. Varnay had not gone off. She was still starring at Bayreuth until 1964. (A third Bayreuth recording, but under Knappertsbusch from 1956, is available.)

Other thrills include the giant Fasolt (Ludwig Weber) who is plangent as he desires Freia, and heart-rendering when he condemns the treachery of the gods. At first, his brother, Fafner (Josef Greindl), combines elegant phrasing with wit; changed into the dragon, he is awesome, drawing three notes out of the “u” in Bruder.

The captivating cheekiness of Rudolf Lustig as Loge makes an enthralling contrast to the Shubertian pathos that Josef Traxel brings to Froh’s eight lines.

The plot swivels on pretence so that the vocal demands on a singer must shift with each deceit. The cast has to create not only their own characters but also impersonations, as Wagner did throughout his career. In denial of this demand, the Fricka of Georgine von Milinkovic sounds the same in almost every situation. Not so Paul Kuen’s Mine who projects servility as part of his guile, another performance trick of affectation as affection. His evocation of “fear” is splendid as he tries to scare Siegfried, the child-man, yet with no loss of fine singing.

Through a rapid fire of words, Siegmund (Ramon Vinay) captures the flow of battle with a bounce to his tale and a spring in his voice. Crazed with remorse and lust, the Sieglinde of Gre Brouwenstijn predicts the disaster about to befall her and Siegmund with as much colour and conviction as is delivered by its enactment. Maria von Ilosvay as Waltraute is compelling in her scene painting, recreating the pity and grief of the gods awaiting destruction.

As the siblings, Gutrune, Gunther and Hagen, Gre Brouwenstijn, Hermann Uhde and Joseph Greindl form a sublime trio. The Rhinemaidens excel when in unison. The chorus moves effortlessly from a single voice into layers of laughter.

Is the Testament set worth $440? Keilberth’s account can be recommended to Tristanites adding to our treasures. But at this price, and with its peculiarities, it is not for first-time buyers. They deserve a studio production of Act-long takes to balance sound quality with strokes of the spontaneity and intensity from a live performance.

The alternatives include several dvd versions for around $130. Most of the accounts from the big-name conductors appear on sale tables for much the same price. Competition in the top-price stakes comes from Melba Records with the 2004 Adelaide Ring.

In 1999, Naxos released a Ring from the New York Metropolitan 1936-7 and 1941 seasons, including the Australian Marjorie Lawrence as one of its three Brunnhildes. That set is no longer in the catalogue but, among the historic recordings, it was unbeatable at $100, with memorable interpreters, including a young Varnay as Sieglinde.

Other complete recordings from the same time as the Keilberth are on sale. One is from Bayreuth under Clemens Krauss in 1953 of the same production and with almost the same cast. That mono version became available in 1987, eliciting much the same enthusiasm as greeted the Keilberth.

Also in 1953, Furtwangler conducted a concert version in Rome with experienced principals. He had to lead the orchestra towards the Wagner sound, with its unique instrumentation. The playing improved as the cycle went along. Next year, Furtwangler died before completing a Ring for EMI. Copyright wrangles meant that the Rome set was not released until 1972. Re-masterings have improved its quality, but not enough to stop the orchestral thinness distracting from the voices.

Alternatively, how does the price tag on a 14-CD set compare with that of a ticket to a live performance? The best seats in Adelaide in 2004 were $1,500; the subsidies amounted to $16m. – less than the cost to the taxpayers of one Olympic Gold Medal. Six years earlier, the very best seat in Berlin had cost me $1,000. For that money, I could have added four more sets to my collection. Deduct the cost of my airline ticket and accommodation and I could be listening to them on a new pair of state-of-the-art speakers. Yet, we Tristanites agree with the Wagnerians that even the finest recording will never come close to the total work of art.

What if your head or heart is set on experiencing the Bayreuth acoustic at first hand? Bernard Shaw suspected that the Festival appealed to the English because it combined two of their keenest pleasures – tourism and snobbery. Today, he would add conspicuous spending. Box office prices are not outrageous when compared with Covent Garden or Vienna. However, the chance of getting a place is shrinking. In 2,006, an Englishwoman decided that, after sending in her application form for seven years, she had been dutiful long enough. She paid a scalper $10,000 for a mid-price ticket, ten times its original cost.

The scramble to worship at the shrine to the music of the future, like the fine print of recording contracts, demonstrates that the virtues that Wagner proclaimed in Der Ring remain as far from fulfillment as they were remote from his character.

The future
The critic for the International Record Review, Michael Tanner, is the author of a primer in praise of Wagner as thinker and revolutionary dramatist. Tanner tied his endorsement of the Keilberth set to a lament that we shall never hear a live cast to rival that from 50 years back. The odour of nostalgia from a Cambridge Tory need not negate his assessment. Instead, it provokes the question why? What has gone wrong?

There is no reason to suppose that the randomness of the gene pool has ceased to throw up the physical and intellectual requirements for Wagnerian voices. So, what social determinants might be responsible? Two candidates are the mechanical manipulation of sound and the associated force of the market.

A 1970 survey of classical singers on record concluded that high fidelity would “raise standards all round” by allowing singers to scrutinise each note and every word. Instead of performers matching the finest, the studios have doctored their voices. Technicians had inserted two of Schwarzkopf’s high C’s into Flagstad’s 1953 Tristan. In the theatre, the need to articulate clearly is suffering from the audience’s reliance on sur-titles.

Very Fast Trains around Europe and the Concorde across the Atlantic allowed stars to flit back and forth between the highest paid engagements. Rehearsal times had to be trimmed to travel schedules. Despite adjusting to this regime, Bayreuth remains a bastion for preparation and continuity.

It is improbable that any corporation will risk the expense of another studio Ring. The Tristan from Domingo was possible because of his logo. The sales pitch surrounding the Keilberth shows how to avoid those costs through promoting the novelty of the old. How long will it be before a marketing executive concocts an “ideal” Ring by stitching together extracts from different performances across the past 70 years?

Australian Financial Review,   June 2007