Classicalite's Five Best: Richard Wagner Recordings

By James Inverne on Sep 23, 2013 03:04 PM EDT

Still in time for Richard Wagner's 200th anniversary year, newbies might well not have time to listen to every available recording of, say, Der Ring des Nibelungen (four operas, some fifteen hours between them).

So, we've done it for you. Or, if not all, almost all.

And though no list is definitive, just as no single recording of a masterpiece is definitive, Classicalite's Five Best will stand you in very good stead...

Der Fliegende Holländer (cond. Karl Böhm, Deutsche Grammophon)

Any Flying Dutchman, Wagner's early and, for him, concise ghostly thriller, stands or falls by its title character. In Thomas Stewart, the Bayreuth Festival had a heroic (or anti-heroic), haunted figure. His voice as virile and powerful as a powerful mythic figure of the seas should have, his interpretation overcast by storm clouds, cares and weariness. Alongside him, Gwyneth Jones is a driven Senta, leaving no doubt as to the fact that the Dutchman is going to need a gal every bit as unbalanced as he is, and Karl Ridderbusch is full-voiced and full of the salt of the sea (and just a little venality) as her dad. Böhm meanwhile draws rich, propulsive torrents of sound from the Bayreuth forces.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  (cond. Karajan, EMI/Warner)

As so often with Herbert von Karajan, this is all about the conductor. There is no more tonally buoyant, sure-paced, complex or humane account of Wagner's great comedy on record. It may have been the first commercially available stereo recording of the opera back in 1970, but it sounds well still today, not least because of the conductor's characteristically super-rich sonic palette. The cast really works together as a company. Yes, Sir Georg Solti's rival recording has the unsurpassed Norman Bailey in the lead role of Hans Sachs, but that set doesn't come close as an organic theatrical experience. Theo Adam is intelligent as well as funny as Sachs the poet-cobbler, and he and Geraint Evans's classic Beckmesser play off each other to the manor born. Others--René Kollo's Walther, Helen Donath's Eva--are bettered elsewhere, but this was never about individual canary fancying. Life-enhancing stuff.

Lohengrin (cond. Kempe, EMI/Warner)

Rudolf Kempe may be less hyped in retrospect than some of his contemporaries, but for beauty of sound he was always the one you turned to. And no Wagner opera rewards that quality more than (sort of) Arthurian legend Lohengrin. Yet, this set amply shows, too, that he was no slouch in the drama department; the villains' Act II scheming is spine-chillingly underscored, orchestral colors dark as pitch. The other big surprise: Jess Thomas, who could be an erratic tenor, rises to the heights of the greatest Wagner tenors here in the performance of his life as a golden-voiced, properly mysterious Lohengrin (mystery is a big thing for a nameless knight who rides in on a swan--it's the only way you can get away with that kind of entrance). Elisabeth Grümmer is a lovely Elsa, and you don't get better baddies than casting two of the finest-ever Lieder singers, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig.

Tristan und Isolde (cond. C. Kleiber, DG)

This is perhaps the hardest one of all to decide. Because there is no clear winner in the Tristan stakes, the opera some Wagnerians would finally take to their mythical desert island. Closest is the old EMI (now Warner) set conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, but its Tristan, Ludwig Suthaus, is an interpretive notch below the finest on disc, Jon Vickers (for Karajan), and the sound inevitably shows its age. The newer EMI set conducted by Antonio Pappano is marvellous, great sound of course. And in Nina Stemme and Plácido Domingo, he has as good a central pair as one could find today (or rather, yesterday since Domingo doesn't sing Tristan now). Still, Stemme was caught slightly too early I'd argue, and Domingo is excellent but no Vickers. Yet, this is a conductor's opera above all, a sprawling poem of a piece in which orchestral imagery is (nearly) all. So, I clutch the Carlos Kleiber set, with the most incandescent conducting since Furtwängler. In opting for a lighter-voiced Isolde (Margaret Price) than would be possible on stage and a more youthful Tristan (René Kollo), in some ways his principals aren't directly comparable to any others. It's a great performance on its own terms, and refuses to be taken on anyone else's.

Der Ring des Nibelungen (cond. Böhm, Decca)

It was Decca who, then and in some ways forever, set the standards for The Ring on record with the Sir Georg Solti set produced by John Culshaw as an epic studio spectacular, complete with sound effects. If you want a studio Ring, no question, go for that one. I prefer the live experience, so given that the sound of Böhm's 1966 Bayreuth outing is still decent, and the performance sweeps the listener along, I'd probably plump for this one. Theo Adam is a fascinating Wotan, a deep thinker nevertheless confused by events out of his control. Birgit Nilsson shows why she was the reigning Brünnhilde of her day (to be able to sing the "Immolation" at the end of Götterdämmerung as if you've only just started your night is almost superhuman) and Wolfgang Windgassen is heroic as Siegfried. There are countless terrific turns, among them Thomas Stewart--Karajan's Wotan--as Gunther (this by far the better role for him, in which he has few equals). And as for Solti (who also uses Windgassen and Nilsson), you get James King's Siegmund and Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich, only this time live and more exciting. You can also, quite often, get this at superb value.

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TagsClassicalite's Five Best, Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, The Ring, DG, EMI, Decca, Bohm, Karajan, Kempe, Kleiber, Bayreuth

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