Furtwängler's mighty 1953 Ring Cycle - Part 1: Das Rheingold
An astonishing sonic transformation thanks to XR remastering
Downloads include full scores of each scene
Wotan Ferdinand Frantz
Donner Alfred Poell
Froh Lorenz Fehenberger
Loge Wolfgang Windgassen
Fricka Ira Malaniuk
Freia Elisabeth Grümmer
Erda Ruth Siewert
Alberich Gustav Neidlinger
Mime Julius Patzak
Fasolt Josef Greindl
Fafner Gottlob Frick
Woglinde Sena Jurinac
Wellgunde Magda Gabory
Flosshilde Hilde Rössl-Majdan
Review of original LP issue (excerpt!)
"I won't mince words, but say straightaway that the Ring is the supreme large-scale musical achievement of the human mind, that Furtwangler has been the greatest conductor of the work over the last sixty years, and that this HMV box of records is therefore the gramophone event of the century.
Before any gramophile seizes pen and paper to write a strongly-worded protest against this categorical statement, I'd better stress that the phrase I've used is "gramophone event". The gramophone achievement of the century, surely, is the Decca recording of Wagner's work, in which Georg Solti, John Culshaw and Gordon Parry collaborated—the first-ever and truly magnificent gramophonic presentation of the Ring. The DGG recording, master-minded by Herbert von Karajan, came second of course; this month it's issued as a complete entity (as the Decca has been), and in my opinion, despite its many virtues (referred to below), it does in fact come second to the Decca. [The cast details can be found on page 552—Ed.] Actually, the Furtwangler Ring isn't a gramophonic achievement at all, but a radio achievement—except that, since it happened, certain people in EMI have moved heaven and earth to make it permanently available on disc to music-lovers. The whole story is fascinating in itself, so I'd better begin with it.
In 1952, David Bicknell, then the Manager of EMI's International Artists Department, renewed Furtwangler's exclusive contract with the company, and agreed with him that their main task should be to collaborate in a complete recording of the Ring with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. So EMI hoped to be first in the field with a complete recording of the Ring, and would have been, but for fate. They began with Die Walkiire, which was completed in October 1954, was first issued in September 1955 on HMV mono ALP125761, later reissued as HQM1019-23 (4/66) and only recently deleted. Furtwdngler was so pleased with it that he said, "Now let us finish the other operas as soon as possible". But eight weeks later he died ; and it seemed that his incomparable interpretation of the whole Ring had gone with him to the grave —or rather, was evaporating into the cosmos, in soundwaves progressing to an infinite faintness.
However, the previous year, Furtwangler had recorded the Ring complete for Rome Radio; and after his death, it was realised that this radio tape was the only preserved recording of his interpretation of the whole work. Immediately, negotiations began between EMI and Radio Italiana, with a view to issuing the recording commercially; but nothing came of it, since two of the singers on the tape had exclusive contracts with a rival record company, which refused to waive them. It was only in the late nineteen-sixties, after continued pleas from Furtwangler's widow and the formation of the Wilhelm Furtwangler Society (founded in 1967, partly to recover every existing recording made by him), that negotiations began again and resulted in an agreement that EMI should issue the performance on disc—the last major project of David Bicknell before his retirement last year. The discs have been made from copy tapes prepared in Italy from the metal positives held in RAI Archives; and since the sound, after so many years, was of variable quality, the EMI engineers have had to work hard to produce a uniform and satisfactory sound. I can only congratulate them on the result, which is remarkably vivid for a recording made in 1953...
...The superlative quality of Furtwangler's interpretation resides in his awareness that the Ring is not in any sense a beautiful and sophisticated work, a la Karajan, or a frenetically violent work, a la Solti, but a stark, heavy, brooding work, a profound tragedy set in a primitive world of ancient Teutonic gods and heroes, to whom every action and event is of the utmost existential importance—a la Wagner. And it should not be thought that this awareness translates itself into an interpretation purely by means of adopting slower tempi: for instance, Furtwangler's prelude to Act 2 of Die Walkiire is taken at the same driving speed as that of Solti, but it is even more gripping because of the weight he brings to bear on the music at that tempo. But the most remarkable thing about Furtwangler's interpretation is the way he brings out the meaning of every detail of the score, a good example being the very first scene of Das Rheingold. Here the tempo is actually slower than those of Solti and Karajan, and it serves to give a lovely lazy lilt to the music of the Rhinemaidens (who after all are supposed to be basking happily in the pleasurable world of unspoilt nature) ; but one realises the full significance of this tempo when the gold lights up and the Rhinemaidens begin their ecstatic song in praise of it, since the flashing scales of semiquavers on the violins make their full impact as the kind of watery vibration Wagner meant them to be, whereas with Solti and Karajan they flash by so quickly that they become no more than a general wash of sound. In purely musical terms, violins cannot properly articulate staccato semiquavers above a certain speed. Again, when Alberich begins climbing up from the lower depths of the Rhine, and gets in a temper because the water sets him sneezing, Furtwángler gives full weight to the vicious little phrase of four descending demisemiquavers and two ascending semiquavers which gives us our first glimpse of Alberich's sadistic nature, and is to return when he starts bullying Mime in the third scene; but with both Solti and Karajan, the tempo is too quick to allow this phrase to register at all clearly.
One could go on giving examples throughout the whole score, but this would be to ignore a more positive and indefinable quality of Furtwangler's interpretation—his ability to make the music surge, or seethe, or melt, so that one has left the world of semiquavers altogether, and is swept up in a great spiritual experience. Furtwdngler himself said: "However vast the scope of a Wagner opera may be, it is still made up of countless individual strands, and only the correct tempo can tie these together. The real task of the conductor—especially in Wagner—is to produce a consistent tempo. There are never 'segments' or rough divisions; everything flows smoothly. Wagner once called himself 'the master of transition', and rightly so". This performance of the Ring is a superb practical demonstration of Furtwangler's theory, since the tempi adopted are so exactly right as to allow every strand of the music to express itself to the full. One has heard the Ring many times, and one feels that one knows just what to expect from the many great peaks of the score; but hearing them again under Furtwdngler—the Descent to Nibelheim, the love-duet in Act 1 of Die Walkiire, the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried's forging of the sword, Siegfried's Funeral March, and the closing scene of Giitterdammerung—one realises that there is far more in this music than one has got out of it since one last heard Furtwangler..."
D. C. The Gramophone, September 1972
Read in full here
Notes on the recordings:
There are two full recordings of Wagner's Ring cycle conducted by Furtwängler, but neither is the full studio recording planned by EMI to begin in 1954 and left incomplete by the conductor's death at the age of 68 on 30th November of that year. There is a 1950 recording of his La Scala cycle, and this, a series of recordings made for broadcast on Italian radio (RAI) across ten sessions in October and November 1953 in front of a very quiet invited audience. The final broadcasts were cut from both these recordings and taped rehearsal sessions, as chosen by Furtwängler and the RAI engineers the day after recording.
The recordings were broadcast a short time after but were not commercially issued until the early 1970s on LP by EMI. Generally the sound quality I've been able to achieve from these recordings - after some considerable difficulties - has been remarkably fine. However the first Scene is of a dimmer sound quality than the rest of the opera, for reasons which are probably now lost to time. Thereafter, despite some variable and occasionally noticeable (but not intrusive) hiss, the sound is generally excellent for a radio recording of this era.
Contrast and Compare:
Following some online discussion of the merits of the various reissues of this classic recording, as well as considerable e-mail correspondence, I've set up clips of the various releases prior to our own, complete with my own notes, so you can listen for yourself and see whether you agree with me. Each is a 30 second sample starting from the same place as our own longer sample. Technical notes are derived from spectral analysis, waveform analysis and careful listening in our studio. To aid direct comparisons between each sample I've matched volume levels to that of our own sample - this has no qualitative effect on the sound quality, but counteracts a subconscious human tendency to prefer the 'louder one'.
1. EMI LP, issued 1972
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 11.5kHz
No digital noise reduction or excessive filtering
Runs about a semitone flat in pitch
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2. EMI CD, first issued 1990, reissued unchanged 2011
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 8.5kHz
Digital noise reduction and intrusive filtering
Boost around 3kHz gives a tiring, telephonic quality to voices
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3. Gebhardt "Hi-End Restoration Technology" CD, issued 2005
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 6.5kHz
Digital noise reduction heavy filtering
Volume peaks compressed to give illusion of higher levels
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4. Pristine Audio, 16-bit Ambient Stereo, issued 2011
Frequency range extension: up to approx. 12kHz, occasionally 14kHz
32-bit XR remastering with new equalisation and some digital noise reduction
This is a full-length (9 minunte) Ambient Stereo MP3 excerpt at 224kbps
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CD covers to print:
CD-writing cuesheet (save as .cue):
Double album: cue sheets included
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Printable text listings of all Pristine Audio historic releases
|XR remastering by Andrew Rose:|