Furtwängler's mighty 1953 Ring Cycle - Part 3: Siegfried
Another astonishing 32-bit sonic transformation thanks to XR remastering
"Pristine deserves nothing but praise for what it has done"
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.
In working on these new Pristine 32-bit XR remasterings I've made a few interesting discoveries and come to a few conclusions. First of all, the recordings were most probably originally recorded onto tape at 30 inches per second, with each reel running for about 15 minutes. The recordings were made an act at a time, and where necessary rehearsal material was cut into the live performance recording prior to broadcast a few days later.
The final masters were preserved as vinyl discs (with metal masters), each side representing a tape reel - at this time it was common to preserve radio broadcasts on disc; the medium was both proven and much less space-hungry than tape, which was expensive and could of course be erased and re-used. Thus when EMI mastered the original 1972 LP release, they worked from tape dubs of new vinyl pressings made from RAI's metal masters, and it is likely that these same tape dubs served for future releases, both on vinyl and CD. Certainly there is more than enough evidence of vinyl origins in EMI's 1990 CDs which matches flaws on their 1972 LPs - swish, clicks etc. The bizarre difference between the two is in badly-dubbed applause at the end of each act, present on the CDs but absent on the LPs. Bizarre indeed - the same canned applause was used at the ends of both Acts Two and Three in the present recording! It also appears in the same form in the Gebhardt CD reissue but is absent here.
WAGNER - Siegfried WWV 86C
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI
conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded by Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI) 10, 13 & 17 November 1953 (plus possible material edited in from ealier rehearsals during this period), Auditorio del Foro Italico, Rome
Siegfried Ludwig Suthaus
Wanderer Ferdinand Frantz
Mime Julius Patzak
Alberich Alois Pernerstorfer
Fafner Josef Greindl
Woodbird Rita Streich
Brünnhilde Martha Mödl
Erda Margarete Klose
This RAI Ring cycle remains one of the glories of the recorded musical history of the 20th century, and sounds here fuller, warmer, cleaner, and more natural than it ever has before
In the previous issue of Fanfare I reviewed the RAI Das Rheingold and Die Walküre from Pristine, and I noted that I have written extensively about the two Furtwängler Ring cycles in previous issues (20:2, 29:6, and 33:1). I said in that review that there are pluses and minuses to both the La Scala and RAI cycles, but that Pristine’s restoration work was so good as to possibly tilt the balance in favor of the RAI. These two releases only confirm that feeling.
While the Scala cycle has the intensity of single, staged performances (this RAI cycle was broadcast one act per day, with days off in between, and unstaged), the superior sound quality of this cycle, having reached, in this incarnation, the level of a good monaural studio recording, is a serious factor in its favor. And while the Scala cycle has the great voice of Kirsten Flagstad (past her prime but still magnificent), this RAI cycle has singers who always sound fresh because of the rest between acts that they were given. And overall, the casting is superior here to the Scala.
As we get to these two final operas in the cycle, it sounds as if the orchestra and Furtwängler had become more comfortable with each other, so the orchestral playing seems more free and natural than it did in the first operas. The conducting remains today what it has always been: a model of how to shape this music. Furtwängler thinks in paragraphs and chapters, not in sentences. He builds climaxes theatrically (listen to the transformation of “Dawn” in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung), but also always keeps the long view in mind—so as powerful as any moment along the way might be, it doesn’t outweigh what is yet to come. One of Furtwängler’s important skills that is often undervalued because of the cramped quality of many of his recordings is his ear for orchestral color, and Pristine’s transfer allows us to experience that more fully than ever before.
The casting is as close to ideal as one might get in 1953. Martha Mödl in particular benefits from Pristine’s transfer. Her voice sounds a bit hard on the various EMI incarnations but seems freer and more open here. More important, though, than any individual performance is the sense of ensemble that one gets from these performances. One suspects that the rehearsal period was extensive and intense, and the result is a total immersion in the music and text, between singers among themselves and between singers and orchestra.
This RAI Ring cycle remains one of the glories of the recorded musical history of the 20th century, and sounds here fuller, warmer, cleaner, and more natural than it ever has before. Pristine makes its transfers available as downloads and CDs, in monaural sound and in what they call “ambient stereo.” The latter is not the “reprocessed” (or fake) stereo of the 1960s and ’70s, but rather a monaural reprocessing that allows the illusion of space to the ambience surrounding the main signal. (There are probably better ways to explain this; I’ve never pretended to be an engineer.) Both versions sound better than previous transfers of these recordings, but I do find the ambient stereo version more natural and pleasing, particularly over the length of these scores. Notes are minimal, texts nonexistent, but it doesn’t matter. These are recordings for specialists who know this music, and Pristine deserves nothing but praise for what it has done in restoring them.
This article originally appeared in Issue 35:2 (Nov/Dec 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.