Monday, October 23, 2006

Zagrosek's Rheingold

It's been a bumper crop for Ring aficionados lately. Testament rolled out Keilberth's splendid stereo cycle from the 1955 Festspiele. Warner Classics re-released Barenboim's 1991/2 set. Philips put Böhm's 1967 recording back out, along with EMI's reissue of Haitink's somewhat lonely Ring. Even Naxos has gotten in the act, releasing Lothar Zagrosek's set (originally filmed) from the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

I have the Rheingold, and I am of two minds of it. Zagrosek's really splendid orchestral palette, helped by good engineering, does justice to Wagner's score without watering it down. However, and this is to be expected from a second-tier city like Stuttgart, the singers just don't cut the mustard. For example, Wolfgang Probst's Wotan has a vibrato that ranges from distracting to cringe-inducing, with a couple moments that are downright sad. I can take Hotter, especially when Hotter's voice got bad, simply because he had the gravity and the power to soldier through the woofiness [sic?] and wide vibrato. Sadly, Probst doesn't have either of those to get through his problems. That man-against-himself bit could be tragic, but it's just unfortunate. Especially if you like the young Wotan to be proud and arrogant.

I do.

Robert Künzli's Loge, too, lacks something. I'd be inclined to toss, flippantly, je ne sais quoi off, but no. He doesn't have the bite that Schreier, Clark, Zednik, or Windgassen all had. Loge isn't the faintly fruity buddy of Wotan: he is an angry element-god who, for all his abuse at the hands of the gods, could flatten the lot of them. He is restrained, but barely. His outburst at the end of Scene 4 should reveal as much.

The Rhinemaidens, too, lack something - namely consistency of ensemble. During their lament, one of them is at least a quaver behind the rest. Not so good. One hopes that their lamentation would be of one mind, not follow-the-leader.

So, why then do I mention this record? The orchestra, sounding rather like the Staatskapelle Dresden, if not as technically precise, is fantastic. Zagrosek has an understanding of how to pace Wagnerian drama. He can also vary his tempi without seeming ham-fisted, which variation not many can do with anything resembling success. Clearly, he drilled his band for quite some time. Also, his German biography reports that he studied with Von Karajan, and it seems that he adopted some of the latter's notions of orchestral lyricism - but not Von Karajan's obsession with smoothness and sheen.

David Harbin reviewed this set, and I (clearly) agree with much of what he said. He was a little too forgiving of the singers, but I think he outlines the merits of the set. He also places it in context, and - with all the Rings out there now - you need to do that.