Thursday, December 21, 2006

Keilberth Rising

Der Ring des Nibelungen has finally been completed according to Testament, though not according to Amazon. Der fliegende Holländer is out, once again, and on a splendid-sounding CD set. From the 1955 Festspiele alone, there is enough evidence to reevaluate Joseph Keilberth. His Ring has really taken the Wagnerian world by storm, both for the quality of the singing and the brilliant conducting in the pit. Keilberth, it seems, was the sort of conductor content not to get in the way of the music.

He manages to allow the band to do its thing, and to allow Wagner to tell them what to do. Of course, he has the Bayreuth band - an organization that exists entirely in the context of Richard Wagner. Nevertheless, Keilberth deserves a seat among the great Wagnerians of his generation: Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, and Krauss. Had Keilberth not fallen out with Wieland Wagner, one senses that Bayreuth would have an altogether different character through the 1960s and into the '70s. Of course, the 1955 Holländer was a Wolfgang Wagner production - as most Bayreuth fanatics already know. So, one assumes that half of the Wagner team running the Festspiele in the 1950s and '60s got on with Keilberth, but Wolfgang was usually the financial whiz.

His Holländer might, in any event, given recognition, supplant Klemperer's as the default recommendation. Hermann Uhde is suitably angst-ridden, and might be the bleakest (or on the short list) Dutchman I have heard. He isn't avuncular or blah. Unfortunately, his life was cut short in 1965 - at the age of 51 - just when most singers are in the prime of things. He also managed to look brooding and tortured. James Morris, though now toward the end of his career, might have bothered to follow Uhde's lead as a grim Dutchman.

Rudolf Lustig is a credible Erik, but Windgassen might have been better. Astrid Varnay was Senta. Enough said. She really was a suitable soprano for the Green Hill, though Nilsson has her moments. Between the two, there were more than enough successors to Flagstad - insofar as one can ever succeed one like Flagstad.

Of course, Wilhelm Pitz drilled the Bayreuth chorus, and one can always tell a Pitz-prepared chorus from one done by another director. Just another reason why the 1955 Holländer is spectacular.

I have said enough about his Ring, and it looks like we're seeing Keilberth rising in the estimation of things. John Culshaw made an egregious error in pushing the Solti project beyond the already-wonderful (and paid-for, one assumes) Keilberth recordings. Now, fifty years after the fact, Testament is setting things right. Solti was a gifted Wagnerian, in the Ring (I cannot say the same for his Holländer), but Keilberth was a dyed-in-the-wool, consummate Wagnerian. His tempi are so carefully considered and intelligent that one must see the flash of real understanding. He refuses to sacrifice drama for drive. Of course, Keilberth stands in a tradition stretching back, through Mottl, to Wagner himself. It is natural that Keilberth was a Wagnerian to the bone.

It just took fifty years for anyone to pay attention.

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