Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Top" Ten Immolation Scenes?

I'm told that Mike Ashman, in this month's Gramophone, made a list. And, boy howdy, what a list!

You see, and this was a surprise to me, Mr. Ashman decided to make a list of the top ten Immolation Scenes. Until learning of this, I didn't think there were ten "top" recordings to wedge into a list. I'd be conservative and say, maybe, there's half a dozen to be found. Maybe.

Which one did Mr. Ashman name "Number One"? Why, it was that perennial favorite: Lillian Nordica under Alfred Hertz and the Met orchestra. According to Ward Marston's website listing for the compilation featuring the Götterdämmerung excerpt, this recording (in the sense of its constituent parts) was made on 23 and 28 February 1903 on one of Mapleson's wax cylinders. Now, forgive my intolerable ignorance, I was under the impression that a 1903 recording was useful as a historical document, and my experience confirms that recordings of that vintage are best avoided if you want to glean real musical information from them.

Of course, on the flip side, you have John Culshaw's earth-shattering engineering of Georg Solti's Ring. On a good system or on good headphones (think the wood-bodied Grados, for various reasons), there is a realism and presence that a wax cylinder just cannot match. I'll admit that the Culshaw production is a little over-the-top, and Joseph Keilberth's 1955 Ring has a far more natural sound to it (done by Decca). Regardless, when listening to Birgit Nilsson's Immolation Scene, you can tell what's going on -- both orchestrally and vocally.

Mr. Ashman declined to include Nilsson's performance for Solti or Böhm or Kempe (Covent Garden 1957). In other words, Helga Dernesch and Herbert von Karajan made the cut, despite frankly unidiomatic contributions from Karajan, but Birgit Nilsson -- under three different conductors, all in better sound than a 1903 wax cylinder.

In other words, this list seems -- and there are several more egregious examples, just none more egregious than this one -- intentionally designed to obscure and weirdly specialist. Sometimes, and I'm not universally enamored with Solti, the commoner examples are common because they are that good.