Bonus Recording of December 2001: Wagner's Ring

WAGNER: The Ring of the Nibelung
Norman Bailey, Wotan, Wanderer; Derek Hammond-Stroud, Alberich; Alberto Remedios, Siegmund, Siegfried; Rita Hunter, Brünnhilde; Margaret Curphey, Sieglinde, Gutrune; Gregory Dempsey, Mime; Aage Haugland, Hagen; Norman Welsby, Gunther; Emile Belcourt, Loge; Clifford Grant, Fafner, Hunding; Katherine Pring, Fricka I, Waltraute II; Ann Howard, Fricka II; Anne Collins, Erda, First Norn; Valerie Masterson, Woglinde; Shelagh Squires, Wellgunde; Helen Attfield, Flosshilde; Gillian Knight, Second Norn; Anne Evans, Third Norn; Maurine London, Woodbird; others; Sadler's Wells (Siegfried) and English National Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Reginald Goodall
Chandos CHAN 3065 (16 CDs). 1974–78/2001. John Mordler, Ronald Kinloch Anderson, prods.; Robert Gooch, Stuart Eltham, engs. ADD. TT: 16:53:30
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Also available separately:
The Rhinegold
Chandos CHAN 3054 (3 CDs). 1975/2001. TT: 2:53:50
The Valkyrie
Chandos CHAN 3038 (4 CDs). 1976/2001. TT: 4:09:14
Chandos CHAN 3045 (4 CDs). 1974/2001. TT: 4:38:48
Twilight of the Gods
Chandos CHAN 3060 (5 CDs). 1978/2001. TT: 5:11:29

When I heard that Chandos Records had bought EMI's tapes of Reginald Goodall's Ring cycle—the only recording of the work sung in English—and remastered them for release in its Opera in English series, I was interested on several counts.

First, of course, was The Language Problem: Though I've heard fine performances in English of other operas originally composed in Italian or German, the works of Wagner had always seemed least amenable to translation. After all, Wagner composed music dramatically sensitive to each syllable of his German text, which he also wrote; no translation, I thought, even Andrew Porter's (the one used here), could hope to approximate such a close wedding of music to text.

Second, there is some damn fine vocalizing in this cycle, recorded live back in the mid-'70s—otherwise dark days indeed for Wagner singing. I wondered if, a decade after the last time I'd heard it, these mostly British voices would still sound as good.

Third, Chandos is making much of their 24-bit digital remastering of these recordings. I remembered that none of the previous US incarnations—two on vinyl (EMI, Musical Heritage), one on CD (EMI)—had boasted very good sound, and that the CD version of Siegfried had never been released here at all.

Issue #4 was Reginald Goodall himself, a shy, retiring second-string conductor at Covent Garden who, once given free rein with Wagner by the Sadler's Wells Opera (later the English National Opera), proved to be one of the best things to have happened to the composer since Hans Knappertsbusch. But Goodall was notorious for the glacial pace of his performances—even slower than Kna's—in works that, at an average of four hours each in most conductors' hands, were already tests of operagoers' endurance.

So, by the numbers:

1) The Language Problem is not one. Translator Porter's plasticity of phrasing reads, sings, and sounds to me much better than it did a quarter century ago, or I am now far less doctrinaire a Wagnerite, or both. Whatever. It works—even for this (rusty) German speaker, who came to the language through Wagner rather than the other way around, and on whom Wagner's thorny, terminally alliterative Stabreim (a challenge even for native German speakers) is deeply imprinted. The freshness of hearing Wagner in my native English brought an immediacy to the drama—no attentive energy burned up in translating on the fly, no eyes flicking back and forth between parallel columns of German and English—that I'm sure no amount of fluency auf deutsch would ever grant. In Goodall's Ring, drama and character always trump mere beauty of tone and ensemble (more about that in 4, below), and the English helps keep it all on track. Still, I challenge any English speaker to decipher more than half of what's sung without consulting the libretto.

Unavoidably, Porter's translation has plenty of awkward phrasings and even more awkward vowel mouthings for the singers, and there are few of those chunky German consonants for the singers to bite into, launch themselves off from, or land on. But while everyone knows that much is lost in translation, it is often forgotten that much can be gained. The nuances heard on these recordings may not be exactly Wagner's, but they are exactly Porter's. For the great part they do not conflict with the music, and sometimes make clear what in the original is not, even to a German speaker. Under the circumstances, you can't ask for more.

2) This is one of the most beautifully sung Rings in any language. Rita Hunter's Brünnhilde has remarkable intelligence, with a vocal precision fully matched by her subtlety of interpretation. It's clear that no word leaves her mouth unexamined for meaning and resonances emotional as well as cranial. There is no grandstanding (other than what's writ into the notes themselves) but always understanding, and if Hunter's low range flags a bit in the third acts of Valkyrie and Twilight, her middle and top never do. Hers is a bravura performance that has yet to receive its due. Perhaps it will with this reissue (if just too late for Hunter, who died in April).

The tireless Alberto Remedios makes such a lovely noise as Siegmund and Siegfried that, once he's opened his mouth, you want him never to shut it. He lacks James King's anguish and passion as Siegmund, and the edge, intelligence, and spot-on boorishness of Windgassen as Siegfried, but he so far outcroons King and so far outproduces Windgassen vocally that I ended up not caring. On the other hand, Remedios's gorgeousness of tone and steady, seasoned lyricism lend Siegfried a maturity this much-hated hero seldom enjoys. And Remedios was the Bernd Aldenhoff of the 1970s, sounding as fresh at the end of the third acts of Siegfried and Twilight as at the beginning of the first.

The Goodall Ring abounds in other remarkable performances: the twisted grandeur of Derek Hammond-Stroud's Alberich, Gregory Dempsey's vital and musical Mime, Katherine Pring's tough but moving Waltraute, Norman Welsby's stronger-than-the-norm Gunther, Maurine London's precise Woodbird. But towering over all is Norman Bailey's Wotan/Wanderer, who sounds by turns almost inhumanly grand and imposing (in Rhinegold, as befits the head god), deeply tender and anguished (in Valkyrie, as befits the humanly grieving father of Siegmund and Brünnhilde), and warmly good-natured, even playful (in his autumnal incarnation as the Wanderer, in Siegfried). The power and consistency of the voice seem endless. Bailey's is one of the great Wotans, bettered only by Hans Hotter's in vulnerability and subtlety of characterization.

The trios of Rhinemaidens and Norns are strong and well-balanced, and the Valkyries are a vibrant and lusty bunch, but not all is vocal wonderment. Robert Lloyd's Fasolt is staunch but wooden, and Ann Howard's Fricka II is relentlessly interrogative in a generic sort of way, betraying Goodall's atavistic taste for overripe British mezzos. The great disappointment of this cycle is the Hagen of Aage Haugland, whose raw, half-baked hooting throughout Twilight has little steadiness and less grace. If the choice was deliberate, I understand but respectfully disagree—Hagen is far more complex than you'd ever know from this melodramatic mustache-twirler. (Listen to Gottlob Frick in Solti's cycle.)

3) The 24-bit remastering has made a real improvement. Voices are warmer, richer, more fully rounded, more solidly and convincingly placed in the acoustic of the rather large London Coliseum, with much less of the hard, glaring, two-dimensional outlines the EMI CDs tended to wave in one's face. During the A/B portion of my listening, after I'd played first the EMI, then the Chandos versions of Alberich's Curse from Rhinegold, my wife—not an audiophile but herself a British mezzo and former opera singer—emerged from the bathroom, floss still dangling from teeth, to declare, "Now that's an improvement!" The Chandos set is also mastered slightly less "hot," which means there's a crucial bit more dynamic headroom for Goodall's most immense climaxes, which are all the more impressive and moving for being so infrequent. Which brings us to...

4) Reginald Goodall could hold things in reserve for, literally, hours, and then—as at the end of Act III of Twilight—lean into a massive crescendo longer and harder than you've ever heard, then land on the next chord with the perfect poise and grace of an elderly, overweight cat leaping effortlessly onto the dining-room table. It's hard to believe it's an orchestra and chorus of clearly flawed humans making that glorious, terrifying noise. Eleven years after his death, Goodall continues to take flak for being the man who made Wagner operas last longer than anyone has before or since. For example, at 5:11:29, he lingers a good hour more over Twilight of the Gods than the brisk Pierre Boulez, and more than half an hour more than Knappertsbusch at his most expansive.

But Goodall mostly makes it work. Only occasionally do I feel that his very slow tempos are imposed on the music rather than rising organically from it. Goodall once wrote that "I am a perfectionist—not for detail but for the mood and meaning." It's a fair self-assessment; in his broad wake bob many discarded details. Orchestral ensemble is a far cry from what we now take for granted at Bayreuth and the Met—or even from today's ENO. Elsewhere, entrances of large instrumental forces are far more often vastly broken chords than truly together, and I'm not sure Goodall would have known a true sforzando had it hauled off and punched him in the snoot. Add to that the ENO's stumbling brass (especially the tuba in Act II of Siegfried), squawking cellos, and woodwinds of uncertain tunings, and the result is a decidedly roughhewn if legato Ring. This is especially true of Rhinegold, the weakest of these performances, in which the ENO's playing (but not the singing!) is simply unacceptable by today's standards.

Goodall gets almost all the big things right: the overall rhythm of a scene, an act, an opera; the sense of overwhelming inevitability that mounts throughout the Ring, its propulsive narrative power; "the mood and meaning," if you will. In these he shares much of the best of Knappertsbusch. And Goodall makes Wagner's leitmotifs speak perhaps more clearly and more pointedly than has any other conductor—it's clear that he knew this vast work intimately, and not merely as gorgeous symphonic music with vocal obbligato. Each motive—even some obscurities that still remain to be labeled, defined, and catalogued—speaks with a sure voice under Goodall's baton.

Goodall's mountain-slow pace reveals and makes plain certain figures and transitions in ways no one else has conjured from these scores. For instance, it seems that, among the 18 complete Rings on my shelves, only Goodall truly understands—and has made it possible for me to hear—each of the multiple harp parts in Act 3, Scene 1 of Twilight. In fact, more than the rest of the cycle, Twilight is Goodall's opera, the one in which everything he does works best (Siegfried is almost as good). If you want to buy only one installment of this Ring to test the Rhine's troubled waters, start at the end and work back.

Anyone's first complete Ring really must be sung in German, if only to know exactly what Wagner's intentions were. For that I recommend Solti, then Barenboim or Böhm, then Boulez or (in mono, from 1953) Krauss.

But make your second cycle Goodall's—more than any other, it contains more of what you can hear nowhere else, and with all of the qualifications listed here, I still recommend it very highly. And the great sound, sumptuous packaging, and generous notes and essays make it even more tempting. Goodall gets the essentials right, and the essentials are, by definition, the only things you can't do without.—Richard Lehnert