The Ring of the Nibelungen
Grosses Symphonieorchester / Hans Swarowsky
Weltbild Classics / Priory 703769, 14 discs
The thorny question of whether pots of money are necessary to make good records is succinctly answered by a galvanising stereo Ring that retails at around pounds 45 and was taped on a shoestring budget. You'll no doubt remember that Solti's celebrated Decca Ring (soon to be reissued in a fresh digital refurbishment) was a major LP event of the late 1950s to mid-1960s, but what about Hans Swarowsky's cycle from 1968? Collectors of Fratelli Fabbri's lavish productions might know of it, perhaps, as will American collectors who investigated Westminster LPs from the early 1970s (with natty sleeve designs, ie a crumbling cookie for Gotterdammerung).
The genesis of Swarowsky's Ring reaches back to the summer of 1968 when, during the Nuremberg recording sessions, the Soviets entered Prague and various Czech musicians who were involved (principally from the Czech Philharmonic) faced the prospect of not being able to return home. German colleagues offered to stand in whenever the borders opened, but in spite of these pressures and strictures, the resulting performance - achieved, together with a similarly zestful Lohengrin, in a mere month - is aflame with spontaneity.
Nadezda Kniplova was used by Karajan in Salzburg during the previous year, and proves a squally but impassioned Brunnhilde; Gerald McKee is a forceful Siegfried and Rolf Polke a commanding Wotan. Ruth Hesse sings Fricka, Fritz Uhl is Loge (both were old hands at Bayreuth), but what makes the set more or less indispensable is Swarowsky's vital conducting. True, the orchestra is thinner in tone than, say, the Vienna Philharmonic (being essentially a "scratch band", it would be), but low brass are both powerful and secure, rhythms forceful and climaxes expertly gauged. Try Rheingold's "Descent to Nibelheim", the First and Third Act Preludes to Die Walkure (there's not a better "Ride of the Valkyries" on disc), the Second and Third Act Preludes to Siegfried (the latter complete with climactic thunder-claps) or Hagen summoning the Vassals in the second act of Gotterdammerung.
With so little time to hand, singers, players and conductor opted to "go for broke" and the results send electric shock waves through a score that habitually suffers soggy rhythms and indulgent overstatement. Swarowsky's motto was that "the composer interprets himself, and don't you do anything to help him". He was a pupil of Schoenberg and Webern, and an acquaintance of Ravel, Bartok, Kafka, Kraus and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He was banned in Germany in 1936, reappeared again towards the end of the war (in Salzburg and Warsaw) and took over the Vienna Symphony a couple of years later. He had musical intelligence to spare and you hear it everywhere in this rigorously thought-through production. Don't expect sonic refinement (although the recording has impressive realism) or "glamorous" vocals, but the drama grabs you in a way that it doesn't with at least two full-price digital Rings that I can think of.
I'd urge all Wagnerians to give it a try - even if their shelves already creak with higher-priced alternatives. Newcomers, however, shouldn't hesitate for a moment: there's not a stereo Ring on the current market that generates more excitement or commands greater respect. Rob Cowan
There are two sides to Peter Warlock. There's the rollicking, ale-quaffing, wench-undressing extrovert of songs like "Roister Doister" and "Peter Warlock's Fancy". Then there's the haunted, sensitive introvert who wrote The Curlew - one of the finest English song-cycles (it's tempting to call it the English Winterreise). My preference is largely for the inward-looking Warlock. He's the true poet; creator of moods that linger, and strikingly inventive - as impressive in an economical miniature like The Frostbound Wood as in The Curlew. The other Warlock's bluff Hey-nonny-ing is best in very small quantities.
Still, the mix on this disc is well-planned. The Curlew rightly sets the scene; after that the jolly and serious styles alternate tellingly. And there are fascinating blends, as in My gostly fader - the hush of the confessional, the half-funny, half-touching struggle between the calls of this world and the next. On the whole I found baritone Christopher Maltman the most effective of the two singers, vocally and expressively. But tenor Adrian Thompson does more than justice to The Curlew, as do his musical partners, Philippa Davis (flute), Christine Pendrill (cor anglais) and the Duke Quartet.
Pianist John Constable is an adaptable accompanist in the other songs, and the recordings are well-balanced, the voices intimately positioned. At his best, Warlock was a master of English song. This disc offers an excellent opportunity to explore him thoroughly. Stephen Johnson
The Curlew; Peterisms; Saudades etc
The Duke Quartet
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