WHILE WE have already had some digital recordings of Wagner operas, Klaus Tennstedt's recent Angel disc with the Berlin Philharmonic (DS-37808) appears to be the first digital collection of orchestral excerpts. All its material is from "The Ring of the Nibelungs"--the familiar selections from each of the four music dramas.
The side layout is curious. Although it would have been simple enough to present the music in the order in which it occurs in the tetralogy, even reversing the sides doesn't quite achieve that. Side 1 opens with the "Ride of the Valkyries" and continues with the customary two pieces from "Goetterdaemmerung." Side 2 proceeds from the "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla," which concludes "Das Rheingold," through the "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried" to the "Magic Fire Music" which concludes the final act of "Die Walkuere," the act that begins, of course, with the "Ride."
Given a conductor of Tennstedt's exceptional competence and an orchestra that is unarguably one of the two or three finest in the world, the quality of the performances can almost be taken for granted. Only in the "Goetterdaemmerung" excerpts might one be a bit let down. The "Rhine Journey" (which does include the "Dawn" section but dispenses with Humperdinck's concert ending) is somewhat less animated than it might be, and what is labeled "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" turns out, disappointingly, to be the Funeral March alone.
The digital treatment is certainly an asset here, and neither exclusively nor even predominantly in the massive climaxes, which are strikingly clean but by no means shattering. What impressed me especially was the final section of the "Magic Fire Music," with its winds and glockenspiel.
I wonder if we are really aware of how much the flute, in particular, and other wind instruments are subject to distortion in recording. We have come to accept this (particularly in the upper register of the flute and oboe) as inevitable, and to make allowances for it automatically and unconsciously when we play records. The absence of the anticipated distortion in such passages is perhaps more thrilling than the thunderclap on the Rainbow Bridge.
RCA might well schedule for similar "point 5" treatment the disc of "Goetterdaemmerung" and "Meistersinger" excerpts under Reiner, and the uniquely stunning one of material from "Rheingold," "Walkuere," "Tristan" and "Tannhaeuser" conducted by Stokowski. Both collections (the latter with voices, including some now famous ones) have been circulating on Gold Seal, and don't sound at all bad, but the thought of what the "Point 5" treatment might bring out is dizzying.
Eurodisc's new complete "Rheingold" (set 301.137-445), the first installment in its Dresden "Ring" conducted by Marek Janowski, gets second billing here only because Philips is about to issue a complete "Ring" recorded live at Bayreuth under Pierre Boulez, and it seems advisable to postpone a detailed evaluation till the two can be compared. Listeners who did not care for Boulez's "Parsifal" on DG, however, may wish to explore Janowski's "Rheingold" now.
It is a handsome performance. Theo Adam is a powerful yet dignified Wotan; Siegmund Nimsgern as Alberich, Yvonne Minton as Fricka, Marita Mapier as Freia, Ortrun Wenkel as Erda, Peter Schreier as Loge, and other first-rate singers bring a high level of distinction to the project, and Janowski has the work convincingly in hand. Overall, it strikes me as sensible, cogent, and beautifully executed, rather than ablaze with excitement, but it may prove to wear better than some of the more whipped-up performances with their abundant special effects.
The sound (by Soundstream, evidently the American company's first venture in Eastern Europe) is very clean, spacious and well balanced, and the packaging and documentation are outstanding. Lionel Salter's new English translation of the text is a joy, and there are excellent reproductions of several of the famous Franz Stassen illustrations in the booklet and on the box.