Siegfried launches Testament's first-ever release of the 1955 Bayreuth Ring Cycle that Decca recorded in stereo. Both Mike Ashman and the original producer Peter Andry offer booklet notes that fully account for the circumstances of these recordings and why it's taken more than half a century for them to appear. The cliché "better late than never" hardly could be more appropriate. Although numerous archival recordings admirably preserve the stellar "Neu Bayreuth" principals in Ring performances, Decca's engineering conveys a far more three-dimensional musical and theatrical experience. You get a realistic and vividly detailed stage/orchestra pit relationship, along with a remarkably wide dynamic range that does full justice to every aspect of Wagner's colorful orchestration, from the snarling, in-your-face brass to the soaring, luminous string writing throughout Act 3. The close-up perspective lends further intimacy to soft, chamber-like passages like the Forest Murmurs, where the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra's woodwind principals particularly shine.
Best of all, the cast is having a hot night. Wagner fans already know about the immense authority and larger-than-life presence that distinguish Hans Hotter's Wanderer, to say nothing of Gustav Neidlinger's classic Alberich and Josef Greindl's characterful Fafner. Ilse Hollweg's light, silvery Woodbird is a balm after hearing only men sing for roughly two hours, while Maria von Ilosvay sounds younger, more urgent, and less stately than your typical "earth mother" Erda contralto. Paul Kuen may not have been the most malevolent Mime around, but he truly sang rather than cackled the part, and he makes quite a tour-de-force out of the scene in Act 2 when he unwittingly confesses his evil designs on Siegfried.
Wolfgang Windgassen's justly acclaimed portrayal of the title role retains the freshness of his relatively familiar 1953 Bayreuth airchecks, but with added confidence and rhythmic accuracy. Rather than tiring, his voice opens up further by the time his Brünnhilde, Astrid Varnay, joins in for one of the most intense, involved, and impassioned final duets you'll ever hear. Joseph Keilberth's tempos are fast but never feel overly driven or uncomfortable, and he supports as well as leads his singers as if the orchestra were a character in the drama. He effects effortless tempo transitions and lavishes more care over accurate dynamic shadings and articulation than his Bayreuth colleague and rival Hans Knappertsbusch usually managed in the Ring operas.
However, I have one major gripe: Why four discs, when each of the three acts plays under 80 minutes and easily could have fit uninterrupted on three CDs? Who needs annoying "side breaks" when they were not necessary in the first place? That said, I look forward to the next three installments, as will anyone who invests in this important release.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com