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 Favourites, Richard Wagner

Richard WagnerMore than perhaps any of these selections of favourite recordings that I've undertaken, I've been somewhat daunted by the sheer number of outstanding versions available, but after many hours of deliberation, I hope I've at least done partial justice to the enormous legacy of fine Wagnerian singers and conductors to have been preserved on disc.

I've limited myself to original-language recordings (so apologies to fans of Reginald Goodall's English-language Ring cycle, for example). Perhaps inevitably, productions from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (the theatre built by Wagner specifically dedicated to performing his own works) feature extremely heavily, particularly in my DVD choices, and a few names do crop up quite often, but I have tried my best to include a spread of recordings from classic to modern.

Operas

I admit to being somewhat biased when it comes to this 1990 production from the Metropolitan Opera, as it was my very first Ring purchase on VHS back when I was a youngster, and indeed was my introduction to the music of Wagner. James Levine conducts a fine cast including Siegfried Jerusalem, Hildegard Behrens, James Morris, and Christa Ludwig in a traditional production with dragons, toads, and a splendid rainbow bridge all present and correct. Wotan's Farewell from the end of Die Walküre is particularly touching, and Jessye Norman is magnificent as Sieglinde (just listen to her cry of "O hehrstes Wunder!" in Act Three of Walküre!)

Available Format: 7 DVD Videos

Patrice Chéreau's Marxist-tinged, Industrial Revolution-set production was by no means greeted with universal enthusiasm when it made its debut at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival, nor indeed was the conducting of Pierre Boulez, with complaints from the orchestra regarding some of his speeds and other musical requests. By the time the production was committed to video in 1980, however, it was hailed as a triumph, and set the standard for years to come. Gwyneth Jones is a commanding presence as Brünnhilde, and Donald McIntyre brings a sympathetic note to his portrayal of Wotan.

Available Format: 8 DVD Videos

Also available as an audio download

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

For me the highlight of Daniel Barenboim's 1992 Bayreuth cycle is the matchless singing of John Tomlinson as Wotan, coupled with a radiant Brünnhilde from Anne Evans. Siegfried Jerusalem is movingly tender as Siegfried, and Philip Kang as Hagen is menacingly unsettling; his summoning of the vassals in Act Two of Götterdämmerung is thrilling indeed, with the gentlemen of the Bayreuth chorus sounding fantastic. Harry Kupfer's production, with plentiful use of lasers, will not please everyone, but I think it's full of stunningly hypnotic imagery that blends beautifully with Wagner's music.

Available Format: 7 DVD Videos

Also available on Blu-ray

Available Format: 4 Blu-rays

Also available on CD

Available Format: 14 CDs

Recorded at Bayreuth in 1955, this triumphant cycle conducted by Joseph Keilberth now lays claim to be the first stereo Ring, and features Hans Hotter as Wotan, Ramón Vinay as Siegmund, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, and Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried. There were two cycles at Bayreuth that year, and although some may prefer Martha Mödl's searing Brünnhilde from the second cycle (parts of which are also available on the Testament label), this first cycle features Astrid Varnay in a fearless, majestic performance, not least in the closing Immolation Scene.

Available Format: 14 CDs

Christian Thielemann must surely be counted amongst the finest current Wagner conductors, and this 2008 live Rheingold from Bayreuth shows why. It's paced perfectly, and he draws some fantastic sounds from the orchestra (not least from the splendidly warm Wagner tubas at the start of Scene Two). The cast is impeccable, led by Albert Dohmen as Wotan, Andrew Shore as Alberich, Michelle Breedt as Fricka, and Arnold Bezuyen as Loge.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

If you don't mind the odd sound effect (mainly a bit of added thunder here and there), then I recommend this propulsive, driven account conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (the opening storm is ferocious stuff). Gré Brouwenstijn and Jon Vickers are wonderful as the doomed twins, with both of them treating us to some incredibly ravishing singing in Act One, and Rita Gorr as Fricka is an impressively authoritative foil to George London's expressive Wotan. The London Symphony Orchestra offer superb playing throughout.

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Stephen Gould is an heroic Siegfried in this outstanding recording conducted by Marek Janowski, with Christian Elsner a highly characterful, scheming Mime, and Tomasz Konieczny suitably world-weary as the Wanderer. The Forest Murmurs scene in Act Two is charmingly evocative (including a robust solo from the principal horn of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin), and Anna Larsson is wonderful as Erda, while Matti Salminen as Fafner sounds genuinely irritated to have been woken from his slumber! The closing duet is incandescent, assisted in no small part by the heavenly singing of Violeta Urmana as Brünnhilde.

Available Formats: 3 SACDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

This is in no way intended as damning with faint praise when I say that the main draw of this set conducted by Herbert von Karajan is the majesty and opulence of the performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker: never has the very opening sounded so seductively luxurious. Helge Brilioth is heartbreaking in Siegfried's death scene, and Helga Dernesch offers a gritty but passionate Brünnhilde. There's also excellent support from Karl Ridderbusch as Hagen, Gundula Janowitz as Gutrune, and Christa Ludwig as Waltraute.

Available Formats: 4 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

One of my trickiest choices, with many splendid recordings available (not least several by Hans Knappertsbusch), but in the end I opted for this 1970 Bayreuth recording under Pierre Boulez. Like his Ring cycle I discussed earlier, Boulez refuses to wallow, but there's no lack of depth or profundity. He is aided by some fine singers, including James King as Parsifal, Gwyneth Jones as Kundry, Thomas Stewart as Amfortas, and Donald McIntyre as Klingsor. A fabulous, luminous recording of Wagner's final opera.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Jonas Kaufmann simply owns the role of Parsifal in this 2013 performance from the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Daniele Gatti: just listen to his cry of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” and you'll hear the intensity that he brings to the part. It's by no means a one-man show, however: René Pape as Gurnemanz, Peter Mattei as Amfortas, and Katarina Dalayman as Kundry add to as about an ideal a cast as one could hope for, and François Girard’s striking production covers the stage with blood.

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos

Even with incredibly strong competition, to say the least, from Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber (see my boxed set choices below), this 1954 Tristan conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler can easily lay claim to be top of the pile, with unforgettable performances by Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde and Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan, and stellar support from a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Kurwenal.

Available Formats: 4 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Considering its age, the recorded sound as heard in the 2001 remastering of Furtwängler's recording above is pretty good indeed, but if you're after a set in modern sound then I would suggest this recording with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier in the two lead roles (the latter's radiant Liebestod is quite wonderful). Daniel Barenboim draws every last ounce of excitement out of the brass section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and Marjana Lipovšek as Brangäne, Matti Salminen as King Mark, and Falk Struckmann as Kurwenal complete a magnificent cast.

Available Format: 4 CDs

One of the leading Isoldes of today, Nina Stemme, is stunning in this production from Glyndebourne conducted by Jirí Belohlávek. Robert Gambill manages the tough tessitura of Tristan without a hint of strain, and there are superb turns from René Pape as King Mark, Katarina Karnéus as Brangäne, and Bo Skovhus as Kurwenal.

Available Format: 3 DVD Videos

Vladimir Jurowski oversees this fantastic 2011 Glyndebourne performance. Director David McVicar's thoughtful production ensures that none of the majesty or grandeur of the music is lost in this relatively small house, and Gerald Finley brings great character to the role of Hans Sachs. The Act Three quintet (Selig, wie die Sonne), is just beautiful.

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos

Claudio Abbado conducts an ethereally beautiful reading: the sound of the Wiener Philharmoniker strings at the very opening is just exquisite, and this is matched by some of the most beautiful singing I've ever heard from Cheryl Studer in the role of Elsa (Einsam in trüben Tagen especially). Siegfried Jerusalem brings a mysterious warmth to his singing as Lohengrin, particularly in his narration, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten. Waltraud Meier sings Ortrud like nobody else: she despatches the punishingly high writing during the Act Two curse with terrifying ease.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Cheryl Studer also sings the role of Elsa in this 1990 Bayreuth production, staged by none other than noted film director Werner Herzog. The somewhat psychedelic first appearance of Paul Frey as Lohengrin aside (with pulsating green lighting effects), it's a fairly traditional production, well-conducted by Peter Schneider and with much fine singing on display, not least from the chorus in Act Three (Heil König Heinrich!).

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos

A live Bayreuth recording from 1961, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. According to critics, the opening night of this run apparently suffered from cast members with colds, but by the time of this third performance, everyone was on top form, not least Wolfgang Windgassen as Tannhäuser, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth, and Grace Bumbry as Venus.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

I must admit I was surprised when I discovered that Colin Davis had conducted at Bayreuth, but this filmed version of Götz Friedrich’s 1978 production won me over instantly, mainly thanks to the astonishingly impressive achievement of Gwyneth Jones, who sings not only Elisabeth but Venus as well. It's a fascinating concept that for me is completely convincing, and she is aided by sterling support from Spas Wenkoff in the title role, Hans Sotin as Hermann, and Bernd Weikl as Wolfram. The celebrated Entry of the Guests from Act Two is great stuff, with thrilling singing from the chorus.

Available Format: DVD Video

Chained to his ship at the end of Harry Kupfer's 1985 Bayreuth production, Simon Estes is genuinely unsettling (in a good way!) as the Dutchman, aided in no small measure by the energetic conducting of Woldemar Nelsson, and vocal support from Lisbeth Balslev as Elsa and one of my favourite Wagnerian basses, Matti Salminen, as Daland.

Available Format: DVD Video

A collection of Wagner's three early operas, all from the Bayerischen Staatsoper conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The highlight for me is Rienzi, with René Kollo in the title role, Cheryl Studer as Irene, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Steffano, but Sawallisch also makes the most persuasive case possible for the earlier pair of operas, with Hermann Prey sounding wonderful as Friedrich in Das Liebesverbot, and a starry cast for Die Feen including Linda Esther Gray, June Anderson, Kurt Moll, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, and Cheryl Studer.

Available Formats: 9 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Overtures and other Works

If you're just looking for a collection of overtures, then this 2-CD set is ideal, including the overtures to Tannhäuser, Der fliegende Holländer, Acts One and Three of Lohengrin, Rienzi, and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, (all with Karl Böhm conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker), Rafael Kubelik and the Berliner Philharmoniker in Siegfried-Idyll and the Prelude to Act One of Die Meistersinger, and a few other bits and pieces such as the relatively obscure Faust Overture.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

A fascinating exploration of some of Wagner's non-operatic music, including the Wesendonck-Lieder (Christa Ludwig in an orchestral version conducted by Otto Klemperer, as well as Jessye Norman accompanied by Irwin Gage at the piano), and also several works for male chorus such as Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, An Webers Grabe, and Der Tag erscheint, little-known orchestral works such as Christoph Columbus, Kaisermarsch, and Huldigungsmarsch, works for solo piano, and other Lieder.

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

A 2-CD set of some of Wagner's solo piano music from Welsh virtuoso Llŷr Williams. Brief pieces such as the Zürich Waltzes and a Song without Words are set alongside more substantial works including the Sonata for the Book of Mrs M.W. and Albumblatt for Mrs Betty Schott. The set also contains operatic transcriptions made by Franz Liszt and Glenn Gould (the latter of which involve Williams overdubbing himself with a second piano part!), as well as Williams's own transcription of three scenes from Parsifal.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Recital Discs

A tour de force from one of today's foremost Wagnerian tenors, including a tantalising glimpse of Siegfried, a role that Kaufmann has not yet performed on stage. There's such a range of colours on display here, including a heroic, baritonal ring to his Siegmund and a tender, almost bel canto quality to his delivery of the narration from Lohengrin and excerpts from Rienzi and Tannhäuser. He also includes the five Wesendonck-Lieder, usually the province of sopranos, but these songs fit Kaufmann's voice perfectly, with superb support from the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin under Donald Runnicles.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

A fine collection from bass René Pape, including a stirring account of Wotan's Farewell from Act Three of Die Walküre, as well as extracts from Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, and Parsifal, concluding with a spellbinding performance of O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser. Pape is accompanied by experienced Wagnerian Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Boxed Sets

If you were concerned that I had completely left out Karl Böhm from my choices above, then fear not: this 33-CD box of performances from the Bayreuth Festival includes Böhm's complete 1967 Ring with Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Theo Adam, and Martha Mödl as Waltraute, as well as Böhm's stunning 1966 Tristan und Isolde, again with Nilsson and Windgassen. The set also contains Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Tannhäuser, Der fliegende Holländer, and Lohengrin, as well as a Parsifal from James Levine with Peter Hofmann in the title role and Waltraud Meier as Kundry.

Available Formats: 33 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Again, before the cries of “How could you not include the Solti Ring?” erupt, it's contained in this set of Georg Solti's complete Wagner recordings. His groundbreaking Ring with the Wiener Philharmoniker, recorded between 1958 and 1965, hardly needs any introduction from me, and is still regarded by many people as the one to own. As well as this, there's also a marvellous Meistersinger with Norman Bailey as Hans Sachs, Bernd Weikl as Beckmesser, and René Kollo as Walther von Stolzing, and a Lohengrin with Plácido Domingo, amongst many other fine recordings.

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC