Asher Fisch’s recordings of the complete Ring earned many critical accolades on their original release, not only for the fact that this was the first issue of the cycle in SACD sound but also for the quality of the performances.
This reissue, handsomely packaged in a very substantial booklet with a valuable essay by the always perceptive Mike Ashman, complete biographies of all the singers involved, and complete texts and translations, gives us a selection of excerpts from that cycle. Some sense of ‘bleeding chunks’ is inevitable but the choice of the passages is wide-ranging and extends well beyond the usual collection of expected highlights - although it includes all of these as well with the exception perhaps of the ‘forest murmurs’ from Siegfried and the descent into Nibelheim.
Fisch’s performance of the Rheingold prelude gets things off to an impressive start, with the orchestral playing secure and well-balanced; we hear the opening lines of Woglinde, rapidly faded out as the action begins. In the following excerpt from the end of the opening scene we hear the excellent balance between stage and orchestra, with a marvellous sense of depth and plenty of bloom of the voices of the superb trio of Rheintochter. This is the only section we get to hear of John Wegner’s firmly-voiced Alberich, and I am sorry that the production does not allow us to hear his “mocking laughter” after the theft of the gold as requested by Wagner in the score. We are however given a large part of the marvellous transition music which follows the scene.
We are given the whole of the final section of Rheingold, launched by the firm if rather uncharacterful Timothy deFore as Donner summoning the storm-clouds and leading to a stunning thunderclap. One wonders at the rather metallic sound of his hammer striking the rock - Solti did the same in his renowned recording - which surely is the wrong sort of effect. Andrew Brunsdon is a marvellously lyrical Froh as the rainbow bridge is revealed, and John Bröcheler is a heroic-sounding Wotan, totally devoid of any hint of woolliness, and with a ringing top F to crown his following monologue. Elizabeth Campbell sounds rather shrewish in her brief contribution here, but Christopher Doig is a full-voiced Loge with plenty of character and a welcome avoidance of Sprechstimme. The booklet reveals that the six harp parts plus a further player offstage that Wagner wrote here are ‘boiled down’ to a mere five players, but then that is not altogether unusual. The Rheintochter are perhaps a little too distant to make the best impact in their final lament, but better that than an unnaturally close balance. Audience applause at the end is faded out quickly.
Fisch delivers a blistering account of the stormy prelude to Walküre, only marred by what sounds like an unwritten cymbal clash - or is it a thunder sheet? - at the climax; whichever it is, Wagner’s music needs no such extraneous additions here. We hear Siegmund’s opening phrase, again quickly faded out, before we move to Stuart Skelton’s heartfelt delivery of the Spring song, taken thankfully at not too quick a speed. The conductor Hartmut Haenchen in his notes for his live Amsterdam recording of the Ring contends that the music here should be taken more rapidly than is usual nowadays, and says that Wagner did not wish the song to be treated as an independent aria but too speedy a traversal of the music surely renders the lyricism of the scene meaningless. Deborah Riedel is a marvellously womanly Sieglinde; it is hard to believe, as the booklet informs us, that at the time of the performances she was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually tragically kill her. The prelude to the Second Act, powerfully delivered, is unfortunately faded out at Wotan’s first words so we are denied the chance to hear Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde delivering her war-cry. Instead the first we hear of her is her brief recitative following Wotan’s monologue at the end of the second scene, a rather forlorn little section that makes little sense on its own although it is all we are given of her performance of Brünnhilde in this opera. We are also given the whole of the following scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, an odd choice for a selection of Ring highlights, which nevertheless gives us Riedel’s superb Sieglinde once again.
From the Third Act we have the expected highlights: a stirringly paced Walkürenritt and the closing scene from Wotan’s Farewell onwards. The Valkyries are a strongly voiced bunch of ladies, and the recording gives us the proper sense of distance for the offstage voices - in SACD they come unexpectedly from the rear speakers. Bröcheler moulds the lyrical music of the Farewell nicely, although again when he strikes his spear on the rock to summon Loge the sound is much more metallic than Wagner’s stage directions would imply.
We are given only two excerpts from Siegfried… The booklet tells us that Gary Rideout stepped into the production at the last minute; but he is very impressive in the Forging Song although he frequently distorts his vowel sounds, presumably in an attempt to gain the maximum audibility - and one gets the impression at times that this is a real battle for him. Richard Greager is an excellent Mime, much more than the usual character tenor with a real sense of evil and menace as he plots to poison his foster-son.
In the closing segment of the Love Duet we have our first proper encounter with Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde. ... She is a very womanly warrior maiden, but she has the required trill and when at the end of the passage she cuts loose in full heroic mould she suddenly comes into her own…. Although he manages to recover in time for the final duet section, he is overwhelmed both by his soprano and the orchestra.
From Götterdämmerung we are given the usual three excerpts, although the substantial opening segment runs from the very beginning of the dawn music through the whole of the succeeding duet into the following orchestral interlude known as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. Gasteen is superbly romantic here, but the role of Siegfried has now been taken over by Timothy Mussard…. It is left to Fisch and the orchestra to rescue matters with an impulsive and exciting reading of the orchestral interlude. They also acquit themselves with honour in Siegfried’s Funeral March.
Gasteen immediately rivets the attention as she begins her long Immolation scene, a clarion call to arms as she bids the vassals pile high logs for Siegfried’s funeral pyre. In the quieter central section she manages to scale back her voice to good effect. In the final section she conjures up a positive storm - her summons to the ravens to call Loge to Walhall is absolutely riveting. This is some of the best singing of a Wagnerian soprano role that we have had since the heyday of Birgit Nilsson…. Fisch does nothing to rein back the orchestral tempest that surrounds her…. Fisch gives us a stunning delivery of the long orchestral peroration.
Some photographs of the production in the booklet make one rather glad that one did not encounter the staging in the theatre or on DVD, but this is no matter in the context of an audio recording. The cast list gives us the complete roster of soloists for the production.
One is struck by the superlative quality of the orchestral playing throughout. The Adelaide orchestra is hardly an internationally renowned body of instrumentalists, but they are considerably more secure than the English National Opera players were for Goodall in their 1970s cycles - the live recording, assembled from a number of individual performances and rehearsals, does not display the fallibility of individual instrumentalists that was often only too evident in the theatre. In recent years, on the contrary, there has been a tendency for orchestras to sound just too comfortable and easy with Wagner’s scoring; the sense of sheer danger and vitality that was clearly regarded as an essential element of his sound by the composer can go missing, as was apparent in Barenboim’s otherwise superbly controlled series of performances in the Proms this year. Ironically Barenboim was Fisch’s first mentor and champion. It needs a conductor of real energy and vigour to inject the passion into a performance, and that is an attribute Fisch has in spades.