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Bits and Pieces

This is an appreciation of Reginald Goodall's Ring Cycle, performed with soloists, orchestra and chorus of the English National Opera. As befits the subject, the article is very long, and is mainly aimed at Wagner lovers like me who have an interest in this wonderful recording. The article was prompted by my purchase of Chandos's excellent remastering of the original EMI recording. I use the English titles for the operas, as the performances were sung in English.


One weekend every year, at or around Easter, I honour a tradition which I started back in the early 90s. I let it be known that I am “not around”, turn the computer and the phone off, and sit down and listen to the four operas of the Ring cycle, starting on the Friday with The Rhinegold and finishing on the Monday with Twilight of the Gods. My enjoyment of this veritable feast of spiritual nourishment is heightened by plenty of bodily nourishment – I always cook a fresh turkey with all the trimmings and partake of a few fine wines and glasses of vintage port. Over the years I’ve got the meal down to a fine art – my first attempts were pretty disastrous! I’m sure that some will laugh and call this whole venture very sad indeed, but is it any more sad than arranging one’s social and family life around the football on Sky Sports? In any case, as I approach 50 I no longer have any qualms about being unsociable when I want to be.

For my humble little domestic Wagner festival I always choose the same recording – the one recorded live at performances by the English National Opera, conducted by Reginald Goodall, between 1973 and 1977. Why this particular recording, when there are other recordings available with far better sound, all-star casts and the world’s finest orchestras?

I was at the performances of The Valkyrie and Twilight of the Gods which were used for the recordings. I was a teenager at the time, still discovering the delights of Wagner’s music, and although memories of the actual performances have inevitably faded with time, I still remember being bowled over by them. It’s not surprising that I snapped up the recordings of these performances when EMI released them in the 1970s. I did see the ENO performances of The Rhinegold and Siegfried as well, but not the ones which were recorded. Neither performance was conducted by Goodall and in the case of The Rhinegold, I was only 11 years old so too young to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless I went for the Goodall versions of these operas too, for the sake of completeness and consistency.

Of course, that was over 30 years ago. I have seen the Ring live several times since then, including once at Bayreuth, and have heard many of the other recorded Ring cycles over the years. So even if nostalgia and sentimentality do play an understandable part, is it enough to justify sticking with an old and admittedly flawed recording to the exclusion of all others?

Part of my love for the Goodall set is that it is a live performance. It is undeniable that a well-produced studio recording like the Solti sounds, in some ways, “better” than it does from a cheap seat at the back of the opera house. Climaxes such as the thunderclap in The Rhinegold or the vassal scene in Act 2 of Twilight of the Gods are right up there in your face, and blow you away – also, of course, the playing and singing are flawless. On the other hand, of all operas a recording of the Ring needs a sense of “being there” and you don’t get that with a studio recording, however good it is. Other Wagner operas, such as Parsifal and Tristan, are far more static and so are more suited to a studio recording; but for a dynamic drama like the Ring, you need a sense that the operas are being performed in front of you. This isn’t so important for those who buy a Ring cycle and dip into it rather than playing it as a whole; but if, as I do, you regard this work as a complete piece rather than a series of highlights or set pieces, it is vital that you can get some sense of being at an actual performance.

That might suggest that it would be better to get the Ring on DVD. That may be the case for some, but not for me. I find that watching operas on the small screen actually emphasises the artificial nature of playing opera at home. I do not possess a high-end DVD player and cannot justify the cost of buying one, and almost all the productions available on DVD (the Levine/Met production being a notable exception) are “updated” or “relevant to modern times” or “irreverent” – in other words, rubbish perpetrated by producers with too much ego and too little understanding of Wagner’s work. So I prefer to listen to audio and imagine the stage action, which definitely does not turn the Rhinemaidens into crack whores or Mime’s cave into a tower block on a dodgy housing estate.

Back to the ENO recording, and the live atmosphere is conveyed just right. Yes, there is stage noise, but it is never an annoyance and often adds to the dramatic effect. A particularly good example of this is when Hagen’s vassals bang their spears on the ground to greet Gunther and Brünnhilde – this makes an already rousing scene even more exciting. The audience for the most part makes a positive contribution too. The gentle ripple of laughter which greets the toad in The Rhinegold adds to the effect of being there, as does the audience’s amusement when Mime sings “To kill you? Why do you say that? I merely plan to chop your head right off!” in Siegfried Act 2. You also want to join in the enthusiastic applause at the end of each act. Inevitably for a piece of this length, there are one or two loud coughers who should have been taken out and shot, along with the moron who yells “Bravi” the split second after the final chord of Twilight has finished. Generally, though, the audience is well-behaved and contributes in a beneficial way to the impression of being at the performances.

There are of course several live recordings available, so why this one? The first reason is the undoubted star of the show, Reginald Goodall. Perhaps “star” is the wrong word. Karajan, Solti, and Bernstein were star conductors – they were versatile enough that they had large repertoires, in much of which they excelled; they had the charisma, drive and ambition to get themselves noticed and desired by the world’s leading orchestras, and they were in no doubt about their value to the world of music. Goodall had none of these characteristics. Although he conducted various concerts and operas in his earlier years, in his later life his repertoire was pretty much limited to Bruckner and, of course, Wagner. He was a difficult man by all accounts, and probably did not help himself by declaring his support for the National Front. The latter was almost certainly a sign of his childish naivety rather than malice, and it is just as well that he lived in a time when such foolishness was more readily overlooked.

Goodall had a passion for and an understanding of Wagner’s music which few conductors in recent decades have equalled. For him every note was important – for example Mime’s whingeing or Siegfried’s business with the reed mattered to him just as much as the more beautiful and moving passages like Wotan’s Farewell or the Immolation. His approach to the Ring chimes with me as it is the same as mine. Now, before the accusations of arrogance come flying in, let me explain that I am talking as a listener rather than a musician. I am a complete musical incompetent and if put in front of an orchestra with a baton in my hand, I would soon get more lost than I do when trying to negotiate Prague’s traffic system. Obviously I prefer some parts of the Ring to others – who doesn’t? – but I see it as a whole work in which every bar matters, even if some of those bars are more pleasant to listen to than others. Goodall clearly loves every note and it is this which makes his interpretation so great. He takes an overall view of the Ring as one giant musical and dramatic structure, which he allows to unfold with an inevitability that sounds just right. Perhaps his greatest achievement is that you aren’t conscious of him at all. Solti’s Ring is exciting, and Karajan’s very beautiful, and when you listen to them you can’t help admiring the conductors for these qualities. With Goodall, it is Wagner whom you are admiring; rather than thinking “that was a fine interpretative point” or “he handles this bit well” you are thinking “this is wonderful music and I love it.”

Goodall has his detractors of course, and the main accusation against him is that his tempi are too slow. A look at the timings of his Ring compared to any other shows that yes, he does take considerably longer to unfold the score than his rivals. That is non-negotiable. But why is this a bad thing? Of course, we’ve all heard performances of works where a conductor simply seems to be trying to “out-slow” everyone else. There was certainly a trend for slow tempi in the 1980s, when conductors like Karajan, Tennstedt and Bernstein gave us epic-scale performances of composers like Mahler and Bruckner. But while these conductors were skilled enough to make this work to great effect, many lesser conductors tried to imitate this with a “Look, Mum, I’m the slowest!” approach and the result was usually a bore. The fact is that tempi per se are not that important when performing large scale works; what matters is how the various tempi relate to each other, and whether the conductor can make his tempi, whether slow or fast, work to the benefit of the music.

In Goodall’s case, I would say that if I listened to his performance now for the first time without having read reviews, seen the timings, or access to a clock, I honestly don’t think I would know that this was a slow performance. That is because, as I have stated above, he makes it all sound so right. The music, under his direction, is allowed to live and breathe, and the result is so involving that one is not conscious of time at all. I have heard performances with shorter timings which have seemed far slower than the Goodall, and others which may have been played at more conventional speeds but which have sounded ridiculously fast.

The reviews often single out two scenes where Goodall allows the tension to drop – namely, the two scenes with the Rhinemaidens. I don’t agree with regard to The Rhinegold, Scene 1, but will concede that the scene at the start of Act 3 of Twilight with Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens is the one part where my mind is most likely to wander. Even here I’m not sure the fault is entirely Goodall’s; as I’ve said I see the Ring as a whole and reject the idea that there are longueurs, but this is the one scene whose point I have never really understood, nice though it is. Perhaps Goodall felt the same?

I have said that Goodall sees this as an overall work rather than a series of highlights, but that does not mean that we don’t get a decent climax until halfway through Siegfried. Some conductors have taken the build-up approach to absurd lengths; Goodall is not one of them. The entry of the giants is thrilling, as are the anvils during the descent to Nibelheim.

I also don’t want to imply that Goodall is somehow a conductor for “real” Wagnerians, whereas others are not. That would be an insult to the great conductors who have brought this music to life over the years, and to listeners who have come to love this work through other interpretations. I am always enraged by the arrogance shown by some – I stress some – of the advocates of HIPs (historically informed or period instrument performances) who tell us that if we listen to Mozart or even Brahms played by a conventional symphony orchestra, we’re not doing it properly. I certainly do not wish to suggest that someone who doesn’t share my passion for Goodall’s Wagner isn’t a “proper” Wagnerian, and hope that my passionate advocacy of this great conductor does not imply this.

Let us move on to the orchestra. I am not going to pretend that under Goodall’s inspired direction, the English National Opera orchestra play like the Vienna Philharmonic. They don’t. They are very good, not just “very good considering”, but obviously can’t match the world’s top-flight orchestras. Thanks to several performances being recorded, fluffs and mistakes have mostly been edited out; Twilight is least successful in this respect, perhaps because of its greater length, but still the level of playing is of a very high standard. Goodall was fortunate that he was given plenty of rehearsal time, to the extent that he even had separate rehearsals with the timpani! One can’t imagine that happening now, but the thorough preparation paid off. The orchestra’s contribution is far more than just an accompaniment from the pit, as it so often is in smaller opera houses. They may lack the sheen, polish and sonority of top-flight international orchestras, but make up for this by playing every note with passion and meaning, thus reflecting Goodall’s approach. Rather like Goodall’s conducting, you don’t really notice the orchestra, but rather the music it is playing, and this is an extraordinary achievement. I will end this section by saying that when I finally got to see Siegfried at the ENO, Goodall was no longer conducting the cycles and it showed. I won’t name the conductor as he was a decent man who did a lot for music, but suffice it to say that the orchestral playing was a reminder of how well they played under Goodall.

Singers

This Ring was cast from strength, and what strength! Several of the Valkyries went on to sing Brünnhilde around the world, for example. There is nary a weak link, and although there are obviously equally good Wagnerian singers on other recorded sets, this cast holds its own against the best. I won’t go through all the singers, but some of them certainly deserve special mention. Derek Hammond-Stroud gives as good a portrayal of Alberich as I have heard anywhere. His transformation from bumbling buffoon to tyrant is superbly portrayed, and he captures the comic elements in his exchanges with Wotan and Mime in Siegfried beautifully. We fear Alberich but, as I believe we should, have some sympathy with him too. Gregory Dempsey’s Mime is less whiny than many, and that can only be a good thing – even for Wagner devotees, Mime is the one character who can really be a test of patience. Aage Haugland’s Hagen is dark and menacing – a little overdone in places, perhaps, but his Watch in Twilight Act 1 is one of the most evil I have heard. Margaret Curphey’s Sieglinde is as good as anybody’s and Emile Belcourt gives us a smoothly sung and suitably roguish Loge, showing that you don’t have to resort to hamming or Sprechstimme to give this part character.

Rita Hunter’s Brünnhilde may not efface memories of Nilsson for those who grew up with that phenomenal singer, but in many ways she is a singer in the same tradition. Hunter has less metal in her voice, but this has the advantage of making her all the more human, especially in her pleadings with Wotan in Valkyrie Act 3. You feel Brünnhilde’s bewilderment, then rage, as she is overtaken by events in Twilight Act 2, and her top notes in the Immolation are as solid and clean as you could ask for. Her habit of singing “Surgfried” instead of Siegfried may annoy some – personally I find it quite endearing!

Alberto Remedios is that rarest of beasts, a Heldentenor who makes a nice sound. Had Jon Vickers ever sung Siegfried, I imagine that he would have led the field by a long way, but in his absence Remedios emerges as arguably the most fresh-voiced and youthful-sounding, yet heroic and powerful, Siegfried in the last few decades. His Siegmund is very fine too, but he has competition there from the likes of Domingo (the Spaniard’s gorgeous singing certainly outweighs any complaints about his German). As Siegfried, Remedios has no competition at all, even though his two top Cs in Twilight are so off as to be funny.

I have left the best until last, as it should be, and now we come to Norman Bailey’s Wotan. Bailey is the finest Wotan I have heard, pure and simple. Part of this is the sheer beauty and power of his voice – even at the end of Wotan’s Farewell he sounds as though he could do it all over again. Yet there is far more to his performance than stamina and nice noises – he lives and breathes the role in a way that involves you in Wotan’s problems and emotions whether you are listening for the first or 500th time. Of course there have been many great Wotans over the years – Hans Hotter and John Tomlinson to name but two – but for me Bailey is unsurpassed. In Rhinegold he sings nobly, as a god should, yet still conveys the arrogance and deceitfulness which is to be his downfall in the end, particularly when he mockingly asks the giants what use the beautiful Freia could possibly be to them. His monologues in Valkyrie Act 2 are spellbinding in their intensity, and despite Wotan’s dodgy dealings in Rhinegold we share his anguish at not being to protect his son. He is resplendent in the scene as the Wanderer with Mime in Siegfried, which is some of the most gorgeous music Wagner ever wrote. I have to admit that after the Wanderer walks off with his spear in splinters in Act 3, I find myself cursing Wagner for not giving Norman Bailey a large role in Twilight of the Gods!

Opera in English

The most contentious point for many is that this Ring Cycle is sung in English. Opera in English is a whole subject for discussion in itself, and as this article is approaching Wagnerian length already, let me take a very simplistic approach. Some operas sound awful when sung in English (Puccini, Verdi); others are improved for English speakers not familiar with the original language (some of the 20th century repertoire, such as Shostakovich’s The Nose); and some can work in English provided the translation is decent.

The Twilight of the Gods libretto contains Bernard Levin’s excellent essay in which he praises Andrew Porter’s translation. And quite right that he does! Before Porter, the singing translations for the Ring were appalling – stuffed with thees and thous and other idiocies which could well put the novice off opera for life. Porter achieved the near-impossible, in that not only does his translation use modern English, but retains the sound and rhythm (including the alliterations of which Wagner was so fond) of the original German while also keeping its meaning. There are no extra or lost syllables (that I have noticed) and it all sounds so natural that it is easy to forget that this isn’t the original libretto. And if this weren’t enough, Porter avoids words which sound plummy and affected when sung on certain notes – the sort of thing that lends credence to the idea that the Dream of Gerontius should be sung in any language other than English. Credit is due for this one to the singers too, of course. Porter did have to make a few concessions to keep names in their original places, for example “embraces Siegmund Sieglinde as well?” but this hardly a major concern.

I do know the Ring reasonably well in German (though not as well as the other Wagner operas) so having it in English is not, for me, an absolute must – but the experience of hearing it in my native language adds to my involvement in the performance. Not surprisingly, the parts which benefit the most from being in English are the “funny” bits; the scenes with Mime being the most obvious example.

This being the case, what on earth possessed ENO to drop this in the early 2000s for a new translation which has all the poetry of a lump of lard? Change for the sake of change at its absolute worst!

The EMI Recording

EMI have rightly incurred the wrath of music-lovers for the cavalier way they treat their catalogue. That they have, in their archives, a huge wealth of great recordings by many of the finest musicians of several generations is of no interest to the accountants who now run the show. Ruthless and inexplicable deletions have been made, presumably because these accountants don’t understand that you can’t apply the same criteria to classical sales as you do to ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow pop. In fairness, EMI are not the only culprits and it appears that some of their fine catalogue has been re-released. But whatever one thinks about EMI, it is undeniable that their recordings are consistently among the most natural and realistic which have ever been produced. And so it is here, even when we don’t allow for the limitations of a live recording.

Siegfried was the first to come out in 1974. Recorded at Sadler’s Wells, the former home of the Sadler’s Wells company (which became ENO) the sound is probably the least good of the four operas, in that it has that “boxiness” which affects many old recordings. You hear everything clearly enough and there’s plenty of excitement when the brass let rip, but of the four nights, this is your least good seat in the house. The Rhinegold followed in 1975 and the sound was much better. There is more space around voices and orchestra and a greater dynamic range. The thunderclap is plenty loud enough, although it probably will sound a bit tame to those used to the Solti recording (don’t they all?). The Valkyrie followed in 1976 and this was also very good, sonically – there is a transparent quality to the recording which allows for detail and the voices, particularly Norman Bailey’s, are extremely well captured. Climaxes are accommodated without congestion, even the huge climax in Act 3 at the point of Wotan’s arrival when all eight Valkyries sing beltissimo and all hell breaks loose in the orchestra, not least a thunderous bass drum. The offstage fight in Act 2 is also very realistic in that on any decent pair of speakers, it really sounds as if Siegmund and Hunding are way above the stage.

Twilight of the Gods (1978) is in some ways the best and also the most frustrating recording. Certainly the clarity of sound here, especially that of the singers, can’t be faulted, and the chorus is captured to thrilling effect in the vassal scene. The problem is one of balance – there are times when a mezzo forte passage on the double basses is louder than the brass playing at full pelt. If my memory after all these years is still accurate, this is the only opera in which the brass were in the boxes rather than in the pit, and it may be that because the unions got bolshie and caused some disruption, EMI didn’t get enough time to get the balance absolutely right. This doesn’t spoil it – you still hear the brass clearly enough – but it does take a bit of getting used to.

My first copies of the Goodall Ring were on cassette tape – my audio medium at the time – and I played the tapes to death. Literally. Some of the tapes were long-play tapes and they exhibited a number of the mechanical problems that dogged the cassette medium. There was plenty of tape hiss, wow and flutter, tapes stopping half way through and a couple of times, the tape wrapping itself round the playing mechanism. Fortunately, CDs came along and all that went away, and I have had the EMI discs since the early 90s (just before I started my annual Ring).

As I write this, in February 2012, I have just taken delivery of the Chandos set of the Goodall Ring, which has been digitally remastered to much acclaim. I had always been curious as to what it would sound like, but my main reason for the purchase was that I had noticed some alarming scratches on one of the Valkyrie discs. It still plays, but the dread thought occurred to me: What if one of the discs became unplayable for one reason or another, thus ruining the whole set of 16 discs, and I couldn’t replace it? Of course, Chandos are the good guys among recording companies: they are loyal to their catalogue and the Goodall Ring is in safe hands. But suppose I waited and, God forbid, financial disaster struck this wonderful company? Fortified by panic and a few Pilsners, I ordered the Chandos set just to be on the safe side.

The Chandos remastering

I’ll admit that on first hearing these discs, I wasn’t sure about the remastering. There is much more space around the voices so that you can close your eyes and imagine that the singer is actually there on stage in front of you. There is more bloom on the strings, and orchestral detail is a lot clearer. After several hundred playings I thought I knew every detail of these performances, but with the new set I found myself discovering new things – a few notes on the clarinet here, an underlying cello passage there. The orchestral sound is more relaxed, and given a wider and more natural soundstage, which is probably closer to what it sounded like in the opera house. The remasterings go a long way to opening up the boxy sound of Siegfried and correcting the orchestral balance problems in Twilight of the Gods. So how could I possibly have had reservations?

Part of the answer is that the Chandos sound is very noticeably different to the original EMI sound which I’ve lived with for over 30 years. It should be fairly obvious from what I’ve written that when it comes to listening to the Ring on disc, I like to stick with what I know and love. So a radically altered soundstage did rather throw me when I embarked upon listening to the new set. The other factor is that at first I wondered if the remastered sound was just too good. I know how daft that sounds, so I will try to explain.

Listeners of over a certain age started out on the journey through music well before we had digital recordings and CDs. Many of us will have fond memories of taped radio broadcasts to which we were very attached and wouldn’t have given up for the world, even though the sound may have been poor and we missed a bit when turning over the tape. The limitations of the recordings somehow added to the thrill of having captured a special event. Now the EMI Ring recording, as I have said, is generally very good by standards past and present, but it is by no means perfect. I came to accept the sound for what it is and became very fond of it, warts and all, because in a way the occasional rough acoustic or wonky balance was a reminder of how lucky we are to have the recording at all.

Some will understand what I am trying to say, others may think it absurdly mawkish, but the main thing is that it didn’t take me very far into the Chandos version to realise that this is the set which will be used for my annual Wagner festival and at other times when I want to hear the operas. I certainly won’t be getting rid of the EMI version, partly for sentimental reasons and partly as I may well decide to give it the occasional airing, but the Chandos sound is the clear winner here and will for the most part allow the EMI to enjoy a well-deserved retirement after many years of good service. I have to say that I can’t wait until next Easter, and I can almost taste the turkey already!

It is also worth mentioning that the packaging and documentation for the Chandos is superb; this really looks and feels like a Ring set and that is very welcome in the days when CD packaging is often slimmed down to save money. There are new articles, pictures of all the cast and the artwork is taken from the production. Cue points and “side breaks” are exactly the same as for the EMI set and the latter is especially welcome for those of us who have come to know exactly when to leap up and change the discs.

I have said more than enough, but I can’t leave without offering my thanks where it is due – sadly in a number of cases, these thanks will have to be posthumous. I thank Reginald Goodall, and the soloists, orchestra and chorus of the English National Opera for a truly great performance of Wagner’s masterpiece. I thank EMI for having the foresight to record this event. And I thank Chandos for keeping the recording alive and for performing wonders with the sound. As Hagen’s vassals perhaps should sing:

Glad times have come,
come to our Rhine,
when Chandos, great Chandos
make CDs so fine!