Rhine Gold Lurks in Old Grooves, Even if No One Is Listening

By John W. Lambert
EMI's "Singers on the Green Hill"
EMI’s “Singers on the Green Hill”

Home from experiencing San Francisco’s new American Ring, the old goats are quickly culled from the operatic sheep. Goats include those who, after 17 hours or so of live Wagner, are compelled to revisit all the other Ring performances they have on DVDs, CDs, records, tape…. The sheep, meanwhile, have had quite enough, thank you – till the next live production. The shrinks might call this goat behavior obsessive compulsive. Most likely, the sheep are simply exhausted.

Library of Congress

It’s a given that we tend to think of golden ages as being in the past. But when it comes to recordings and the ready availability thereof, we’ve never been in a better position than now. Think about it. Anyone with a computer can call up acoustic recordings from the nation’s collection at the Library of Congress – there are said to be over 10,000 from which to choose, with lots more to come. And with that same computer, one can search worldwide for specific recordings. It’s never been quicker or easier to find long-missing items to complete various collections. Like collections of early recordings of the music of Richard Wagner, for instance, useful for prolonging the musical impact of that San Francisco Ring. So if one cares….

Marston’s Mahler Compilation

One of the great compilations of important historic material to appear in the new millennium is Ward Marston’s 3-CD set Mahler’s Decade in Vienna, which offers “Singers of the Court Opera, 1897-1907” (Marston 53004-2). None of the records is accompanied by Gustav Mahler, of course, but all involve singers who worked with him, and the discs were in large measure made contemporaneously with performances by these artists in Vienna. The collection allows us an opportunity to eavesdrop, as it were, on singers and the state of singing during one of the most hallowed – and revolutionary – eras in all of opera.

Marston includes sixteen Wagner selections, of which four are from the Ring operas. There are three selections from Das Rheingold: in an amazing display of ensemble singing from 1904, Jenny Pohlner, Elise Elizza, and Hermine Kittel sing the Rhinemaidens’ trio, starting at “Wallala!…Schäme dich, Albe…” (omitting Alberich’s lines); Alexander Haydter essays Alberich’s Curse, “Bin ich nun frei?”; and Theodor Bertram delivers Wotan’s monologue “Abendlich strahlt” upon the gods’ entrance to Valhalla, Then from Act I of Siegfried, Hans Breuer sings Mime’s whining “Das ist nun der Liebe…Als züllendes Kind,” displaying far more bel canto style that one might have imagined.

All are with piano accompaniment, but these items certainly permit the curious listener to hear artists, now largely forgotten, who were born before Wagner passed away – and who had the benefit of growing up while memories of performances supervised by the composer were still vivid. Marston’s set is perhaps even more valuable for its non-Ring Wagner cuts, which include bits from Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and one of the Wesendonck songs (“Träume”). Marston closes his survey with an appearance by the oldest and perhaps most fabled of all the artists in the collection, one of Mahler’s regular Court Opera guest artists, the great Lilli Lehmann (b.1848), in a 1907 “Liebestod,” unpublished on 78s, that was sourced from the Yale Collection of Historical Recordings.

EMI’s La Scala Sets

Although EMI has reissued many recordings from La Scala, most notably in two 3-CD sets ostensibly spanning the period 1878-1946 (ZDMC 7 64860 2 and ZDMC 7 64864 2) – the recordings representing those earliest years are understandably from a good deal later in the singers’ careers – there is no salute to Arturo Toscanini‘s earliest operatic work that compares with Marston’s Mahler tribute. Alas, there’s precious little Wagner in the first volume of EMI’s Scala set – two cuts from Lohengrin and one from Tristan und Isolde – and none in the second volume, but that said these items certainly suggest that great performances in those early years were not limited to Germany.

The Record of Singing

If these sets are enough to prompt additional interest in early records of Wagner, several other remarkable collections are worthy of note. The Record of Singing, originally issued in four large LP sets with the fifth volume on CD, is a good place to start – this collection ultimately spanned pretty much the entire history of recorded sound up to 2007 (albeit with considerably narrower focus as the series drew to a close). There’s a lot of Wagner in The Record of Singing, but of course it’s not exclusively Wagner. The first two volumes of the LP version (through 1925) are particularly relevant to this discussion, but readers who don’t already have them may want them all, so here are the catalog numbers:

  • Vol. I: EMI RLS 724 (12 records, 1899-1919), reissued as A Record of Singers with one substitution as EMI RLS 7705 & 7706 (6 records each, 1899-1919 & 1901-16) plus a supplement EMI HLM 7264 (1 record, 1902-12);
  • Vol. II: EMI RLS 743 (13 records, 1914-25);
  • Vol. III: EMI EX 2901693 (13 records, 1926-39), reissued on Testament SBT 1032 (10 CDs);
  • Vol. IV: Seraphim IH-6150 (8 records, 1939 to the End of the 78 Era – N.B.), also on EMI CHS 7 69741 2 (7 CDs); &
  • Vol. V: EMI 2289492 (10 CDs, “From the LP to the digital era: 1953-2007”).

(Note: Bear in mind that the 78 era ended later in the UK than in the US….)

In The Record of Singing, Wagnerian artists performing excerpts from Ring in the 78 era include Hans Hermann Nissen, Ellen Gulbranson, Katharine Fleischer-Edel, Alfred von Bary, Anton Van Rooy, Riccardo Martin, Gertrude Kappel, Thila Plaichinger and Jacques Urlus (in part of the Siegfried finale), and Nanny Larsen-Todsen.

Other Bayreuth Recordings

Larsen-Todsen sang Isolde under Toscanini in Bayreuth in 1928 – a substantially cut recording, conducted by Karl Elmendorff, was issued by Columbia and then reissued by Naxos (8.110200-02). Nissen was Toscanini’s choice for the role of Hans Sachs at Salzburg in 1936 and 1937 – a recording of one of the 1937 performances of Die Meistersinger was published on CD by Andante (AND3040 – 4 CDs – out of print).

Sänger auf dem grünen Hügel

Beyond this, there are some splendid sets devoted exclusively to bits and pieces of Wagner, sometimes called (affectionately, of course) “bleeding hunks.” The best place to start is Sänger auf dem grünen Hügel, a massive album (10 LPs), roughly half of which is from acoustic (pre-1926) sources; this set, in which “Green Hill” refers to Bayreuth, and which was issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the Bayreuth Festival, in 1976, remains the most comprehensive collection of the earliest recordings, featuring virtually all the important Wagner artists who made records from 1901-51 – and many less-well-known vocalists, too.

Wagner on Record

A collection on EMI’s “HMV Treasury” series called Wagner on Record further fleshes out the available recordings starting with the dawn of the electrical era. In EMI RLS 7711 (7 LPs, 1926-42), there are some overlaps but there’s enough new material to oblige rabid collectors to obtain it. As elsewhere, the set includes many of the great artists of that time with selections largely grouped by opera; there are several cuts from Rheingold and then two sides each devoted to the other Ring operas.

Les Introuvables Du Chant Wagnérien

Then there is EMI’s French set of excerpts Les Introuvables Du Chant Wagnérien (EMI 2902123, 6 LPs, 1927-48, reissued on 4 CDs as EMI 64008); some of these excerpts are actually in French (and one is in Italian), but most are in German. Half of the sides are devoted to the Ring, and half of those sides consist of a composite recording of Act II of Walküre, mostly with Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior, Emanuel List, Marta Fuchs, Margarete Klose, and Hans Hotter, and mostly conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler. (Amazon lists the contents here.)

Mapleson & More

Three other sets merit special mention. The earliest is the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives’ release of surviving playable Mapleson cylinders, recorded at the Metropolitan Opera House (R&H-100, 6 LPs, 1900-04). These historically important recordings preserve fragments, mostly, of live performances by artists whose names are (in some cases) the stuff of legends, but listening to most to them demands considerable patience. There’s lots of Wagner therein – fully a third of the set, including part of the “Kaisermarsch,” most likely conducted by Felix Mottl, who helped Hans Richter prepare the first performances of the Ring in Bayreuth and who conducted Tristan there in 1886. Half of those four sides consist of Ring excerpts involving Lillian Nordica, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Anton Van Rooy, Johanna Gadski, David Bispham, and Jean De Reszke with conductors Alfred Hertz and Walter Damrosch.

The Potted Ring

It is worth remembering that Wagner is long and that collectors had to await the development of long-playing records before complete recordings of most of the Wagner operas became available. That doesn’t mean that there were no attempts to document large portions of the operas, although the results often involved different singers, conductors, and orchestras, sometimes quite literally from side to side. One such example are recordings from 1927-32 made by HMV and reissued by Pearl (7 CDs, GEMM 9137). This “Potted Ring” features some remarkable singers in their most noteworthy prime – among them Frida Leider, Göta Ljungberg, Florence Austral, Maria Olszewska, Walter Widdop, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, and Ivar Andrésen, with conductors including Leo Blech, Albert Coates, Robert Heger, and John Barbirolli. Here again, no serious collector of Wagner recordings can afford to be without it. (Amazon lists the contents and provides samples – click here.)


Last but hardly least there is a compilation of Wagner excerpts from wartime broadcasts, central European recordings, and the like, dating from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. The fact that this set was not available for very long leads one to suspect that Acanta’s Richard Wagner: Sein Werk in dokumentarischen Aufnahmen (40.23.502, 19 LPs, issued in 1983), is larded with pirated materials. There are 25 excerpts from the Ring, some of which are quite substantial. Elsewhere, too, there are some rare items – including performances conducted by Toscanini and Richard Strauss – and some obscure Wagner scores, too – so this set, like the others, might well appeal to completists.

Remember that these are all recordings from earlier times, times when the music we consumed at home was, for better or worse, served up in two-, three-, or four-minute slices. Brief excerpts from some of these items are available online at the Metropolitan Opera’s website – there are samples from the Marston set, the Mapleson cylinders, and much more.

Readers who may wish to obtain copies of recordings mentioned herein will find most of the CDs readily available, new or used, from the customary online sources. The LPs, all of which are out of print, will require more digging in the aftermarket – but read on for notes on some inexpensive MP3 reissues.

And so, to bring us back to where we came in, this is truly a golden age for collectors of rare recordings, for never before have so many been so widely available and at such low cost. It’s a fact that many of the original issues of the recordings cited above are rare and fabulously expensive when they come onto the market, but reissues on LP and CD have made them much more readily available. And as technology has advanced, availability has become even greater.

Thus today, thanks in part to the work of dedicated collectors like Michael Richter, lots of these records can now be obtained on CD-ROM. Richter’s Audio Encyclopedia series included one volume that encompassed English, French and German Ring recordings, including large portions of “The Potted Ring” – for details, see From which we came: The First Opera Sets (AE301). Another release featured the first four volumes of The Record of Singing – yes, the equivalent of 47 LPs, complete on one CD-ROM (RS1). And a third offered some of the Mapleson cylinders (from previous issues, not from the R&H set) plus all of Singers from the Green Hill, Wagner on Record, and the Acanta set (MW101).

Again, these Richter sets are MP3 compressions on CD-ROM. Ill health forced him to suspend his work, but all three of these items remain available at insanely low prices from http://www.imagemogul.com/opera.html. They’re bare-bones transfers with no notes, but you can hardly go wrong with these handy reference recordings.

There’s gold in those old grooves, whether they’re wax, shellac, vinyl, or in the form of digital bits – and it no longer takes an Alberich or a person armed with an all-powerful ring to obtain access to the music treasures those records contain. Enjoy!

The author is a Senior Contributor at CVNC.org and a long-time member of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.


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