Though he never recorded the opera complete in the studio, there are four extant recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler leading either all or portions of Act III from Wagner's Götterdämmerung in live performance. Each is in its way worth hearing for any fan of the conductor or the composer. There are two from complete recordings of the entire opera: an April 1950 performance featuring Max Lorenz, Kirsten Flagstad, and Ludwig Weber, with La Scala Orchestra; and a November 1953 performance featuring Ludwig Suthaus, Martha Mödl, and Josef Greindl, with the Rome Radio Orchestra. In addition, there is a recording of excerpts from the June 1937 London performance of the entire opera featuring Lauritz Melchior, Flagstad, and Weber, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and, last but certainly not least, there is this recording from May 5, 1952, featuring Suthaus, Flagstad, and Greindl, also with the Rome Radio Orchestra. (In the interest of completeness, it should be noted that there are also studio recordings of two excerpts from Act III -- Siegfried's Funeral March from March 1954, and an Immolation Scene from June 1952, also with Flagstad.)
Ranking these performances is nearly impossible and probably ridiculous. The 1952 recording under consideration has almost the best cast. With her soaring voice, passionate delivery, and seemingly endless reserves of strength, Flagstad was the era's preeminent Brünnhilde, and with his odious tone, sneering delivery, and superlative characterization, Greindl was likewise the era's preeminent Hagen. Suthaus, however, was no Melchior, and while his performance here has its merits, he, too, often disappoints when he has to hold a high note for more than a few beats. Unfortunately, the Rome Radio Orchestra disappoints more often than Suthaus. Not only is the lean tone wrong for Wagner's lush music, but the orchestra seems unfamiliar with it, and its obvious excitement at performing it with the esteemed German conductor is diminished by the flaws in the playing.
Ultimately, it is Furtwängler's leadership that makes this performance so successful. As always, he understands exactly how to pace the proceedings, when to pull back, and when to drive forward, in a seamless organic flow, and despite the Italian orchestra's lack of familiarity with the music, he is able to elicit playing of almost, but not quite, greatness. He understands how to support the singers so they can feel secure enough to give their best. Most importantly, Furtwängler knows the work like few others. He knows it as a magnificent piece of music, as a tremendously moving drama, and, as a combination of the two, that, in Schopenhauer's formulation, touches the infinite. Somehow, in ways that are unknown and likely unknowable, Furtwängler fuses music and drama into a whole vastly more meaningful than the sum of its parts, and the result is a deeply moving and truly sublime performance. The gray, dim sound is no more than serviceable.