For fans of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the dispute over which of his Ring cycles is the best recorded will probably never end. Some say his 1950 La Scala Ring is the one, while others would choose his 1953 version from Rome. A few might even say that if more of it were available, the 1937 London Ring would be his best. But since two-thirds of the London Ring remains in private hands, the real contest is between the La Scala and the Rome Rings, and that contest often comes down to which has the best Siegfried -- the tetralogy's central opera (Das Rheingold is but a two-hour prelude), the Ring opera with the widest range of emotions (no other Ring opera has even a hint of humor in it), the only Ring opera with a happy ending, and the Ring opera that at last introduces the Ring's hero.
Of course, "best" Siegfried means not just the best tenor in the title role, but the best total performance of the whole gesamtkunstwerk. Both recordings have many merits and relatively few demerits. The La Scala Siegfried was taped live in a single night in a theater before an enthusiastic audience and has the searing intensity of a real performance in a real place in real time. The Rome Siegfried, this Siegfried, was recorded in a concert hall one act at a time over eight days -- November 10, 13, and 17 -- before a respectfully quiet studio audience and gets the maximum strength and energy of its well-rested cast. Both orchestras were first-class ensembles newly familiar with Wagner's music, and their excitement is manifest in their playing. And both performances were led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor agreed to be the finest twentieth century interpreter of the nineteenth century Austro-Germanic repertoire. His unique combination of total control with flexible tempos and relentless drive gives Furtwängler's Wagner immense cogency and enormous inevitability. And his ability to infuse performers with unbearable passion creates interpretations of overwhelming impact. In both Furtwängler's Seigfrieds, the work's drama, awe, ecstasy, and humor are more fully and deeply expressed than in any other conductor's Siegfried.
For Furtwängler fans, the contest boils down to which of the two Seigfrieds has the better cast. La Scala has the disadvantage of Set Svanholm in the title role, a big-voiced but often sloppy singer who often seems to be only approximating the character, while Rome has the advantage of Ludwig Suthaus in the same role, a strong but sensitive singer who comes much closer to embodying Wagner's ideal heldentenor. La Scala has the advantage of the unbeatable Kirsten Flagstad as a Brünnhilde of unmatched vocal magnificence and interpretive understanding, while Rome has the comparative disadvantage of Martha Mödl as a more soulful and sensual but less awe-inspiring Brünnhilde. La Scala has the distinct disadvantage of Peter Markwort's nearly spoken Mimi while Rome has the immense advantage of Julius Patzak's superbly characterized Mimi. And since both casts have the potent Ferdinand Frantz as Wotan, neither recording can be said to have a superior king of the gods.
In the end, it finally comes down to two things: live excitement vs. studio focus and a great Brünnhilde with a weak Siegfried and Mimi vs. a less great Brünnhilde but a better overall cast? And because these things are ultimately matters of taste, Furtwängler fans will never stop debating which is his best Ring.