The Greatest ‘Ring’ Cycle

A Study in Obsession

Bosie Moncrieff

tl;dr

Get the 1966–67 Böhm Bayreuth cycle if you’re new to the Ring, or like better, stereo sound. Get the 1950 (Milan) and especially 1953 (Rome) Furtwängler cycles if you’re more experienced and can tolerate somewhat poorer, mono sound in the service of a finer interpretation.

Preamble

Talk to any Wagnerphile worth his salt and you will inevitably discover that you’re speaking to the owner of dozens—at least—of recordings of any given opera, though Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde are the only operas with north of 150 recordings, and the next-most-frequently recorded, Parsifal and Götterdämmerung, each have barely 100. The problem with speaking about a “best Ring Cycle” is that the Ring, like Wagner operas generally, is a work of so many moving parts that it requires, to truly pop, a world class orchestra, conductor, tenor, soprano, bass, baritone (Gunther, Hunding, Kurwenal), Mezzo (Fricka, Venus, Brangäne), and very often a second soprano (Sieglinde, Gutrune), second bass (Fafner), and even second tenor (Mime). Wagner parts themselves are so ridiculously difficult (though perhaps none so difficult as Siegfried from Siegfried), that getting a superb interpreter of any of them is a feat, and having a-list (never mind ideal) voices in the main roles, an ideal conductor in the pit, and an ideal orchestra undergirding the affair is a consummation devoutly to be wished for, but rarely, rarely heard.

Perhaps the best analogue to a Ring Cycle is a cycle of the Mahler or Bruckner symphonies—the difference being vocal parts of orders of magnitude more technical (and, I would argue, interpretive) demands in Wagner’s work. The obvious fact, too, that the Ring is a continuous work creates the need for single interpreters that does not exist in consecutive symphonies which are, at the end of the day, separate aesthetic efforts. The final hurdle anyone looking for a ‘best Ring Cycle’ must deal with is the fact that we have had only two great ages of Wagner singing since the recording of opera has begun in any earnest: the Golden Age of Melchior, Lorenz, Flagstad, Schorr, Traubel, Lawrence, Furtwängler, Walter, Bodanzky, and early Leinsdorf (1928-c. 1949) and the Silver Age of Varnay, Mödl, Nilsson, Windgassen, Svanholm, Suthaus, Vickers, Hotter, Keilberth, Krauss, Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Böhm, late Leinsdorf, and, barely, Jess Thomas and James King (from the reopening of Bayreuth in 1951 to the Centennial Ring and Nilsson’s last Isolde in 1976). The Golden Age is, as the name suggests, the finer era, but it exists in a small handful of recordings from the Met, Bayreuth, and Covent Garden—many (including the Melchior/Flagstad/Furtwängler “dream” Ring of 1937) a small collection of fragments, in that case some two hours of Götterdämmerung and the third act of Walküre.

All of this is to say that whereas one can look at the Tosca discography and give the laurel with little reservation to Callas, Gobbi, di Stefano, Maestro de Sabata, and the forces of La Scala, the difficulty in aligning the Wagnerian stars is infinitely more punishing. In assessing the best Ring cycle, one inevitably devolves into assessing individual operas and, especially in the case of the well-recorded Walküre, individual acts.

Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold is the least-recorded of all the Ring operas, with just eighty recordings to its name. This isn’t altogether unexpected, as the author (perhaps ill-advisedly) titled it a preliminary evening to the rest of the tetralogy. Either way, at a mere 2.5 hours (no intermission), it’s small potatoes compared to Götterdämmerung, which can last over six hours in the theatre. Wotan is the most crucial voice in the opera, though Alberich, Fricka, Loge, Fasolt, Fafner, and Mime are all important—truly, it’s the most ensemble-driven part of the entire sequence, neither rising nor falling on a single singer’s shoulders. Much more important here are conductor and orchestra, and in the absence of the need for great voices, the argument for delving into the hiss and sputter of Golden Age recordings is flimsy indeed—valid only for the work of Furtwängler, the most influential Wagner conductor on record, with two mighty Rings to his name fully captured. He is the only reason one would journey into pre-stereo territory for this opera alone, and even here the argument isn’t strong: he had at his disposal neither the Bayreuth Festspielhaus Orchestra nor his trusty Berlin Philharmonic, but the far inferior La Scala Orchestra (1950) and RAI Roma Orchestra (1953). Nevertheless, the conducting is magnificent and the members are playing out of their skins. My preferences are for the 1955 Keilberth, which combines Hans Hotter (the best Wotan after Schorr), quite good stereo, and the 1958 Solti, captured in perfect stereo, with Flagstad as Fricka, Svanholm as Loge, an eminently capable George London as Wotan, and the Vienna Philharmonic in rare form. For the best orchestra, though, one would have to recommend Karajan’s studio account with the Berlin Philharmonic and Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan. Few relationships have the synergy of Karajan and the BPO, and the brass section in particular, in 1967, was second to none.

Siegfried

Siegfried is a fairly simple story. The title part is the most difficult singing role in the history of Western art music, and the opera rises and falls by the strength of its lead tenor. The voice of Lauritz Melchior is supreme among Wagner tenors, and whatever one might say about Max Lorenz’s acting ability (in my view the only serious challenge Melchior has faced among great Wagner tenors), we have only part of his Act II and none of his Act III Siegfried. Now, these fragments (from Bayreuth in 1936, from the Wiener Staatsoper in 1937, and from Buenos Aires in 1938) are necessary listening for an enthusiast, but do not provide a complete opera, as we have from Melchior. Bodanzky, in a performance from 1937 with some brutal and wholly unnecessary cuts, captures the only full account of Melchior’s Siegfried that survives, making it the crucial recording of this opera. Add to this Kirsten Flagstad in her prime as Brünnhilde and Friedrich Schorr’s single recorded Wotan, and one sees why the recording dwarfs every other. The sound is decent for its time.

Outside that, there are many excellent second-tier recordings of Siegfried. Both of the Furtwängler accounts are first rate, though I’m inclined to prefer the 1953. The 1955 Keilberth account has good sound, a great orchestra, and great soloists (with Windgassen, Varnay, and Hotter in absolute peak form), and the viscerally exciting 1966 Böhm account from Bayreuth has the utterly olympian voice of Birgit Nilsson and a still formidable Hotter and Windgassen. Solti’s ’62 studio account with same cast has a better orchestra and perfect sound.

Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung shares with Siegfried the distinction of having exactly one record by Melchior, which makes it necessary listening merely by virtue of the tenor. It’s also under Bodanzky’s blisteringly rapid direction at the Met, and the soprano, Marjorie Lawrence, has voice that while sitting higher than Flagstad’s is powerful and assured—but no matter the soprano, the recording, despite Bodanzky’s usual ruthless cuts, would remain required listening because of Melchior. The recording’s other high point is Friedrich Schorr as a moving Gunther, but the quality of the sound, which is at best mediocre for its time (1936), makes the recording for experienced listeners only.

For the most vital interpretation, Furtwängler is, as is frequently the case, largely the beginning and end of the story, and the fact that his 1937 performances at Covent Garden and Bayreuth with (variously) Melchior, Flagstad, Lorenz and Leider were only captured in fragments remains the the greatest loss in the history of Wagner recording. What several hours remain, from several performances, are, it may follow, among the finest hours of Wagner recorded, and should be sought out by anyone who develops an appreciation of the opera. (Their sound likewise makes them only for experienced listeners, though it’s better than that of the prior year.)

Nonetheless, the two complete accounts of Furtwängler’s that we have are exemplary. In 1950, he combines forces with Flagstad and the above-mentioned Max Lorenz. Flagstad is nearing the end of her career but still sublime beyond words, and that this is her only complete recording of the opera makes it the more important—though you will have to listen to an earlier fragment to hear her hit the high C at the end of the love duet. Lorenz left us two complete accounts of this opera, but this first one, although in slightly worse sound, is more raw, visceral, and attuned to the gravity of Siegfried’s tragedy. I can think of no more persuasive performance of the role than this, and Furtwängler’s fatalistic vision makes the experience, perhaps benefiting from the drama of live performance, to my mind the finest recorded: less vocally superhuman than Melchior’s, but more gripping. The sound is acceptable despite some unevenness (do yourself a favor and visit http://www.pristineclassical.com/ for the best transfer), but the interpretation, doom-laden and almost nihilistic, is a central component of Furtwängler’s towering reputation as the finest Wagnerian after the composer himself (and the finest conductor of the last century).

In 1953, Furtwängler finds himself in Italy again, and because he records the cycle act by act, rather than in a traditional stage performance, the voices are fresher and more consistently good. Ludwig Suthaus’s Siegfried has a baritonal ring to it (imagine a more powerful and precise Ramon Vinay), and Martha Mödl sings perhaps the most moving Brünnhilde ever recorded, her voice unaffected, mellifluous, and married to a dramatic instinct worthy of Callas. My basic thought on Furtwängler 1950 vs. 1953 is that although the Götterdämmerung is better in 1950 (largely because Lorenz, Flagstad, and Furtwängler are three of the main reasons the Golden Age got its name), we have complete accounts of Flagstad’s Brünnhilde in Walküre and Siegfried from 1940 and 1937 respectively (plus more Walküre fragments from various places), so we needn’t listen to her past her prime except when Lorenz joins her (Svanholm sings the Young Siegfried in 1950). Thus, 1953 wins as a cohesive whole, but 1950 wins on Götterdämmerung. With respect to the conducting, the maestro goes from extremes in 1950 (grim, fatalistic, exuberant, manic) to balance in 1953—the most collected, pensive, and stately interpretation of the work we have (It’s a poor analogy, but think Glenn Gould’s 1955 vs. 1981 Goldberg Variations). Furtwängler’s greatest artistic failure, of course, was declining to put Lorenz in as Siegmund and the first Siegfried.

But enough of Furtwängler. There are other maestros! Böhm, having Windgassen, Nilsson, the Bayreuth Orchestra, and excellent sound (1966-7) at his disposal, is required listening—the soloists are universally excellent and conductor is as intelligent as Furtwängler, if less sublime, and recorded well. Solti’s studio account has perfect sound and Böhm’s exemplary cast, though the maestro is up neither to Böhm’s nor to Furtwängler’s example as an interpreter. These ‘60s accounts would be my recommendations for new listeners because of their superior sound.

Bayreuth was the epicenter of the Silver Age, and live recordings from every year of the 1950s (early Silver Age) survive except 1954, which only left us a Walküre and Parsifal. Hans Knappertsbusch was music director 1951 and ’56-9 (think slow, ponderous, probing); Joseph Keilberth led the festival 1952-5 (straightforward, dynamic, even-handed, more sensitive to the needs of the singers than personal vision). As regards sound: all recordings are in decent mono except those of 1955, which have impressive stereo—Varnay is the standard Brünnhilde, though Mödl sings excellent cycles in ’53 and August ’55, Windgassen is Siegfried from 1953, and Hotter is Wotan from ‘52. The best Götterdämmerung is from 1952, as Max Lorenz, even at 51, is a hundred times the Siegfried that Windgassen ever was, never mind Aldenhoff, Treptow, Svanholm, and the rest. The set features an equally fresh-voiced Astrid Varnay and Martha Mödl (as Gutrune). 1955 left two recordings, identical in every way except soprano—Varnay sings the first Brünnhilde; Mödl, the second—and they’re equally valid takes (Varnay more noble and vocally secure; Mödl more intense and more human), though Mödl will always be my own personal favorite Brünnhilde, even if by 1955 she is grasping at a high C that doesn’t particularly want to materialize.

Die Walküre

The most difficult of the operas to pin down precisely because of how many excellent people have recorded all or part of it is Die Walküre, which sports a discography nearly twice the size of Götterdämmerung, and larger than Siegfried and Rheingold combined. Below, I will consider your choices in terms of conductor, sound quality/orchestral beauty, and vocalists. (but tl;dr? Go with Leinsdorf and the masterful Nilsson and Vickers.)

Interpretation/Conductor

Interpretively, the best accounts have to be those of Wilhelm Furtwängler from 1950 (Flagstad, Treptow, Frantz), 1953 (Mödl, Windgassen, Frantz), and 1954 (Mödl, Suthaus, Frantz). The 1950 broods and snarls— Furtwängler’s legendary relationship with the mature Flagstad is essential listening, though the sound and orchestra are mediocre and her colleagues questionable. The ’53 is perhaps the most probing, and it features Windgassen as an excellent Siegmund and Martha Mödl as the most moving Brünnhilde on record—so vulnerably human, but never, ever weak. Mödl returns in ’54, and the recording, while amazing, features a conductor mere weeks from death. Despite having the finest orchestra on the planet and two of the greatest Wagnerians alive at his disposal, I’m not sure it exceeds ‘53. It is, however, captured in the finest sound, and would probably be the best place to begin. The castings are all quite good, though Suthaus’s Siegmund is far gloomier (and gruffer) than Windgassen’s.

Clemens Krauss’s 1953 Walküre, lighter though it is than those of Furtwängler, should not be dismissed as being superficial, for it has purpose, direction, and form—and a relatively young Varnay as Brünnhilde and Hotter in his prime as Wotan, which coupled with Krauss’s generally more inspired conducting than Keilberth’s make it a well-cast, well-conducted, well-played slice of early ‘50s Bayreuth in clear mono sound. The final interpretation of great consequence is Karl Böhm’s 1967 recording with Nilsson, which combines quite good sound with a great orchestra and a legendary conductor and soprano.

Sound Quality/Orchestra

Although Karajan, Solti, and Leinsdorf all tried their hands at perfectly captured studio Walküren in the 1960s, both Karajan and Solti are marred by less than ideal soloists, and neither has the drive and energy of Leinsdorf. Given that he had access to three of the finest Wagnerians on the planet — Vickers, Nilsson, and George London as a perfect Wotan — and the London Symphony’s virtuosically gifted members, this recording must take the cake sonically. Although I won’t repeat its praises in the other sections, its vocal and interpretive prowess recommend it as perhaps the finest all-around Walküre of all time.

Soloists

Singing Wagner well is a far rarer thing than conducting him thoughtfully or recording him in good sound, so beyond the Leinsdorf ‘61, Böhm, Krauss, and Furtwängler Walküres (all of whom have a-list singers in at least two of the three major roles), I will include some vocally thrilling endeavors that have an a-list Brünnhilde, Siegmund, Wotan, and Sieglinde, but some other shortcoming (bad sound, uninteresting conductor, mediocre orchestra). Unless otherwise specified, bad (or mediocre) sound makes these choices for someone who has already heard a recording in (relatively) good sound—the Furtwängler, Solti, Leinsdorf, or Karajan studio records, or ’55 Keilberth (first cycle) or ’67 Böhm live recordings.

Golden Age

Leinsdorf, two decades before recording the studio Walküre above, conducted the three major recordings of the opera that the Golden Age produced, all with Melchior and each with a different pillar of the age as Brünnhilde—[1] Flagstad (New York, 1940), [2] Traubel (New York, 1941), and [3] Lawrence (Boston, 1940). They are all live, which means the sound is hazy at best, and my preferences are in the order I gave above of sopranos. (1) has Lawrence singing Sieglinde, which is a way of having two a-list sopranos in one recording. It’s the greatest number of stratospheric stars that the opera has ever seen, and features Melchior in his best voice. Despite mediocre sound, the vocals are superhuman — the utter summit of recorded Wagner singing. You’ve been warned. :p

Silver Age

The all-star 1954 Keilberth Walküre, recorded live at Bayreuth, is the stuff of legend—the vocal high point of the opera’s Silver Age discography, with magnificent peaks rising from an already exceptionally high plateau. It features Max Lorenz, the finest Wagner tenor of the century after Melchior, as a tragic but fiercely passionate Siegmund—the most persuasive, viscerally exciting reading of the role I’ve ever heard (Melchior was never a great actor, and was at least as loose about entrances and exits). He and Flagstad were the only two luminaries of the Golden Age to sing into the Silver Age, and Lorenz, while recorded less, is probably the finer asset. He is joined by Astrid Varnay’s legendary Brünnhilde (she was the Bayreuth standard), whose voice is powerful, communicative, and assured, and Martha Mödl’s sympathetic, mercurial Sieglinde—her single recording of that role. Mödl and Lorenz, being perhaps the two deftest Wagner actors in history, make all of Act 1 and Act 2, Scene 3, pop with an unparalleled emotional depth (though I confess to a slight desire that Varnay’s larger instrument sing Sieglinde’s ecstatic farewell in Act 3). Hans Hotter and Josef Greindl, the standard Bayreuth Wotan and Hunding throughout the 1950s, each sing as well as they ever would. If the sheer power does not (quite) match the 1940 record I indicated above, the commitment to character and psychological depth of the portrayals generally exceed it. Every single vocalist is on my a-list—down to Georgine von Milinkovic as a flawless, silvery-voiced Fricka—and all of them at the height of their vocal powers, and with the exceptions of Milinkovic and Varnay (who was raised in a German speaking household), all of the soloists are themselves German, leading to unusually good diction (if that’s a consideration). Add to this the historical value of Birgit Nilsson’s Ortlinde (a Valkyrie sister) making this the only recorded time all three major postwar sopranos shared the same operatic stage, and you see why the ’54 Keilberth, while less famous than it should be, is spoken of in hallowed tones. The mono sound is clear and well mic-ed. Keilberth, like Leinsdorf, is sometimes derided as being a ‘mere’ Kapellmeister, and not a true maestro like Furtwängler, but I think this sells short Keilberth’s purposeful, sensitive, unaffected direction.

The following year the women switched roles, and in Keilberth’s August “second cycle,” Varnay is supreme as Sieglinde to Mödl’s quite noble Brünnhilde, a role who has never found a more persuasive, committed singing actress than Martha Mödl, who in 1955 was still in command of the voice that would enjoy altogether too short a peak. (Perhaps only with Flagstad and Lawrence do we find female talent equally strong in these two mighty roles.) They are joined by Hotter’s famed Wotan and Ramon Vinay’s deeply felt, albeit verbally approximate, Siegmund (he would be Bayreuth’s standard Siegmund throughout the 1950s, though as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Chile, but you can’t take the Chilean accent, or command of German, out of the boy). Note that this is not the Walküre from the much-more famous “first cycle”—which features an identical cast except for Varnay as Brunnhilde and Gré Brouwenstijn as Sieglinde, in my view two unfortunate changes which make it an inferior set, despite the latter’s superior stereo sound. On balance, Lorenz exceeds Vinay, but Mödl and Varnay are a better pair when Mödl is singing Brünnhilde—though the difference between Lorenz and Vinay is wider, so I’d stick with the ’54 set if I had to choose.

Fragments

There are, however, so many Walküre fragments that stand out as so worthy of note as to necessitate a word or two of explanation. Bruno Walter is a ridiculously under-recorded Wagner conductor, though he was absolutely one of the most respected interpreters of his day, perhaps superior to everyone except Wilhelm Furtwangler and early Karajan (as in the latter’s ’52 Tristan), and he recorded Act I of the opera with the Vienna Philharmonic, Melchior, and Lotte Lehmann, a woman who is with Astrid Varnay (and Jessye Norman) one of the most notable Sieglindes on record. Although the Wälse! cries are not as commanding as in Melchior’s 1940 Met tour performance in Boston, the overall effect is not to be missed.

Another Met tour performance occurred in 1936 in San Francisco—a “dream” cast of Melchior, Lehmann, Flagstad (as Brunnhilde), and Schorr—though only the bulk of the second act survives—under the capable baton of future-CSO music director Fritz Reiner. Act II was also well documented in 1937 at the Met with Bodanzky, Melchior, Lawrence (as Brünnhilde) and Flagstad’s only recording of Sieglinde’s second- and third-act appearances. (Her Act I Sieglinde survives separately from 1935 and, with limited vocal ability, 1957.) The Walter-Reiner-Furtwängler excerpts piece together a truly splendid affair.

Act III was recorded with Flagstad and Furtwängler in 1937, with one of the capable Rudolf Bockelmann’s only two surviving Wotan fragments. (Joining the Nazi Party put a bit of a damper on his career post-WWII.) All of them are in their prime, and the thirteen-years-more-youthful Furtwängler is captured by a depth of inspiration that, supreme though his achievements of the 1950s are, surpasses even them. The only other notable Act III, from Karajan’s 1951 Bayreuth Ring, is by comparison so far inferior, even granting Varnay in her prime, that it is all but forgotten next to Furtwängler.

Concluding Thoughts

So there it is—my Ring discography—a thing of inherent and permanent compromise. If I were forced to pick a top five complete cycles, with a single conductor, one would have to begin with the Furtwängler, though the two accounts are markedly distinct: in three years the man goes from manic, fatalistic, and doom-laden to deliberate, probing, but in no way ponderous or slow—and the latter account, free of cuts, with a slightly better cast and orchestra and markedly superior sound, is my favorite Ring of all. After these, my favorite is the propulsive, resplendent Böhm, the ’55 Keilberth (first cycle, until the Siegfried of the second cycle is released by Testament or surfaces on its own), and despite the lack of a first-rate Siegmund and, for all his lovely local color, an overarching concept or vision, the Solti. For pure orchestral beauty, though, (and I know many Ring buffs will pooh-pooh this view as bowing to cheap “Hollywood” production value) Karajan and the Berlin Phil soar, second-rate though much of the cast is. Since 1976, the end of the Silver Age, we have had no first-rate Wagner sopranos, though Jessye Norman could certainly have been one if she had ever recorded Brünnhilde or Isolde (she hasn’t), and no tenors up to the standard of Melchior, Lorenz, Windgassen, or even Vickers (his nonexistent Siegfried notwithstanding). We therefore have seen no major recordings of the Ring since that time — though I watch Jennifer Wilson’s Brünnhilde with great interest: she combines extraordinary beauty of tone with ample vocal power. I listen expecting shrillness as the high note approaches, but she manages to sing Götterdammerung as if it were a mere Tosca — her voice communicating the intoxicating legato of a Tebaldi with many times the power. In her voice I sometimes think I hear the radiance of Frida Leider, but only time will determine whether it bears itself out.

I might ask the reader’s indulgence, with all this talk of “greatest” Ring cycles, to allow me to postulate a few “dream Ring cycles” in the way that some people assemble fantasy baseball teams, picking individuals at will and combining them. The year for the Golden Age cycle would be 1937, with Furtwängler at the helm of his Berlin Philharmonic, at the height of his interpretive powers. Also at the height of their vocal powers would be Max Lorenz as a particularly tragic Siegmund, Lauritz Melchior as a monumental Siegfried (and, playing into the man’s sense of humor, perhaps Loge as well); Flagstad as Brünnhilde; Schorr as Wotan and Gunther; Frida Leider as Sieglinde, Gutrune, and Freia; Emanuel List as Fafner, Hunding, and Hagen, Marjorie Lawrence and Helen Traubel as Valkyrie sisters, Karin Branzell as Fricka—after that, one exhausts the a-list singers who set the Golden Age apart from any other.

As for the Silver Age cycle—Furtwängler’s 1953 Cycle is difficult to top. Obviously I would have him in Berlin, Vienna, or Bayreuth, in the studio with good sound—obviously I would put Hotter as Wotan, Varnay as Sieglinde, Lorenz as Siegmund and Siegfried. But I’m not sure the difference would’ve been staggering.

If we move to the next decade, Böhm’s cycle is equally impressive — Nilsson cannot be touched, and Windgassen’s Siegfried only by a hypothetical Jon Vickers (who contemplated the role, though never sang it). George London would have been a far better Wotan than Theo Adam; Varnay, again, would’ve been superior to Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde, and Vickers also an infinitely finer Siegmund than James King. My beloved Martha Mödl, though she would sing a final Brünnhilde in 1967, had no upper register to speak of after the late ‘50s, but I would engage her as Fricka in Rheingold and Walküre, Waltraute in Walküre and Götterdämmerung (which she did actually sing), Floßilde, Gutrune, and Third Norn in Götterdämmerung, Erda in Siegfried and, if she could swing it, Erda and Floßilde in Rheingold as well, though playing Fricka, Erda, and a Rheinmaiden in scene 4, while the three never speak to one another or in immediate succession, could become disorienting. (That Erda is firmly contralto might help distinguish them, however.)

Jonas Kaufmann, something of a German Domingo and my nominee for greatest living tenor, has already sung a magnificent Siegmund, Parsifal, and Walther von Stolzing, and has committed to singing Tristan in half a decade or so. The big question facing the Wagnerian universe, much like the question facing the universe of American politics, is whether an individual overflowing with potential will attempt to reach the peak (Siegfried!), or leave the cards of history facedown. (If he does so, I certainly hope Ms. Wilson participates.)

    Bosie Moncrieff

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    Creating a better government—creating a better world. Also classical music and occasional thoughts on food.

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