WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen. George London. Kirsten Flagstad. James King. Régine Crespin. Hans Hotter. Birgit Nilsson. Christa Ludwig. Wolfgang Windgassen. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Vienna State Opera Chorus. Vienna Philharmonic; Sir Georg Solti, conductor. Recording Producer: John Culshaw with Christopher Raeburn. Recording Engineer: Gordon Parry with James Brown and James Lock. A complete performance of the Ring recorded 1958-64 and re-mastered in 2012. Decca 478 8370 (18 CDs)
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — It has been 51 years since the completion in 1964 of the first-ever recorded Ring cycle. Listening again to that first recording, I marvel at its existence.
The complete Ring had never before been recorded because it was an enormously expensive undertaking and there was no reason to believe it would sell in sufficient numbers to cover the cost, let alone make a profit. Somehow, British recording producer John Culshaw (1924-80) convinced Decca management that the time was ripe for that recording, and that he was the man to head the project, as conducted by Georg Solti. In the end, the recordings did make money, and artistically they still stand as the version of the Ring by which all others are judged. This latest re-mastering of the Culshaw-Solti Ring provides an opportunity for a new generation of music-lovers to become acquainted with this celebrated recording.
I last commented on this recording of the Ring in a long chapter in the revised version of my book Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. At that time, I expressed reservations about Solti’s conducting, suggesting that in his concern for rhythmic exactitude, he sometimes missed the poetry and mystery of the music, as well as its meaning. He also tended to overdo the climaxes. As the composer’s elder grandson Wieland Wagner, quoted by EMI producer Walter Legge, put it: “Walter, if you don’t soon find me a good Tannhäuser conductor, I shall be reduced to Solti and his orgasms in every second bar.” (Schwarzkopf: On and Off the Record. New York: Scribner’s, 1982).
That said, returning to the recording for this review, I now find that Solti’s supercharged approach pays enormous dividends in a work as long as the Ring. Wagner’s great epic has more than a few pages of tedium, and Solti’s unfailing energy is enormously helpful in enlivening such passages.
What needs to be stressed from the outset in any discussion of this recording is that, while Solti was ostensibly the music director, the sound of this Ring ultimately resulted from Culshaw’s vision. Culshaw went to great lengths to find the right recording venue (happily, he settled on Vienna’s glorious Sofiensaal) and to execute all of Wagner’s remarkably detailed stage directions. Some later recordings of the Ring give you no sense at all that this is a music drama, conceived for the stage with all the special effects that the composer intended. For Culshaw, it was not enough to set down a recording of the music of the Ring; he wanted the listener to experience the Ring with all its bizarre characters and actions as, in his words, “theater of the mind.”
By contrast, listen to the Ring as recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon about 10 years after the Decca Ring. Musically, it is impressive, but there is no sense of the sheer theatricality of the piece. The DG Ring‘s recorded sound was also disappointing. Culshaw and his team got a dark, three-dimensional sound quality in their recordings that makes the DG version sound flat by comparison.
Wagner’s orchestra for the Ring features a much larger-than-normal brass section with some lower brass instruments actually conceived by Wagner (e.g. bass trumpet, Wagner tubas, contrabass trombone). Then, of course, there are the instruments used by the Vienna Philharmonic horn players. They have a more mellow sound and smoother legato than any other French horns. In the Decca recording, the weight and color of all these brass instruments is beautifully captured throughout the Ring — as, for example, in the prelude to Das Rheingold and in the accompaniment to Hagen’s “Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht, wahre den Hof” in Act I of Götterdämmerung. As for special effects, it is still difficult to improve on the sound of the 18 anvils as Wotan descends to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold.
Casting for the Ring was as difficult for Decca in 1958 as it is today. The producers had hoped to have renowned Wagnerian Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde, but because she was in her mid-60s and in failing health, it was soon evident that she was no longer up to the role, even on a recording. They did, however, still benefit from the power of her name by casting her as Fricka in Das Rheingold.
In casting soprano Birgit Nilsson, at the time an emerging opera star with a powerful, electrifying voice, as Brünnhilde, the producers scored a huge success. Although, to my ears, Nilsson lacks tenderness and beauty of phrasing in the quieter passages, and sings sharp from time to time, she is stunning in the duet and in the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung. Other singers who stand out are George London as Wotan and Eberhard Wächter as a really commanding Donner in Das Rheingold. Régine Crespin is a wonderful Sieglinde in Die Walküre, but Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegmund doesn’t begin to compare with Jon Vickers on the Karajan recording.
Special mention must be made of Hans Hotter as Wotan in Die Walküre and Siegfried; already in his 50s when these recordings were made, his sound was still uniquely expressive and his command of the text second to none.
As a historical curiosity, one might note that in the Decca Die Walküre, Helga Dernesch takes the small part of the valkyrie Ortlinde. In the DG Ring a decade later, she graduated to the role of Brünnhilde in an unfortunate example of miscasting on Karajan’s part. There is also miscasting in the Decca Ring: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of the greatest of all lieder singers, but his voice was far too light for Gunther in Götterdämmerung.
While there are bound to be more Ring cycles recorded for home listening, this was the first, and it has survived its first half-century with its glory pretty much intact. The same can be said of the supporting materials included in this boxed set — two entire CDs containing a spoken introduction to the Ring by Deryck Cooke with numerous musical examples. (Yes, this is the same Deryck Cooke who made the important performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, based on the composer’s unfinished manuscript.)
The best way to listen to Cooke’s long and often complex analysis is to have the text and the musical examples in front of you on your computer. You can do this because Decca has thoughtfully included in this boxed set a CD-ROM containing the material, as well as the complete libretto of the Ring.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.