2012 was the centenary of Georg Solti's birth. Universal, now the "parent" company for which Solti recorded exclusively for half a century (Decca), released several most welcome tributes. These include a (numbered) "Deluxe" limited edition of what has been called the greatest recording of all time, Wagner's Ring Cycle. On this, between 1958 and 1965, Solti worked with legendary producer, John Culshaw, and an amazingly satisfying, accomplished and stimulating cast of soloists and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus. The result, too, was "legendary".
In addition to 14 remastered CDs containing the four operas with edits that have carefully and sensitively improved the result, the package more than justifies its high price of almost US$300 by including:
The first aspect of this release that cannot but strike you is indeed its very sumptuousness, its luxury. The entire package weighs nearly 12 lbs. It comes in a large black and gold stiff (cardboard) box with an equally extravagantly-embossed white slip case. These are all 12" square and 3" deep… as were the original LPs. The box has four components, which each slides easily out of the substantially-constructed slip case.
Over and above the abundance of resources which Decca offers us in this edition has to be the quality of the original Culshaw Ring. It does – as was to be hoped – stand up particularly well to the transfer from tapes made half a century ago. So well, in fact, that you begin to wonder whether the engineers in the 1960s knew something that we didn't about how to "future proof" their recordings. In fact, Philip Siney, the engineer used digital tapes from 1997 to remaster the set, so badly had the analog ones from 1958, 1965, 1962 and 1964 (in cycle order) deteriorated.
What Solti and Culshaw achieved was truly remarkable (and risky): theirs was the first complete Ring to be recorded. To have succeeded so spectacularly with interpretation and performance quality, to have created what is still the (or at least a key) reference set at the first attempt was a huge achievement. Hence the added appeal of the books, prints, facsimiles and other material which Decca has included in this set. For anyone interested in the history of recorded sound, in the recording and performing traditions built by the two generations of singers in the years after World War II, as well as for lovers of opera in general and Wagner in particular, this is a wholly attractive release and Decca is to be congratulated for making it.
The sound is projected cleanly, uniformly and to the consistent and enduring advantage of these superb performances. The strings are full and characterful; they convey emotion, excitement, pathos and the monumental drama of the cycle. They never upstage the woodwind, though, which is light, transparent and tuneful at all times. The brass is clear and incisive enough to have you start from your seat more than once. Culshaw and Solti were aiming for a theatrical Ring, not a visionary or mystical one. Still less one contorted to portray, say, the agonies of Edwardian scarf-weavers in New York. It's pure drama – as both Humphrey Burton's BBC documentary, "The Golden Ring" and Culshaw's "Ring Resounding" demonstrate.
Two of the most striking musical features of Solti's "Ring" are the quality of its soloists; and the range of orchestral impact.
Birgit Nilsson's Brünnhilde is stunning; her voice is also majestic and golden – but neither haughty nor cruel, two traps avoided. Hers is perhaps the finest such interpretation ever. The two Wotans (George London in Rheingold, then Hans Hotter in Walküre) are both commanding, lofty, authoritative. Just as they should be. But these very characteristics in the personae of each also suggest justified humanity; or at least approachability. Flagstad came out of retirement for her Rheingold Fricka. Her performance has all the queenliness and detachment on which the character is predicated. Ludwig's Fricke in Walküre and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung are superb. They typify the heights, the authority, the confidence that Solti's Ring stands for. Gustav Neidlinger personifies malice and ruthlessness in Alberich in ways that most successors have consciously emulated; had to emulate. Stolze's Mime seems to originate in the dark, chilling tangles of nordic forests and slide in and out of the intricacies and complexes of Wagner's music with an almost Freudian warp. Similarly, Gottlob Frick's Hunding in Walküre frightens; his Hagen in Götterdämmerung repulses.
The reservations one had of the Siegmund of James King from the original release still seem sustainable: slight superficiality and lightness. By the same token, nuanced though he is, Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried) also lacks a little presence in places; yet it's entirely possible to exchange variety and sensitivity for "uneven" – he adjusts his performance according to circumstances and has some startlingly moving scenes… notably his final one, in Götterdämmerung. Regine Crespin's Sieglinde is more classic… dramatically convincing, beautiful of tone and is stunning in the way she articulates the melodic messages that Wagner gives her. Similarly, Fischer-Dieskau's Gunther and Joan Sutherland's Wood Bird (in Götterdämmerung and Walküre respectively) are true gems.
The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus is, of course, exceptional. They're in command and yet totally expressive from first to last – and that's a long span. Not only do individual players shine, stun, project and impress; but the section and tutti work is both magisterial, immediate, and sonically approachable at the same time. Here too, there is an inevitable "edge" in some places on recordings as old as these. But the sense of presence and approachability which might otherwise come from a live recording is gratifying and compelling.
Although conceived on the grandest of scales (by Wagner), there are moments of great intimacy in the Ring. The epic ending (of Götterdämmerung), Wotan's Farewell at the end of Die Walküre, Siegfried and Brünnhilde's love duet at the end of Siegfried and many other climacterics throughout all four operas all need as much orchestral power as can be summoned. And they must be sustained in ways that other nineteenth century doesn't demand. At the same time, such passages as Siegfried and the wood bird (in Siegfried), many of the dialogs, monologs and even some of the scenes between Gods and between Gods and mortals as towards the end of Rheingold, require a delicacy and sweetness in projection. Solti and his forces have these in abundance, and in ways that truly surprise: the drama becomes very real – present rather than iconic. But it does not lose its majesty. This is a key gift of Solti's.
Against (actually, in concert with) this aspect of highlighting dramatic contrasts, the acoustic in which we experience the voices allows their measured, expert, characterful, unhistrionic yet totally involved roles to impress us to the full. Indeed, the remastering is precise enough for those aware of the original LP or even cassette issue to remember and compare. There is even greater clarity, even finer projection, even more convincing personification of Wagner's archetypes. This is exactly what owners of the earlier media would have hoped for. And a living, convincing, whole, holistic and vibrant experience is just what this edition delivers from the unforgettable E♭ pedal at the start of Rheingold to the uplift of the Redemption theme and the final scream at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The soundstage is not so deep and vivid as we might expect now. Stretches of recorded silence – particularly at the end of scenes and acts somehow assure us that we are listening to a "performance", not a "production". And the stereo image is excellent: defined, definite and unambiguously dramatic. But the image is – without ever being claustrophobic – not so spacious as we would probably expect in twenty-first century digital versions of the operas. That doesn't, in fact, reflect on Culshaw's statement about the world of the cycle… "Ring in an attic" vs "Ring in Space". It suggests, rather, that the music is profound and meaningful enough to speak for itself. And the clarity and incision of the recording only aids that laudable aim. Rarely does any of the transcriptions here show its age sonically; there is, for example, slight distortion on CD 3 of Die Walküre about five minutes into track 2. But these are rare moments and ones which are quickly subsumed into our wholly positive experience of the Ring. To offset this are such exhilarating moments as the anvils newly-forged in compelling rhythm about a third of the way into Rheingold; and Donner's "Heda, Heda, Hedo" as he strikes the single hammer.
If you don't already own a Ring cycle, and want all the trimmings, this set – expensive though it is (though no more than today's equivalent of the $60 or so the original set cost at the time) – has everything to recommend it. The authority and accomplishment of the interpretation have yet to be bettered. The performances (particularly those of the principals mentioned above) and playing are exemplary… and are a superb testament to a performing style and world that have all but gone now. You may be put off by opting for a sound that you might fear would be boxier, closer, more restricted, less buoyant, more artificial, or simply scratchier than you'd choose nowadays.
In fact the acoustic on this set has none of those limitations; it faithfully reflects the spaciousness and appropriate aura that would have been experienced had you been sitting in on those amazing recordings in Vienna's Sofien Hall over 50 years ago. The ways in which this recording is not a simulacrum of the Bayreuth stage, and the measures taken by everyone involved to produce an enduring recorded Ring, are explained in the books that you get with this Decca release. They – otherwise (previously) hard to get hold of – only add to the value of the set.
To have the Blu-ray disk if you're already happy with the CDs may for many not be such an advantage as the libretti. And the prints of photos from the recording sessions are really chiefly of souvenir value; though – like the facsimile of one of Solti's scores, annotated, and the brochure of original Decca advertisements and reviews – are significant pieces of recording history. After all, this set is in Solti's honor as much as Wagner's, although it is a fitting tribute to Birgit Nilsson, especially, as well.
In conclusion, this is a superb release: it has everything that the original (many would say the best) complete Ring recording had – and much more. The music-making throughout those sessions (which you can come to know through the book and DVD etc in a way that is possible in such details with few other recording projects) is as monumental as Wagner's conception. Wagner lovers – particularly those who don't have the Solti Ring – and/or can afford this indulgence in making a comparison with such other outstanding cycles as Böhm's 1967 set (also on Decca 446057-2 is a good choice), should do so. Recommended without hesitation.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey