Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Der Ring des Nibelungen
Das Rheingold in 4 Scenes (1853-54)
Die Walküre in 3 Acts (1854-56)
Siegfried in 3 Acts (1856-71)
Götterdämmerung in 3 Acts (1869-74)
Soloists plus Vienna State Opera Chorus (Götterdämmerung)
Vienna Philharmonic/Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, Das Rheingold September – October 1958; Die Walküre May and October – November 1962; Siegfried: May–June and October – November 1964; Götterdämmerung: October – November 1965.
Producer: John Culshaw; Senior engineers: Gordon Parry, James Brown
Japanese remaster, 21 December 2009; European release: 21 January 2010; UK import limited to 35 copies; £495; US Price $800+taxes
CDs/SACD Hybrid
DECCA ESOTERIC ESSD90021-90034 [14 discs: I: 70:34 + 75:16; II: 65:69 + 64:19 + 28:36 + 70:20; III: 56:46 + 55:33 + 58:48 + 66:04; IV: 62:46 + 57:24 + 67:03 + 77:50 + 1 DVD]
Comparison: The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine, DG, rec. 1989
Motoaki Ohmachi, the charismatic and music connoisseur president of TEAC’s 22-year old Esoteric company (high performance audio division), began to sponsor and remaster CD/SACD hybrid disc sets five years ago. Esoteric’s own components and techniques were used. The products included Beethoven (2007) and Bruckner (2005): complete symphony sets featuring Günter Wand on the RCA Red Label. These are already rare and collectible items. Many copies were presented to friends and customers of the company.
Esoteric’s remasters are licensed from the copyright owners and limited to 1,000 pressings. Each release goes on sale in Japan for one month and then the European and American distributors of Esoteric products may order for their markets. After RCA, issues were from the studio tapes of Philips, Decca and DG; all members of the Universal Music Group.
After the first RCA issues, Esoteric moved from sponsorship to merchandising the discs. The purpose, I believe, is to showcase to music-lovers what the audiophile pursuit is all about. Distribution is not through the record trade. Although the price of the individual Esoteric discs is high (£32 in the UK/$70 in USA plus taxes) I can assure you that the UK distributor and retailers’ margins are no more than a handling charge. I must admit, however, that I have sold several Esoteric hi-fi components to music lovers who were previously apathetic or dismissive of hi-fi.
Esoteric’s second intent has also been successful. In the days when downloading is easier, the record labels have neglected the highest quality of the manufacture of discs. I have already reviewed examples of CD at its best (for MusicWeb) manufactured by HDTT which is one of those audiophile labels who prove that the High Street product is poor sound. For this reason, some British music-lovers are importing Japanese pressings by mail order, at three times the UK price. Esoteric want to prove that, since its launch in 1982, CD has progressed in musical quality by a huge margin.
As often retold (especially in the producer John Culshaw’s own book, Ring Resounding, 1967) and in the 1965 BBC documentary film (available on DVD and supplied in Esoteric’s presentation set) Decca Records set out to make the first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring in the early days of LP and stereo. From the outset, the goal was to create Wagner’s vision in sound; not a theatrical production but a studio event. Far from artificial, the intent was absolutely purist, and the method was to follow Wagner’s demanding instructions to the letter, regardless of cost.
It is sad to say that this British triumph is almost unthinkable today. Against all commercial sense and advice, Culshaw was authorised to hire and organise schedules around the demands of the best Wagner performers of the day.
Rheingold was recorded in 1959: it is the first night, the shortest work, and Kirsten Flagstad was cast as Fricka in days when she was retiring and indeed becoming ill. The artistic triumph and sales results enabled the next three parts of the music drama to go ahead. Thus, the four works were recorded in Vienna over a seven-year span. By then, Decca had its own residence and studio in the Sofiensaal.
In 1968 Decca issued all four music-dramas in a green and gold wooden box set of 19 LP records. This gave us three further LPs as a bonus: Deryck Cooke’s spoken Introduction in English featuring 193 excerpts from the recordings. For me this was the door to Wagner: I cannot imagine – nor can I recommend - a better way to grasp the leitmotif structure of the music. This is not included in the Esoteric presentation which is a Japanese product.
Returning to 1968, the Decca LP pressings from its factory in New Malden, Surrey were dreadful; clicks, pops, and heartbeats mocked the music. I couldn’t bear it. I purchased the German Teldec issue but immediately gave it away to a friend. Sure enough, the 1983 high-tech DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) surfaces were silent, but the transfer made the music sharp and sterile.
The first digital remasters were issued on CD in 1985. They sounded horrible. In 1997 the chief engineer at Decca, James Lock, who had worked on the original sessions, used a newer CEDAR process to remaster the analogue tapes. The four works were issued on 14 CDs. I was still very unhappy with the compression of sound. It seemed that the immense and monumental undertaking in Vienna had foundered each time at the last hurdle, typically, for Britain, at the stage of manufacture. After 1997 I had given up all hope. I sampled other Rings, but Solti reigns supreme. He brought a fresh approach: dramatic, intense, hard-driven and quite magical. Other recordings, conductors, orchestras and singers contribute many angles and insights but the Vienna Ring is definitive.
Regular readers will know that my aversion for “modern” Wagner does not border on contempt, it is propelled into verbal assault on the perpetrators. My aim is to get close to what Wagner meant; that is in itself infinite and unattainable. If you like rude Rhinemaidens and sexy Siegfreids then please enjoy productions whose producers are probably unable for many reasons to do what was done once in a lifetime in Vienna between 1959 and 1967. The Decca team attempted to follow all of Wagner’s unreasonable demands on the assumption that perhaps he knew what he was doing.
It is for such an unrepeatable event that the recording industry exists. Thanks to Esoteric, one thousand people can enjoy it; or fewer, as some customers have bought multiple boxes to speculate. I bought mine because the rich sound of the Viennese, surely the world’s most amazing opera orchestra, can be heard at home as never before; and more than that, the vivid sound justifies the well-publicised building of the special instruments and sound effects. Much trouble, expertise and money were devoted by Decca to these ends. Now they emerge as splendid; indeed awe-inspiring.
Physically, the Esoteric set is substantial: 6kg comparing with the High Street Decca box set at around 1kg. The new set contains three books: two are the most substantial librettos I have ever seen, in German and Japanese. The third is a Japanese copy of John Culshaw’s book; extremely useful. And then there are two booklets: The Notes and Track List - also in German and Japanese however, you can save the European Decca CD set booklet before you discard the CDs. The Japanese contents continue with a DVD being the BBC documentary film. Finally, seven DVD format volumes protect the four musical works on fourteen CD/SACD hybrid discs. All are housed in a luxury box, protected by semi-permanent transparent sheath, and wrapped in a cardboard outer carton for shipping.
Without any doubt, this issue is the ultimate accomplishment of the recording industry. It cannot be any other way. I am not saying that all music after Wagner was downhill, but over twenty-five years his creative genius defined symbolist or fusion of the arts in one masterwork: drama, poetry, myth and music are amalgamated as no one else had envisaged and probably no one, even in our age of high technology and mixing of arts, can ever equal.
The Ring’s theme is not just the old Norse-Germanic world of the pre-Christian mindset - do not call it Pagan - but the perennial human predicament of the triumph of gold over love. It is a very tall order to recreate for the modern listener this timeless world beyond any territory. Frankly, I do not think that modern productions, far less home videos, can do it.
Four evenings, like a pilgrimage, at a theatre can do it. So can pure sound. Back to the Esoteric remaster. At last, we have in our hands what Solti, Culshaw and others heard in the control room at the Sofiensaal in Vienna. On a large-scale system of high-definition home stereo it is ravishing, enveloping, awesome, and humbling to listen to the power and purity of the Vienna musicians. It may, or not, be your taste, but Georg Solti’s interpretation remains the most forceful and potent. The music is propelled into a soundscape, not by loud volume or fast tempos, but by means of emotional thrust and conviction. The special Wagner effects and instruments, six harps for Rheingold, anvils, drums, steel Swiss-horns, constructed over months and played for a few brief seconds, will leave you struck down in awe. Now, at last, we can hear them without the medium mocking the message.
As a comparison, I chose James Levine’s Ring on DG because it is a good stereo recording of a “driven” and dramatic reading. Separated from Decca’s production by thirty years it is an excellent modern digital recording; it suffers none of the harsh treble or compression of early CDs. An expert remastering of this excellent sound would be a very welcome thing. There is much that is great. Sonically, I rediscovered Lawson’s Law. Recordings sound best replayed on domestic loudspeakers closest to the studio monitors on which they were voiced. DG credit B&W loudspeakers; Decca acknowledge the use of Tannoy Canterbury speakers. And thus it emerged at my home. On an Esoteric player, amplifier and Tannoy loudspeakers (a matched system) not a trace of the “chestiness” one might look for. The natural sound was breathtaking, making it impossible to break the listening session. The DG recording sounded compressed and slightly artificial until played on a British sound hi-fi (ProAc loudspeakers). The advantages of synergy (or consistency) were reversed. This is disturbing. Esoteric, longtime collaborators with Tannoy, are now publishers of CDs, and so they complete a chain of transmission - from programme source to monitor loudspeaker.
Esoteric are entitled to be proud of their amazing equipment which was used in the CD mastering process. I reviewed last year for MusicWeb International their Curzon/Britten/Decca Mozart Piano Concertos on CD/SACD. It was CD of the Month. It is now a much sought-after item. Technically, the Ring transcription has moved even further ahead of Esoteric’s Decca issues of last year, an amazing achievement. The sound is vivid and yet there is practically no tape hiss. To say that they have made their point is something of an understatement.
With the Vienna Ring remastered, forty years after the event, Esoteric has fulfilled the ultimate potential of the recording industry.

Jack Lawson
With the Vienna Ring remastered, forty years after the event, Esoteric has fulfilled the ultimate potential of the recording industry. ... see Full Review