Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Vienna State Opera Chorus;
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, September-October 1958 (Rheingold);
October-November 1965 (Die Walküre); May and October-November
1962 (Siegfried); May-June and October-November 1964 (Götterdämmerung)
Hard-back book with texts and translations
DECCA 4786748 BD-A [877:42]
If you just want the headline news, all you need to
know is that this is the best that these classic recordings have ever
sounded1, with the whole Ring presented in studio-master
sound on one blu-ray disc, housed in an elegant black-and-gold hard-back
book containing notes, synopses, texts and translations and all for
a fraction of the price and in much less space than the multi-CD set
was last offered for. The only small reservation is that if you are
prepared to find the space for and have the inconvenience of sixteen
CDs plus a CD-Rom, you still have that option for even slightly less
by the time that you read this review:
4788370 : 14 CDs containing the operas plus the 2-CD audio
guide An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen and CD-Rom with
libretti and translations for around £35, as against the Amazon UK price
for the blu-ray edition of £42.42 ($60.08 from Amazon US).
For anyone who owns a blu-ray player – if not, why not, when good
players can be obtained for less than £100 – I don’t think there is
any contest. My wife will certainly be pleased to see the amount of
space saved when the CD sets go off to the charity shop, for all the
pleasure that they have provided.
In 2012 Paul Godfrey reviewed
a de-luxe presentation containing the blu-ray now issued on its
own, a DVD, 17 CDs and a reprint of John Culshaw’s book Ring
Resounding. Though I cast covetous eyes on the review copy, it
always struck me as overkill and I was not surprised to see that when
that limited edition was exhausted the present blu-ray audio plus hardback
with libretti and translations took its place at a more reasonable price.
When Universal released it earlier this year I promised it to myself
as a birthday present and it duly arrived on the very day.
We always include purchase buttons inviting readers to order recordings
from Amazon UK and Amazon US. On this occasion I put my own money where
my reviewer’s mouth is and ordered from Amazon UK, not out of any sense
of loyalty but at the most attractive price that I could find. Having
ordered on Sunday afternoon, I thought I had left it too late but I
took possession of it less than 24 hours later.
My acquaintance with Solti’s Wagner goes back even earlier than the
recordings on this blu-ray. In 1957 Decca recorded Act I of Die
Walküre with Hans Knappertsbusch directing the Vienna Philharmonic,
planning to record the remaining acts with Kirsten Flagstad, then towards
the end of her career but still in good voice, as Brünnhilde. The conductor
chosen for that recording of the Todesverkündingung (all that
Flagstad agreed to sing of Act II) and the whole of Act III was Georg
Solti. The 2-LP reissue of that recording on Decca’s mid-price label
was one of my last LPs to go, only to be replaced by the CD of Act III.
More recently Acts I and III have been united on Australian Decca Eloquence
4801892 (2 CDs – review).
The following year Flagstad was still in good voice for a swan-song
as Fricka in Rheingold, the first complete opera from the Solti
cycle which I was able to afford when the SXL LPs, without libretto,
were remaindered to make way for the SET replacement, Decca very considerately
including the SET booklet with the remainders. That Rheingold
recording set new standards in realistic opera recording: as John Culshaw
reveals in Ring Resounding, even the anvils in Nibelheim were
very carefully chosen to play in tune.
That recording was reissued on Decca Originals in 2008 and I welcomed
its return in such an inexpensive format and in impressive 24-bit re-mastering.
(4780382: Bargain of the Month – review).
Back where I had started with the version which I had borrowed from
the university record library and purchased when I could afford it,
I was very pleased to re-greet an old friend. My only surprise was
that Decca had not emulated RCA in reissuing such a fine recording in
SACD. Now they have gone one better with the blu-ray audio option.
What is true of Rheingold is also true of the other Ring
operas: instead of Solti’s Walküre I went for Karajan on LP,
later for the Fritz Reiner recording, originally released by RCA but
subsequently reissued on three CDs by Decca, who made the recording.
Though no longer available, it’s worth seeking out, but a very late
encounter with the Solti recording as a download converted me to the
one opera in the cycle which had never quite clicked for me – DL
Roundup June 2010. Even when I made the Mark Elder recording of
Walküre on the Hallé label Recording of the Month – review
– my enthusiasm for the Solti remained undimmed.
It’s sometimes said that the success of this Ring cycle is less
attributable to Solti than to the team of performers and to John Culshaw
as producer. While there is some truth in that, I remember hearing
a broadcast performance of Act II of Siegfried with Solti directing
a much later team, some time in the early 1980s, and thinking that he
had not lost his touch. I no longer have the cassette recording that
I made or the means to play it, but listening again to the same act
on the new release reminds me why the 1962 recording of what many regard
as the least successful opera in the cycle is almost my favourite… until
I listen to Götterdämmerung again.
The Solti Ring has never sounded better in audio terms. Listen
to the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla (track 28 of Rheingold
onwards) and any other recording pales in comparison. The Barenboim
recording comes close, but even that is less impressive. (The Ring
complete in wav and mp3 on USB for £50 or less, 2564641265 – review)
Recently I have been watching and listening to Sebastian Weigle’s 2012
Frankfurt Ring on DVD (Oehms OC999, 8 DVDs). Rheingold
is available separately on OC9953 (the earlier 2010 recording
is on OC935, 2 CDs – review)
and I have enjoyed watching it more than any other video performance
that I’ve seen, even including Böhm; by no means to be dismissed even
if you listen rather than watch, it’s much less impressive in audio
than the refurbished Solti on CD or blu-ray.
Terje Stensvold as Wotan summoning the gods to proceed to Valhalla at
the conclusion sounds decidedly ungodlike alongside George London (Solti).
Dietrich Volle’s Donner, too, hardly sounds like the Lord of the storm
that he professes to be (Ihr Dünste zu mir! / Donner, der Herr /
ruft euch zu Heer). Donner’s hammer blow and thunder crash are
a mere ping and a pop, as all other recordings that I’ve heard also
are, by comparison with the Decca. The earlier (2010) performance on
CD actually sounds preferable, though there the hammer lands with a
thud rather than a loud clang. Nevertheless, though I’ve been criminally
slow in setting down my thoughts on this series, let me say that this
is a set to which I shall return for the visual experience – but as
an adjunct to Solti. Walküre is on OC996, Siegfried on
OC997 and Götterdämmerung on OC998.
Decca singled out the forging scene from Siegfried and the final
20 minutes of Götterdämmerung for separate release on LP and
here again other recordings seem pale by comparison, especially the
Ring on DVD which I reviewed some time ago, where Nothung4
is forged on the cooker in the kitchen of Mime’s bijou apartment,
with Mime banging away with a spoon on a plate. If Solti is my all-time
winner, the Stuttgart DVDs must be my undoubted Wagnerian turkey, with
singing little better than the ridiculous direction. The only thing
that preserved my sanity was the fact that I reviewed the set alongside
the Chandos USB release of Reginald Goodall’s English-language performances.
These two scenes plus the inevitable Ride of the Valkyries and
the Magic Fire Music were subsequently showcased on cassette
on 4171814 and remain available with additions on a budget-price 2-CD
set of excerpts (Double Decca 4483392). These represent good points
to try the blu-ray release: subscribers can stream the whole Solti Ring,
with 218-page booklet, from Qobuz
and others can sample. Don’t be tempted to purchase the download at
£67.07 for 16-bit and £90.28 for 24-bit but be prepared for the quality
of even the streamed version to convince you of the desirability of
Decca’s refurbished sound. I wouldn’t recommend even hard-up Wagner
lovers to economise by buying the 2-CD excerpts either: they will only
tempt you to spend less than four times the price of that set on the
As with Donner’s hammer blow in Rheingold, I compared Barenboim’s
recording of the forging of the sword with the Solti. Some very fine
singing apart, it’s a tame affair, with the sound of the sword being
forged unimpressive compared to John Culshaw’s achievement.
Rather unfairly I compared the new transfer with my 4-CD set of Siegfried,
specifically with CD2, the end of Act I and opening of Act II. I say
unfair because I have Decca’s first CD transfer from 1984 on 4141102.
The greater convenience of blu-ray is immediately apparent in that the
break between CD1 and CD2 comes at an awkward point, between Siegfried’s
words as he returns and Mime’s reply. In aural terms that first transfer
was revelatory but the improvement made by the new version is apparent
– the orchestral opening sounds very little different but immediately
Alberich begins to sing, greater vocal firmness is evident, resolving
the one issue which made some prefer the greater vocal forwardness on
the Karajan recordings.
When the first CDs were released in 1983 reviewers spoke of the effect
of a veil being lifted. As between the 1984 CDs and the new blu-ray
yet another veil has been lifted. With the Decca Originals Rheingold
the effect is much more subtle, since that had already been given the
24-bit treatment and a modest degree of CEDAR de-hissing. I imagine
that the same will be true of the CD set of the whole Ring about
to be released but I would still recommend spending the small extra
amount on the blu-ray if only for the sheer convenience of not splitting
the music between discs. Only the provision of the notes, texts and
Decca’s much-improved latest (1996) translation in the handsomely-bound
booklet adds to the bulk of the new release. Ditch the attractive but
unnecessary slip-case and it’s no bulkier than one 4-CD set.
As usual with blu-ray audio, the selection of operas and tracks can
be done from your television screen but the quality of sound is appreciated
only through an audio system. Choice of opera can be made from the
remote pad: red button for Rheingold, green for Walküre,
yellow for Siegfried and blue for Götterdämmerung. Oddly
enough those directions are not given anywhere in the packaging, though
they should be intuitive, given the order of buttons from left to right
on most remotes. Quirkily, my Cambridge Audio 650BD, one of the best
blu-ray/SACD players, reverses the yellow and blue buttons, so I wondered
at first why I got Siegfried instead of Götterdämmerung
and vice-versa. The 650 and its successor the 651 have been discontinued
in favour of the 752BD – expensive, but recently reduced to £599 – and
the buttons on the 752 remote appear to be in the normal order.
I could wax lyrical for ages about this new presentation of the Solti
Ring but it all boils down to something even simpler than the
headlines with which I began: this is as notable a bargain as ever there
was and it gives these superb recordings a new lease of life which I
doubt will ever be bettered.
1 I haven’t heard the Esoteric pressings from Japan but
they are expensive and heavy.
2 NB: this was a late addition to DL News 2013/16; it doesn’t
feature in the index but it’s the first item in the review
3 Limited separate availability currently in UK.
4 I’m not sure why Wagner felt the need to change the name
of the sword – Gram (wrath)in the Norse legends – to Nothung
(Need or Necessity).
Wotan - George London (Rheingold), Hans Hotter (Walküre;
The Wanderer, Siegfried)
Fricka - Kirsten Flagstad (Rheingold), Christa Ludwig (Walküre)
Siegmund - James King
Sieglinde - Régine Crespin
Siegfried - Wolfgang Windgassen
Freia - Claire Watson
Loge - Set Svanholm
Froh - Waldemar Kmentt
Donner - Eberhard Wächter
Hagen - Gottlob Frick
Gutrune - Claire Watson
Gunther - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Mime - Paul Kuen (Rheingold), Gerhard Stolze (Siegfried)
Erda - Jean Madeira (Rheingold), Marga Höffgen (Walküre)
Alberich - Gustav Neidlinger
Fasolt - Walter Kreppel
Fafner - Kurt Böhme
Woglinde - Oda Balsborg (Rheingold), Lucia Popp (Götterdämmerung)
Wellgunde - Hetty Plümacher, Gwyneth Jones (Götterdämmerung)
Floßhilde - Ira Malaniuk (Rheingold), Maureen Guy (Götterdämmerung)
Hunding - Gottlob Frick
Brünnhilde - Birgit Nilsson
Waltraute - Brigitte Fassbaender (Walküre), Christa Ludwig (Götterdämmerung)
Helmwige - Berit Lindholm
Ortlinde - Helga Dernesch
Gerhilde - Vera Schlosser
Schwertleite - Helen Watts
Siegrune - Vera Little
Roßweise - Claudia Hellmann
Grimgerde - Marilyn Tyler
Waldvogel - Joan Sutherland
Norns - Helen Watts, Grace Hoffman, Anita Välkki