As part of a project I’m exploring, I’ve taken up the task of listening closely to all the Ring cycles I own. Which gives me the perfect opportunity to render an informed opinion as I get through each one.
The first is the famous Solti cycle produced by John Culshaw for Decca, famous for lots of worthwhile reasons; the first project of it’s kind (well, not exactly . . . more below), a great cast of veteran singers in all the roles, the Vienna Philharmonic, stereo sound, etc. It’s got the rossette from the Penguin Guide and everything! But what’s it like, actually?
Actually, it’s quite good, with some flaws. The flaws are apparent right at the top of the cast. Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson are the great singers in the roles of Siegfried, Wotan/The Wanderer and Brüunhilde, but at the time of this production they were past their physical primes (the recording process lasted from 1958 to 1966). Windgassen forces out high notes and has a mature voice with no quality of Siegfried’s youthfulness, Hotter is dignified but wobbly, and Nilsson has some pitch problems and can be hooty. Solti was a great conductor, and was a real slasher; he doesn’t always modulate tempos and emotions keenly, and although his climaxes are tremendous, he does telegraph them. Over the years, there have been listener objections to the use of sound-effects to convey some of the more spatial or supernatural elements of the staging, and I don’t mind those. They have kind of a charm, with the now hokey use of things like plate-reverb. What I do have a problem with, however, are many bad edits, places where the orchestral and vocal timbre changes with an abrupt and audible bump, and also the frequent and weird movement of voices across the sound field. These belie any claim for engineering acumen.
Still, it’s a grand and thrilling production. It’s packed full of powerful emotions, and the supporting cast is uniformly fantastic, especially Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich and James King as Siegmund. It also comes in a really nice box, which I’m a sucker for. And even though it wasn’t actually the first – Testament has released the first stereo ring, live in the theater, and which I’ll be covering next – it’s an important signpost in the history of recorded music, and if this is the one you have, or are thinking of buying, you’ll be fully satisfied with it. Depending on how deeply Wagner has seduced you, of course . . .