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Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti(1958-1964)
Georg Solti's complete iconic recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.
For more about Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti and the Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray release, see Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 9, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 5.0 out of 5.
Starring: Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson
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Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray Review
A set that runs rings around the competition.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 9, 2012
The two or three months leading up to the holidays every year are typically awash in luxurious gift sets that make alluring presents, but how often are any of those sets geared toward the rather cultish niche of classical music lovers? Seldom if ever, if truth be told. And so there may be joy in whatever classical version of Mudville exists for those who have embraced the high definition era in order to better enjoy operas and other classical music performances. Barely a month ago Deutsche Grammophon released the controversial Metropolitan Opera mounting of Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen, and now just a few weeks later another Universal Music Group imprint, Decca, has upped the ante (if that even begins to address the rather gargantuan nature of this release) with this massive box set which is a showcase for what has been repeatedly described as the greatest classical recording of all time, let alone of The Ring Cycle. Georg Solti had one of the most vaunted conducting careers of the twentieth century, with scores (no pun intended) of best selling and critically acclaimed releases to his credit, but probably no other set in his career was so universally praised as his Ring, recorded for Decca between 1958 and 1965. Solti had the good fortune to align himself with a producer named John Culshaw who considered Solti to be the finest Wagner conductor of that era and who put Decca's rather considerable resources behind a gigantic recording project. Culshaw's belief in Solti certainly paid off, but Culshaw was also instrumental (sorry, another unintended pun) in recruiting a coterie of fantastic Wagner-philes to sing the lead roles. The classical music recording "industry" in the late fifties had never really experienced anything like the public clamor that broke out when the first Solti recording was released, and even Decca may have been amazed when Das Rheingold climbed to the top of the Billboard charts, resting comfortably aside big rock and pop acts of the day.
Is it fair to even compare an audio recording with the recent Blu-ray releases of completely staged productions of The Ring? Well, probably not, but not for the reasons you might think. The Solti Ring is so remarkable, so sonically near-perfect, and so viscerally theatrical that it actually puts at least some of the completely staged video versions to shame. It may sound incredible to modern day audiences used to the technological wizardry that accompanies our everyday life, but this Decca Ring was in fact the first complete studio recording of the cycle, and Das Rheingold at least was done in the very earliest days of commercial stereo releases. The care and finesse demonstrated in capturing these performances is nothing short of remarkable (as well evidenced by The Golden Ring, the brilliant documentary about the recording of Götterdämmerung included on this release). While this production did try to up the theatricality with some special effects (ancient steerhorns were fabricated especially for the recording, and Culshaw delighted in panning the singers to approximate stage movements, to give just two examples), there's a purity of technique here that is nothing short of astounding.
This Ring may have benefited from having been produced at a near perfect time, despite the apparent drawbacks of recording technologies of the era. In the post-War era, Bayreuth had risen from the ashes and there was a new vigor in Wagnerian interpretations that is easily discernable in the extremely starry cast Culshaw and Solti assembled for this project. And these recordings were a way for Solti, certainly already well respected but not yet at true legendary status, to make his reputation, and he no doubt realized it from the get go. His conducting here is just unbelievably energetic and visceral; it fairly reaches out through the speakers and grabs the listener by the figurative throat, which is not to say that it isn't also gorgeously lyrical and tender when it needs to be.
There's kind of a sad phenomenon on display in more traditional home video releases where classic (or at least near classic) films are sometimes shunted off to licensors or are not afforded any real "tender loving care" in their upgrades to high definition. The ethos seems to be "slap whatever we have on a disc and hope to sell a few units". (This is a gross generalization, but you get the idea.) Luckily, some very, very wise people at Universal Music Group and Decca realized what an incredible asset they had with these Solti recordings and rather than take the easy (meaning cheap) way out, they have gone the distance to deliver a package that becomes a suitable "home" to what has repeatedly been called the greatest classical recording project of all time.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray, Video Quality
Giving this largely audio only experience a video score of any kind is slightly misleading, but there is one DVD included here which features the fascinating 1965 BBC documentary The Golden Ring. This black and white outing looks about like what you'd expect a television piece of this vintage to, with decent contrast and clarity, but a lot of ragged edges here and there, including some skips and jumps and in a couple of scenes some annoying high pitched audio interference.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Say what you will about the supposed "sterility" of modern day digital recording techniques, if a WAV file is committed to a hard drive or other storage medium, it takes a rather major misstep for the contents of that file to suffer anything akin to the age related degradation that regularly accompanies analog masters of old. And that's the bad news about this release—Decca did indeed try to go back to the original masters to "start from scratch" for this commemorative project, only to discover that they had degraded too far to be used. Luckily several generations of submasters had been created in the many decades since the original recordings, and it was quickly ascertained that the 1997 remastering (done by one of Culshaw's assistants on the original recordings) would make a suitable new starting place for this latest version. There isn't a glut of technical information on what was done to these, other than a sort of generic reference to Decca using the "latest technology" to get at the purest sound available, as well as to correct a couple of errors in previous versions, including a sloppy edit point and a dropped measure.
If you want a thumbnail sketch of the varying storage capacities of CDs versus BDs, simply compare the fact that The Ring spans 14 CDs in this set and one (yes, one) BD. I frankly had so much material to get through to give a time sensitive review of this set that I didn't spend too much time on the CD versions. I can state that they compare very favorably to the 1997 "red box" Decca release, with appreciably greater dynamic range and a much more fulsome low end.
The real revelation here is the lossless audio on the BD. Now I am the first to state that The Ring would not be my first choice in how to while away 15 hours or so of listening time, but I was instantly transported into a fantastic sound world on this audio Blu-ray and found myself lost in a swirling stream of sonic color (I guess there's a reason it's called Rheingold). There is simply no comparing the audio on this Blu-ray to any previous version. It is immaculately clear and precise, with brilliant reproduction through all registers and an astounding sense of clarity. Fidelity is nothing short of superb. The Vienna Philharmonic's commanding brass section is blisteringly represented here, but there's also an almost lascivious quality to the strings in these performances, and it all bursts out of the speakers with gorgeous fluidity and nuance.
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Where to start on this massive set and what exactly should be identified as a "supplement"? Since our focus here at Blu-ray.com is obviously on Blu-rays, I've included all other elements included in this literally massive (well over 20 pounds) set in this section.
The brief summary above which indicates a book (as in singular) is slightly misleading. This impressively slipcased set actually holds four hardback volumes, some of which contain text, some of which contain discs or other material. To make things easier and hopefully clear, I've separated the extras into each of the four volumes.
Volume One: The Libretti
This beautifully designed volume features the complete libretti of all four operas with the original German text and an English translation side by side. Also included are complete synopses, track listings for each of the CDs, and some notes from producer John Culshaw. There are a few black and white photos culled from the recording session scattered throughout this impressive volume.
Volume Two: Ring Resounding by John Culshaw
This is a reprint of Culshaw's fascinating 1967 reminiscence of recording the four operas. This contains the complete text of the original in unaltered form (meaning there are a few factual discrepancies since Culshaw mentions previous versions of The Ring which had not yet been released in 1967 but which have since seen the light of day). This is also handsomely illustrated with photos of the participants.
Volume Three: The Guides
This is in some ways the most fascinating volume, at least for armchair musicologists. Included in a sturdy slip sleeve inside the front cover is a pamphlet of sorts containing reprints of ads, interviews and other material related to the original releases of the recordings. Also in the slip sleeve are five oversized photos on medium weight cardstock. But it's the actual contents of the volume itself that will hold the greatest interest. Several pages from Solti's own copies of the score are reprinted, replete with his furiously written notes from the recording session (he describes his use of colored penciles in The Golden Ring, the BBC documentary which is also included in this set). Also on tap here is the absolutely top rate musical analysis, complete with tons of score examples, from Deryck Cooke, who goes into great detail outlining Wagner's use of leitmotivs, as well as more technical analyses of the musical language of the operas.
The rear cover of this volume contains a small insert which houses a slipcased DVD containing:
This volume contains nicely sturdy double thick cardstock pages which all have inserts containing slipcased discs. The contents include:
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Georg Solti Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
This is quite simply one of the handsomest and most remarkable box sets of classical music since the advent of recorded sound. Decca has done itself proud in memorializing one of its most legendary recording feats. Unlike many oversized box sets, this beautiful compilation deserves its size and it has no wasted material or swag at all. I can't imagine that classical music fans of all stripes won't want this gorgeous achievement in their permanent collections, even if they're not especially fond of The Ring. A new standard has been set for what a product like this should be and contain. Highly recommended.
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