Kirsten Flagstad, Régine Crespin, Hans Hotter, Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau etc; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus/Sir Georg Solti (1956-65) Decca 455 5552
‘Very nice,’ sneered a rival producer, hearing that Decca were embarking on the Ring. ‘But of course you’ll never sell any.’ To him it was just an obscure, prestige project. But at a stroke – Donner’s awesome hammerstroke in Rheingold, to be precise, the loudest sound then recorded – Decca’s new venture was to galvanise classical recording, and begin a new era.
In the 1950s records evolved from brief, clumsy 78s to LPs, with wide-frequency recording, half-hour sides – and stereo sound. Decca’s Vienna-based recording team, headed by John Culshaw, began to exploit these innovations to demonstrate that LP could carry major works, not just adequately but triumphantly. Rheingold (1956) proved that recordings needn’t be fragmentary substitutes for stage performance, but could generate their own legitimate dramatic life – and popular appeal. Rheingold not only sold, it soared into the pop charts.
Rheingold’s stereo techniques, developed throughout Siegfried (1962), Götterdämmerung (1964) and Walküre (1965), defined a soundstage around which the singers moved as if in a real production. To maintain this sense of live performance, conductor Georg Solti insisted they sing longer takes, often without scores. Decca’s earlier attempts to record the Ring at Bayreuth, notably Joseph Keilberth’s cycle, sounded relatively stage-bound – fine for aficionados but unlikely to make new converts. To raise the imaginative temperature, Culshaw’s team introduced acoustics and sound-effects – not randomly, like many imitators, but sounds that might feature in live performance, idealised to create the ‘invisible stage’ of Wagner’s soaring imagination.
These would have been pointless, though, without a correspondingly awesome performance. This, with the magnificent playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, Solti certainly provided. Arguments still rage about his interpretation, compared especially with the more flowing, homogeneous Wilhelm Furtwängler manner; but there’s no doubt about Solti’s dynamism and towering sense of scale. He illuminates Wagner’s imagery, especially the Ring’s crucial natural forces, with vivid power, yet there’s no want of warmth and tenderness, or clarity in the elaborate textures of motifs.
No less outstanding, of course, is his cast, still unrivalled – an amazing Wagner ensemble spanning three eras, from Kirsten Flagstad and Set Svanholm to Hans Hotter, Birgit Nilsson and a host of younger voices like Eberhard Waechter, James King, Helga Dernesch and Gywneth Jones. Nilsson’s Brünnhilde is steely and untiring yet full of passionate femininity. Her father Wotan, sturdily sung by George London in Rheingold, matures in Siegfried and Walküre into Hans Hotter’s tormented, world-weary divinity – probably the finest and most nuanced on any recording, though by Walküre his voice had aged considerably. Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried is captured late, but still youthful. Gustav Neidlinger’s Alberich and Gottlob Frick’s soot-voiced Hagen remain benchmarks, unmatched for Satanic nobility, as do Christa Ludwig’s Fricka and Waltraute. Most controversial casting is probably Gerhard Stolze’s rasping Mime (struck by polio during Siegfried) but the force of his performance is undeniable. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s unusually heroic Gunther and Joan Sutherland’s striking if badly articulated Woodbird add extra star quality.
Documented in books and television, Decca’s Ring raised the status of recording generally. Other versions have their virtues, but there’s little doubt that Solti and Culshaw opened the gates for the 40-plus recorded Rings we now enjoy. Most authorities agree that it’s still a great place to start. The sound has survived half a century well, though the present CD transfer isn’t ideal; a much-praised SACD edition appeared only in Japan. Individually, the operas are scarcely less impressive, although Walküre, beset by problems and disputes, is the least good. But even Solti’s detractors have to admit the awesome stature of Götterdämmerung, in which performance and recording unite with seamless strength to evoke the power of cosmic, cathartic tragedy. It hasn’t been surpassed; it may never be. Michael Scott Rohan