Wagner: Tristan und Isolde; Tannhäuser; Parsifal; Der fliegende Holländer; Lohengrin; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Tristan und Isolde; Tannhäuser; Parsifal; Der fliegende Holländer; Lohengrin; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
PERFORMER: Various soloists & choirs; Vienna PO, Chicago SO/Georg Solti
CATALOGUE NO: 470 600-2
I’m baffled. Usually with reissues you can figure out who it’s for, the market sector the record company’s aiming at: packaging and pricing give the game away. But try it with this set and… well, here’s what I mean:

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The collector – he’s after the limited edition, with luxury packaging, copious notes and rarities that are otherwise unavailable. At first glance all those buttons are pushed, but in fact the sturdy cardboard cover merely houses six standard opera boxes, all of which are available separately in exactly the same form. Full texts and translations, but the only newly commissioned article is the one that appears six times: ‘The Technique and Philosophy of Remastering’, instead of something about the recording sessions themselves, as in the Decca Legends series. Rarity? ‘The Birth of an Opera’ – Solti rehearsing Tristan with commentary from producer John Culshaw, first time on CD and only in this big box… but how many people will want to pay £210 for that?

Which brings me to the completist – who has already got all of these recordings except the rehearsal CD. Still, the box matches the remastered Solti Ring, so he might just be tempted…

The newcomer might have already gone for just that set; after all, Solti’s Ring still seems to be a compulsory first purchase for anyone interested in exploring Wagner opera. But newcomers are often impecunious, and nervous of commitment on this scale. They’ll look up the reviews and find that only a couple of these recordings appear at the top of the heap for the critics, and they’ll cherry-pick – so no sale there.

The bargain hunter thinks: ‘21 CDs for £210 (setting aside the rehearsal CD); that’s £10 a pop, which isn’t bad… and I’m saving £60 over the total cost of the separate sets. But do I want all these operas conducted by Solti?’ It’s only a bargain if he’s the Solti fanatic, who already has them all. Only difference? The rehearsal CD and the 24/96 remastering. Which is excellent, by the way, and they sound better than ever, but the improvement over the previous remastered CDs will tempt only the most fanatical (and financially unembarrassed) fans into the shops.

Maybe you don’t fit into any of the above categories, and maybe your mouth’s watering at the prospect of purchasing this shelf-straining set. Go on, don’t let me put you off, but for the rest of us, who’ll be buying the operas individually, a few pointers. Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Lohengrin are probably the safest overall recommendations. As Lohengrin Plácido Domingo is one of the best actors on disc, and Jessye Norman’s Elsa is radiantly beautiful, a true heldensoprano; ignore the critics who carp about their ‘suitability’ for Wagner. Parsifal has perhaps the finest Kundry on record in Christa Ludwig, and Solti’s adrenalin surges make this an interesting alternative to Karajan’s transcendent spirituality. In Tannhäuser Solti’s volatility helps the opera’s case; in Tristan it hinders it, despite Birgit Nilsson’s searing power. That just leaves a stagebound Flying Dutchman, which lacks atmosphere, and from 1995 a surprisingly serene Meistersinger, live in Chicago, with José van Dam as a provocatively thoughtful Hans Sachs.

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The only truly essential Solti Wagner recording isn’t here: The Ring, and that’s the box that still makes perfect sense. But, baffled as I might be by the existence of this one, at least I found inside it many beautiful moments, and no awful quarter-hours.