Review by Brian Wilkinson|
There seem to be two ways to go with the Ring cycle on CD. Conventional
tastes go to the Solti cycle with its terrific sound and singers of the
"Silver Age" of Wagnerian singers. The more critical listeners favor
the Furtwängler cycle with its superior conducting and understanding of
the piece. Unfortunately for the average listener, the poor recording
qualities of both the Rome set on EMI and the La Scala edition on
various labels are just too tough to listen to.
There is a solution to this problem which has been overlooked by most
reviewers and average listeners: the Karajan cycle.
The problem with the Solti version (which I loved when I first listened
to it) is its lack of subtlety. It's attractiveness to the public (loud,
exciting, big voices) is also its problem: it does not hold up under
repeated listenings. So many of the nuances of the Ring are lost. Solti
is in my opinion just too ham-fisted in his approach to conducting the
orchestra. Also the charater development is equally one-dimensional at
times. Solti sees the characters as good guys and bad guys; they are
much more complex than that. Alberich, Hagen, and the giants for instance
are tragic complex figures, not simple villians.
Many reviewers consider Karajan's Rheingold and Die Walküre to be the
best on record and I agree. The main criticism is that Siegfried and
Götterdämmerung are not as good (I don't agree) and that the cast is
inconsistant. Granted there are two Wotans, two Brünnhildes and two
Siegfrieds. I don't see this as a big problem except I wish Régine
Crespin had stayed on as Brünnhilde. But the difference between
Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Stewart is less a jarring contrast than
George London and the wobbling Hans Hotter.
The problem with the Solti set as I see it are as follows:
• Ham-fisted conducting
• Voices that are past their prime: Hotter and Flagstad especially.
• Obtrusive sound effects that are distracting if downright silly and
annoying. Think of the plunking down of bars of metal while the
Giants cover Freia or the ridiculous little ping when Wotan throws
the ring on the pile.
• Too much stereo. The voices move all over the place. The producer
just took advantage of a new procedure to the point of absurdity.
• Lack of cohesion of the cycle due to the large gaps of time between
The Karajan cycle is the best conducted, uses the best orchestra, the
best sounding (add a little bass and crank the volume; the balance of
orchestra and voices is better than Solti) and the best sung (maybe not
technically but in terms of meaning and character). Wagner wrote his
music dramas with the idea that orchestration, singing and drama were
of equal importance in taking us into the world of the Ring. When I
listen to Karajan's Ring I feel I have entered that world and believe
in these characters.
In his Rheingold, the prelude arises softly and moves smoothly to its
climax when the Rheinmaidens sing. Compare this to Solti: you can hear
switches in transitions rather than a cohesive whole. The Rheinmaidens
are the best on record. Listen to the translucent shimmering, very soft
as the sun appears.
In Scene two, notice the tragic passion of Fasolt's infatuation with
Freia. Solti misses the boat here. Loge is a real deliciously scheming
character, not just well sung as with Set Svenholm. The moment when the
brothers arrive is so exciting the pace quickens and the urgency is
palpable. I think Karajan succeeds over Solti in general because of
dynamics and tension. The descent is great: Karajan adds a beat to the
In the fourth scene, Alberich is sung more tragically...Wotan is just
as much a villian as the dwarf.
Opposite of what many people assume about Karajan's Ring (that it is
chamber-like) the entry into Valhalla is just as exciting as Solti.
Karajan's strength is a unified approach to the score, contrasts and
subtlety. It is recorded as close to a live performance as possible
as opposed to Solti's stop-and-start sectional feel. So if the drama
and meaning of the Ring are more important to you than "big" voices,
overly loud brass, and useless sound-effects, you may want to buy
Unfortunately I believe the individual operas may have been deleted,
but the complete set is the best I have heard despite some faults.
The fact is all the Ring cycles all have some faults.
I would love to hear feedback about my opinion. I don't totally
dislike the Solti Ring, but it is not the definitive version most
of these sites would have you believe.
This review is from the now closed Wagner on the Web and it is published
without the author's consent. I haven't been able to get in touch with him.
If the author reads this, please contact me as soon as possible. If you
don't want it here, I'll take it of the site immediately.