|Decca, 414 100-2
Review by Charles E. Muntz|
These recordings were hailed as some of the greatest ever made when
they were first issued between 1959 and 1966. Each one won a Grand
Prix du Disque and the entire cycle was given a Grammy award and the
Dutch Edison award, among others.
Some forty years after Das Rheingold was first recorded, I think this
Ring cycle remains the greatest ever recorded by a fair margin. Its
crowning glories include the radiant Brünnhilde of Birgit Nilsson, who
is easily the finest Brünnhilde since World War 2. Her voice is built
like steel, with piercing high notes (more so than her reading for Böhm)
and a reading that is as dramatic as it is thoughtful.
For her Siegfried, Nilsson had Wolfgang Windgassen. True, he is not
Melchior and lacks the heroic ring and power the role requires. But he
sings with conviction and lyricism. He sounds fresher and more involved
here than he does for Böhm, probably because of the studio recording. He
sounds a bit fresher for Krauss, but is not as convincing overall as he
is here. He is a finer Siegfried than any other postwar interpretation
I have heard.
The role of Wotan is split. In Rheingold George London takes on the role,
providing a powerful, dramatic, authoritative, reading of the younger god.
I personally prefer, slightly, Hans Hotter's recording of the role for
Clemens Krauss, although Hotter does not really sound as virile for the
part as London does. Solti does have Hotter for "Walküre" and "Siegfried",
and the bass-baritone shows that although his voice has aged and is a bit
wobbly and ragged at times, his authority and interpretation are unmatched
and hold up well against his earlier readings. Certainly no Wotan since
begins to match him. And no where else is his voice captured in such fine
Regine Crespin brings a beautiful clarity and spontaneity to Sieglinde.
Her reading is ecstatic and it matches Leonie Rysanek's best. Against her,
James King provides a fine, enthusiastic Siegmund, vocally well suited for
the role, although he is a bit more involving for Böhm. It is easy to hear
why the great bass Gottlob Frick remarked, "This is the tenor we’ve been
waiting for!" when he heard King for the first time.
Speaking of Frick, I feel that he is the best Hagen on record. He manages
to combine a perfect legato with a huge, black voice. The dominating power
he exerts over the Gibichungs is evident from the first and in Hagen’s
watch the full, terrifying extent of his evil is revealed. As Hagen’s
father Alberich we have Gustav Neidlinger, who essentially owned the
part of Alberich at Bayreuth after the war and here gives a most evil,
terrifying reading of the role that is without peer.
For Hagen's half sibilings Solti has Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Claire
Watson. Watson provides a beautifully sung, vulnerable, and innocent
Gutrune. Fischer-Dieskau is a noble sounding Gunther, and he makes the
role into a tragic one as the character's weakness is gradually revealed.
His voice is well suited for the role, which he learned specifically for
The rest of the Ring has been superbly cast as well, right down to the
smallest roles. The great Kirsten Flagstad learned the role of Fricka
for Das Rheingold. Joan Sutherland sings the Woodbird. Christa Ludwig
is both Waltraute and the Walkure Fricka. The Rhinemaidens include Ira
Malanuik, Bayreuth’s leading mezzo in the 50s, Lucia Popp and Gwyneth
Jones. Jean Madeira is a haunting, foreboding Erda in Das Rheingold.
Gerhard Stolze is controversial as Mime in Siegfried--some find his
interpretation grotestque. I personally think he is one of the few
singers to portray Mime for what he is--a small, vile, evil dwarf who
lies and cheats through the opera and gets his just deserves at the end.
The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is beyond praise. The stunning
power and control of the brass, the beauty of the harps--nothing is
lacking. The chorus in Götterdämmerung is uniformly excellent.
Finally we come to Solti’s conducting. Unlike Furtwängler, whose
mysticism and brooding tended to overshadow the drama, or Karajan, whose
homogenizing sound tended to dull it, Solti’s reading emphasizes it. No
other conductor produces such an exciting Ring. The emotional power is
incredible here. The first time I heard Wotan’s farewell I shed a few
tears. And after listening to the second act of Götterdämmerung for
the first time I sat in stunned silence for a few minutes. But Solti
does not sacrifice musical detail either. Even when the music is at
its loudest the amount of detail that can be heard is astonishing.
Much of the credit for this must go to John Culshaw, the producer, and
Gordon Parry, the engineer. Culshaw makes full use of the stereo medium
and closely follows Wagner’s instructions for special effects. They
procured 18 anvils of the exact sizes Wagner specified, provided
realistic thunder where needed, and most controversially changing the
timbre of Windgassen voice so he sounds like a baritone when he comes
for Brünnhilde in Act 1 of Götterdämmerung (Wagner specified that
Siegfried was to assume the voice of Gunther). The only effect that
does not really come up is the stacking of the gold in Rheingold (they
had to use bars of tin). But what results is what Culshaw called "the
theater of the mind" and this is the one recording of the Ring where I
feel that I am actually experiencing it, not listening to a performance.
Sonically, this recording comes close to matching a digital recording
in terms of clarity and impact. Although I listen to and enjoy many
Ring recordings such as Furtwängler or Krauss, for me this will remain
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.