Studio recording in stereo
December 6-28, 1967
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Wotan Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Donner Robert Kerns
Froh Donald Grobe
Loge Gerhard Stolze
Alberich Zoltán Kelemen
Mime Erwin Wohlfahrt
Fasolt Martti Talvela
Fafner Karl Ridderbusch
Fricka Josephine Veasey
Freia Simone Mangelsdorff
Erda Oralia Dominguez
Woglinde Helen Donath
Wellgunde Edda Moser
Floßhilde Anna Reynolds
Berliner Philharmoniker
Deutsche Grammophon, 457 781-2 2 CDs ADD
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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 recordings.

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 anvils clanking.

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 this Rheingold.

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.