Wagner ring 4853364

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
The Golden Ring: Great Scenes from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
rec. 1958-64, Sofiensaal, Vienna
Decca 4853364 SACD [76]

Wagner himself set the precedent for the extraction of excerpts from his Ring cycle for independent performance in concert, but the sheer scale of the cycle to a certain extent militates against any attempt to provide a single compact disc of such passages. Too much has to be omitted – the love duet from Die Walküre, the dawn and Rhine journey from Götterdämmerung, or the summoning of the vassals – all of which were rightly included in the various LPs of excerpts issued at the time of the original recordings during the years 1959 to 1966. It is not appropriate therefore to regard this single CD simply as a set of Ring highlights: it is, rather, intended as a sampler for Decca’s latest remastering and reissue of one of the most significant recordings ever made.

Back in 2012 I penned for this site an extensive review of over 8000 words on the last recension of the Decca/Solti Ring. At the time I undertook a full comparison with all the then available studio recordings of the score, and I was almost immediately taken to task for my failure to include the host of live and concert performances that were also available on disc. But as I explained at the time, no matter how great individual assumptions of a particular role may be on a particular recording, the Ring as a whole is most peculiarly resistant to live performance; quite apart from the movement of singers about the sound stage (and almost inevitably ‘off-mike’ at some point or another) and the slips in performance both from singers and orchestra, balances can never be as closely and finely tuned as in studio recordings; and, if the conductor and his producers know their stuff, the much-vaunted excitement of live performance need not be necessarily sacrificed in the desire for accuracy. For those who disagree, Ralph Moore’s survey for this site surveys a representative sample of various of these complete sets, although I was less tolerant than he of the plethora of errors and wrong notes in the 1954 live Clemens Kraus Ring when I reviewed that for this site back in 2014.

There have been no subsequent studio recordings of the Ring since I undertook my original comparisons, and there is little about the actual quality of those performances that I feel the need to revisit after ten years. Perhaps I might have been a little harsh on Jess Thomas’s assumption of Siegfried, which I described as “Karajan pushing a good singer too far too fast” where I was not then aware of the fact that the singer had been denied the chance for retakes of passages in which he had not been singing with full voice; but then I was judging the performance on the basis of what could be heard on the record rather than good intentions. For further comments, therefore, I would refer readers to my earlier review.

At the time I, and I imagine most listeners, assumed that this would be the final reissue by Decca of these recordings, presented as they were in a luxurious limited-edition box together with complete librettos, the Deryck Cooke analysis of the music commissioned for the first complete box back in 1968, and the text of producer John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding.

We were indeed told at the time that deterioration in the original tapes made it impossible to go back to the original source material, and the audio element in the presentation therefore derived from digitally remastered sources – including a newly transferred version on a single Blu-Ray disc. At the time of my review I undertook a detailed comparison of the recordings themselves with earlier CD issues and even with the original LPs, and details of the equipment then used is given in that earlier report. But now, we are told, it has indeed proved possible to go back to the original master tapes (including some highly interventionist techniques such as baking the tapes themselves to avoid the shedding of iron ore particles) and therefore supply yet another reissue of the Ring now not only on SACD but with the additional of Atmos processing, and even on vinyl pressings.

My initial reaction was one of scepticism that even marginal improvements could be effected to what was already an extremely high fidelity product which still showed no signs of aging. Nor was I convinced that anything other than an exhaustive examination would demonstrate significant amendments to the occasional lapses in the original source material which remained (and which I had itemised in my 2012 review). However the opening track of this sampler proved that I had underestimated the abilities of the Decca team to revisit their earlier work. Donner’s summoning of the thunderclouds and forging of the rainbow bridge had even back in 1959 been regarded as a masterpiece of the producer’s art – John Culshaw himself tells us in Ring Resounding that he was told that the passage would “break all the golden rules of what one should and should not do, technically speaking, on a gramophone record.” Well, here there is an immediate difference in the sound from the 2012 remastering. Eberhard Waechter’s voice is set back slightly further in the acoustic of the Sofiensaal in a manner that sounds more genuinely authentic, with less suspicion of microphone placement being used to enhance the volume of his delivery; and the rustling string arpeggios are clearer than they have ever been before without any sacrifice in atmosphere. I have never since heard any performance, live or on record, which surpasses the sheer excitement of the violin delivery here or which does not degenerate into a simply display of orchestral virtuosity (although that too is present in spades). And here the final climactic stroke of Donner’s hammer and the resulting thunderclap are as overwhelming as Culshaw clearly intended them to be.

In order to make this comparison, I initially adopted a deliberately low-key approach, playing both the 2012 remastering and the new 2022 version side-by-side on the same normal stereo equipment. Even given that limited scope the changes were remarkably evident, and therefore even for listeners without SACD or Atmos facilties there is a decided advantage to new purchasers of investing in the new issues as they appear over the next few months (advance publicity promises the complete cycle by 31 June [sic] 2023). It is noticeable, for example, that while the woodwind lines just before the climax following the initial outburst of Wotan’s farewell, sound slightly thinner than in 2012, the sheer beauty of their intonation just afterwards is even more heartfelt by comparison.

Following those initial side-by-side comparisons, I then undertook further listening employing a friend’s top-range SACD and Atmos equipment to investigate the improvements evident from the remastering itself. Again the improvement of the transparency of the sound was immediately apparent, and the physical placement of both singers and orchestra in the audio spectrum was further clarified. This did however produce a somewhat unexpected result, in that the voices clearly originated from exactly the same physical location as the instruments in the stereo field, almost as if bodily superimposed upon the orchestra rather than recessed behind them as in the opera house. This of course was a conscious decision of Culshaw and his engineers, but the resultant dimensions were deliberately cinematic rather than theatrical. Not superior, or indeed inferior: just different.

What is not so clear is whether the newly reminted material incorporates the not insignificant improvements that were made in earlier remasterings. I commented back in 2012 on the fact that “at the very beginning of the Rheingold prelude…in the original LP issues, and in the first CD set, there was always a problem with the opening E-flat in the double-basses being followed by the B-flat a fifth above in the lowest register of the bassoons. This was a problem of Wagner’s own creation, in that it is simply impossible for the bassoons to play as quietly as the double-basses and there is an unfortunate tendency for the basic E-flat to be overshadowed by the fifth above it. In the 1997 reissue, and here, the E-flat is given its proper status as the bedrock on which the whole of the prelude is based, presumably by boosting the double-bass sound, an excellent example of the properly musical manner in which the remastering has been undertaken.” I would hope, for example, that the return to the original tapes has not sacrificed this clear improvement, any more than the elimination of occasional studio noises which was undertaken at the same time.

Another minor complaint which I trust will be rectified in the new remasterings must once again arise over the matter of the side breaks (all the more important a consideration on the LP issues). The principal gripe, which I described in 2012 as “quite simply a disastrous example of spoiling a ship for a ha’p’orth of tar” concerned the change in Siegfried from CD1 to CD2 where, as I remarked, “the…break actually comes in mid-note: Windgassen’s phrase “Wo birgst du dich?” ends in mid-air, and the fp string tremolo which should underpin the final word in fact begins the second disc. It may have actually been recorded that way (the same break was made on the original LPs) but it should have been possible in this remastering to restore what Wagner actually wrote and move the break back to a silent bar some time earlier.” This specific point subsequently was picked up a by Arthur Lintgen in Fanfare magazine, who observed pithily that “this will probably be of no concern to most listeners (myself included), but it will probably drive some of those obsessive Wagnerites crazy.” Well, I have no objection to being described as an “obsessive Wagnerite” if the accusation is that I would actually like to hear what Wagner wrote rather than what some producer decrees we should (for purely technical reasons) put up with; but even more, it would be nice to hope that the new issue will finally address and correct this blatant falsification of the score.

But here one must register an uneasy note of caution. Quite apart from the omission of track details and timings, there is one unnecessary typo in the booklet text where we are told of a “feeling of infinite sorry“. The list of “the performers” on the gatefold sleeve includes the names of many singers who are not actually heard on the disc itself. And even worse, there has been an extraordinary degree of carelessness in the preparation of the booklet, where the pages have been completely disorganised so that it becomes quite impossible to read any single article without skipping backwards and forwards. (The text pages come – I think! – in the order 5-6, 20, 19, 7-8, 18, 9-10, 17, 11-12, 16, 13, 15, 14.) This blatant mistake should surely have been noticed – and amended – at an early stage. And there is one other and more clearly deliberate decision that causes flutters of alarm. In order to begin Siegfried’s forging song at the beginning, someone has taken it upon themselves to remove the voice of Wolfgang Windgassen from the first bar. This cannot simply have been a matter of avoiding a fade in during the preceding bars – the end of the Ride of the Valkyries is faded out in mid-vocal phrase – and one hopes that this does not reflect an editing error of the same kind as that perpetrated earlier in the Act on the 2012 CD and Blu-Ray remasterings.

I sound this note of caution, because on their live recording of the Goodall Ring both EMI and Chandos make a similar error in reverse. In all the performances at English National Opera, Alberto Remedios and his conductor (Goodall in London, Mackerras on tour) made a clearly conscious decision to allow Siegfried’s previous phrase to end with a momentary pause before the attack on the Forging Song with the first hammer blow. (That was not what Wagner wrote, but it was clearly a practical decision to ensure that the attack was precise and not hindered by any problems with finding the singer time to breathe.) Similarly on the LP issue of the performance there was actually a side break inserted at that moment (awful). For the CD reissue EMI, clearly guided by their reading of the score, carefully stitched back the passage together so that the final notes of Remedios’s vocal passage were heard over the opening strike of the hammer; and Chandos followed their lead. That – unlike the botched earlier break in 2012 – shows good sense, and actually restores the composer’s intentions; I mention it to show that such decisions can be managed with a little understanding.

But all of these considerations may, of course, already have been taken into account by the Decca production team during their labours on this new remastering. One just hopes that their cavalier treatment of the booklet with this issue has not been extended to other matters. I must admit to some measure of disappointment that the new issue does not include either Culshaw’s still eminently readable account of the recording process itself, or Deryck Cooke’s masterly analysis of the music – the latter even more valuable in view of the fact that the author’s even more comprehensive study I saw the world end was left incomplete at his death. Nor are we to be given any of the supplementary recordings of Wagner with the Vienna Philharmonic and Solti (including both the Siegfried Idyll and Kindercatechismus with their relationship to the music of the Ring) that were included in the bulky 2012 limited edition box. The impressive graphic design for that box, included inside the booklet along with the original LP artwork, is not improved in this reissue with its rather ugly caricature of Solti which (it appears) is also to feature on the individual boxes of the complete set.

Those wishing to procure the magnificent recording in new formats will of course need no encouragement to do so, and those coming new to the performance will find the sound of the discs even better than before. The Funeral March in Götterdämmerung is simply overwhelming (although I wish it could have started a couple of bars before with the timpani beats as Siegfried dies). I am not sure how much further improvement can be added by the use of Atmos to add digitally elements of distance that can of necessity not have been part of the original recording process, and will leave that to more technically minded. What cannot be doubted in the sheer quality of the recordings themselves, which remain as a tribute to a great recording enterprise such as it is impossible to imagine being undertaken in more cost-conscious times such as today. When Culshaw told Walter Legge back in 1958 what they were recording, even then the latter commented: “Of course, you won’t sell any…”

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore (December 2022)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla
Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music
Siegfried: Forging Song: Forest murmurs
Götterdämmerung: Funeral March: Brünnhilde’s Immolation

Cast featured
George London (bass) – Wotan [Das Rheingold]
Set Svanholm (tenor) – Loge
Eberhard Waechter (baritone) – Donner
Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) – Froh
Hans Hotter (bass) – Wotan [Die Walküre]
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) – Siegfried
Gerhard Stolze (tenor) – Mime
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Gottlob Frick (bass) – Hagen
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute
Berit Lindholm (soprano) – Helmwige
Helga Dernesch (soprano) – Ortlinde
Vera Schlosser (soprano) – Gerhilde)
Helen Watts (contralto) – Schwertleite
Vera Little (contralto) – Siegrune
Claudia Hellman (contralto) – Rossweisse
Marilyn Tyler (contralto) – Grimgerde
Oda Balsborg (soprano) – Woglinde
Hetty Plumacher (mezzo-soprano) – Wellgunde
Ira Malaniuk (mezzo-soprano) – Flosshilde