Decca’s Golden Ring – The 2022 Remaster
An overview by Jack Lawson

These fifteen hours or so of music have been remastered, indeed saved, from 38 deteriorating analogue tapes recorded in Vienna between 1958-65. The quality of the stereo master mix (which was made on location) was vivid and spacious, exceptional for its time, but it never reached the record buyer. Around 1968 I bought the LP set for £42. Pressed by Decca in New Malden, south west of London, it suffered heartbeats, rumble, clicks and pops. A few years later I bought a German pressing on thin but silent vinyl called “DMM” (Dynamic Metal Mastering), but the sound was compressed and thin.

In 1984 the Solti Ring was digitally remastered for the new CD format. I was disappointed by the Sony/Philips 16 bit/ 44.1 “Red Book” release. Digital mastering was in its infancy. Superior issues appeared in 2009 and 2012, first from JVC’s studio in Tokyo (released by Esoteric, Japan on a luxury set of SA-CDs). This limited edition sold in Europe for £500 and continues to fetch high prices from collectors. Three years later Decca re-issued the music on CD. Both came from Decca’s second digital transfer created in 1997. This was an unfortunate year for two reasons: the death of Sir Georg Solti and the fact that sonic restoration was only just starting to become seriously advanced. Not until 2022, when a full 25 years had passed, was the third and definitive remastering undertaken. This is the subject of the present review.

I am happy to report that no compromises or constraints were made. The analogue tapes were carefully repaired. The technique of fixing shedding oxide by baking at 50 degrees was deployed. Edits in the tape were fixed. High resolution “raw” digital files were digitised – that is to say without processing or noise decoding the primitive Ampex (pre-Dolby) treatment at the high resolution of 24/192 – to enable a more sophisticated restoration of the original sound. The result was noise effectively eliminated rather than reduced and signal preserved non-invasively. From this technological miracle, three premium formats were mastered: LP, CD, and BluRay.

Audiophile LPs were pressed in Germany from stampers made in Abbey Road, London. These deployed half-speed mastering for superior dynamics, low frequencies, and detail. You can see the manufacturing process on YouTube.

Super Audio CDs have hybrid layers, compatible with all CD players, but for a fortunate few have the high-resolution DSD layer. Many audiophile CD players and DACs upsample the signal and convert PCM to DSD for superior sound. The 2022 SA-CDs give you both options.

A single Dolby Atmos surround BluRay disc is planned for issue on 30 June 2023 but was not available at time of writing. It will be hard to appraise the surround sound remix given that the format is certified for a wide spectrum of in-ear headphones, portable devices, TV sound bars, and audiophile “home theatre” multiple loudspeakers with centre, sub, and now ceiling (or upward firing) drivers. Decca’s parent company is promoting the format in partnership with the hardware industry trying to encourage early adopters.

The release plans began with a single, sampler/ highlights SA-CD issued on 28 October 2022 and culminate on 30th June 2023 with a luxury complete Ring on LP format with the BluRay disc and full literature. The UK price is a hefty £630, which is probably equivalent to the £42 I saved up as a student in 1968. The complete set on SA-CD will be £370. The four “operas” will be issued separately on LP and SA-CD formats. In all, eleven options counting the sampler disc.

This is “remastering redefined.” Decca has invested in and achieved a technological miracle. A friend described it to me well as a live broadcast from Vienna. To an enthusiast, this experience is worth any money.

Whether LP or Super CD will sound best will depend on your music system. While LPs are collectible and attractive, the DSD silver discs sound astonishing, even on the “hybrid” PCM layer that is read by conventional CD players – and you don’t have to flip discs.

Supporting my assertion of value for money is the fact that, unusual in the record industry, Decca has not held back resolution for the next round of remastering. This is it, folks! I have heard the future and it is an emotional, involving experience. From the opening bars of the flowing Rhine, it is an “Omigod” sensation. Frankly I wept. I cried at the famous singers in my room. Value for money? It is easy to say yes, but as I write, the declining UK economy is making most Brits choose between heat or eat. Is music a luxury? Is the Ring cycle relevant to 21st century or is it entertainment, a diversion from the grime and gloom of real life?

As the movie industry knows, the soundtrack, more than image and acting, transports the viewer to a virtual world. To appraise the performance after all these years, it is widely agreed that Solti’s artistry has stood the test of time, perhaps because it is dramatic rather than introspective. Where the German specialists bypassed by Decca and other singers offer on other labels many insights and pure genius, usually in live (theatre) recordings, Decca’s studio recorded Ring (uneconomic today) just flies and is given the dynamics and spacious soundstage by Decca’s recording engineers and by the remastering team who have risen to the same Olympian heights of accomplishment.

The Solti Ring has been critically appraised as the greatest achievement of the recording industry. Sixty years on, it remains unequalled.

Jack Lawson


I.  The Inception of The Ring and of The Vienna Recording

The drama is about the renunciation of love for power, treacherous transactions and betrayals between mythical creatures, flawed gods, angry giants, heroic humans, evil dwarfs, and the playful Rhinemaidens who are robbed of their gold.

Wagner is noted as writing the libretto but I think much more can be said. In fact, he fused mythology, poetry, and drama, with themed music called “leitmotivs.” This was a flowering of “symbolism” an artistic trend that peaked at the end of the 19th century. The arts and literature were fused and organic, inspired by nature and by an idealism of perfect form (stylised plants and angelic female forms). Gone was the formality of classicism and yet to come was geometrical art deco. This “art nouveau” ended suddenly with the first European war. For fin de siècle architecture see Gaudi’s cathedral in Spain or Macintosh’s School of Art in Scotland. The movement influenced the Arts and Crafts designs and, at exalted levels of society across Europe, the brotherhood and scholarship of the Rosy Cross.

I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude … in the course of three days and a fore-evening. The object of this production I shall consider thoroughly attained, if I and my artistic comrades, the actual performers, shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the true Emotional (not the Critical) Understanding of spectators who shall have gathered together expressly to learn it.

In music, debate has always challenged “meaning” in music: can music be other than abstract? In drama and song, opera for example, music can be mere association or decoration to the words, story, images and meaning. In the late 19th century, composers were challenged by two paths: the classical formalism of Brahms or the fusion of the arts of Wagner.

Wagner clearly constructed a cathedral in sound, especially in the vast edifice of four music dramas, in all over fifteen hours, we call the Ring Cycle. Composed over 26 years and completed in 1874. Necessarily constrained by his time even the dedicated theatre of Bayreuth and the artists never fulfilled all of the composer’s unreasonable requests. This compromise would prevail until a decision was made in London in 1956 by the Decca record company to record a studio performance and to comply with all the composer’s wishes. Six harps, so be it. Sixteen anvils hammering metal bars to create the sound of Alberich’s slaves beating the gold of the Rhine into a powerful ring: so be it.

“It is precisely because the work is so huge and demanding that one should not pass lightly over any detail.” – John Culshaw

Decca appointed John Culshaw as producer, agreeing at first to record the prelude and shortest work, Das Rheingold, as a pilot project. Rival labels predicted sales of records could never cover such ambitious costs. Undeterred, Culshaw made bold choices, aware that the new techniques of the microgroove LP and of stereophony were opportune. “The Decca Ring is all about the sound.”

The Sofiensaal in Vienna is a former bath-house with its cavity floored over and vaulted ceilings. This gives the hall its unique resonant acoustics. Georg Solti, a Hungarian Jew, was appointed conductor over distinguished German specialists. The Vienna Philharmonic was engaged for its precision virtuosity and unique sound: lush, sweet strings, sonorous brass, etc (in the words of Solti). The world’s ultimate Wagner singers were contracted, some near the end of their careers, others just starting theirs. Culshaw was very lucky. He assembled the dream team. All about the sound: in preparation, Decca engineers designed and advanced new technology, from electronics to their famous microphone tree. This was an assembly of selected mics calibrated to cardiod pick up for the singers and outlying omni-directional mics for the orchestra. Culshaw says about two years preparation were made. When the time came, the production team, three engineers, and flight cases of equipment were flown to Vienna where the conductor was met at the airport and the team assembled.

II.  Stereo Or Surround?

There is not a distinct difference as may be thought. Alan Blumlein’s patent for stereo asserts that two channels carry cue data for three dimensions. High Street hi-fi audio equipment lacks the fine detail and renders two loudspeakers in a domestic acoustic as left and right. The industry then tries to sell you more channels spiralling up from 5.1, and now drivers in the ceiling. A carefully crafted and installed audiophile HiFi system reproduces a great deal of height and depth if captured in the recording. From two loudspeakers.

In pre-digital days of purist analogue sound, engineers like Hafler and others devised circuits to extract the out-of-phase ambient data from stereo. This was primitive surround on the cheap, but it worked. The advent of digital sound processing allowed the industry to sell 5, 7, or more pairs of loudspeakers, and so we set down the present road.

Dolby Atmos is the latest surround sound technology but like the string of rejected formats from quadraphonics onwards, it needs early adopters. Is it for music or movies? The music record labels will not issue material until enough people own players and the audio industry will not make devices until there is a catalogue of enhanced music.

The answer is industry collaboration, and Universal Classics, the corporate owner of Decca, is jointly promoting BluRay and Atmos basically by giving away the discs. I will refrain from identifying the parties as scheming gods, cheating goblins, and heroic humans but on 30 June 2023 the complete Ring on vinyl at £630 will include all 15 hours on one high-tech surround sound disc.

At the time of writing, I am not sure how to review this third format given its early stage and the fact that I am not equipped. As stated between vinyl and silver disc, your best sound depends on your quality of turntable and CD player. More so with Dolby Atmos. Aimed at the mass market of portable devices and headphones, the format is artificial and seriously dumbed down in order to collect licence fees. An intermediate level is domestic products like sound bars up to discrete hobbyist loudspeakers, which should be ceiling mounted but can be floor-standing, upward firing. Money permitting, custom installers can do a more impressive media or cinema room in your yacht or penthouse. The best Dolby Atmos is in a cinema near you, and Hollywood is creating movies with engineered soundscapes.

Where does this leave Wagner? I suspect the Decca stereo soundscape has the clues for 3-dimensional sound and I trust the engineers who have accomplished such great results for the stereo mixes.

III. Associated Works

Three authoritative and informed works, often bundled with complete Solti Rings, are essential research.

Deryck Cooke, An Introduction to Der Ring, 2-CD, Decca, 1967
The best exposition of the structure and meaning of the “leitmotivs” which building blocks form Wagner’s monumental structure. Features excerpts from the Vienna recording.

John Culshaw, Ring Resounding, 1967, various editions hard and paperback
From the pen of the producer in person.

Humphrey Burton, The Golden Ring, BBC Documentary, 1965, 90 minutes
Filmed on location in 1965 during the recording of Gotterdammerung.

Release details
Das Rheingold 2 x SACD 4853159; 3 x LP 4852631
Die Walküre 4 x SACD 4853160; 5 x LP 4852635
Siegfried 4 x SACD 4853161; 5 x LP 4852641 – review
Götterdämmerung 4 x SACD 4853162; 6 x LP 4852647
Complete Ring: 14 x SACD + 1 x BluRay SOLTIBUN03; nn x LP SOLTIBUND01
Highlights “Great Scenes from Der Ring” 1 x SACD 4853364

2022 Remaster
Producer: Dominic Fyfe
Engineer: Philip Siney
Tape Research: Jason Repantis
Tape Transfer: Andrew Wedman