Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) – Siegfried
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Brünnhilde
Hans Hotter (bass) – Wanderer
Gerhard Stolze (tenor) – Mime
Gustav Neidlinger (baritone) – Alberich
Kurt Böhme (bass) – Fafner
Marga Höffgen (contralto) – Erda
Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano) – Woodbird
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 1962
Decca 485316-1 SACD [4 discs: 237]
Triumph! Rejoice! Victory!
And it is indeed a triumph, in which we should all rejoice and celebrate a victory. When I first reviewed Solti’s epoch-making set of the Wagner Ring back in 2012, I commented then that there was one fly in the ointment which prevented the luxurious box containing the recording from being the complete triumph which it should have been:
“The side breaks here remain as in 1997, which is unfortunate in Siegfried where the first 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 can be done, as Decca themselves demonstrated with a similar passage in their CD reissue of the Dorati recording of Strauss’s Aegyptische Helena where the break between sides 1 and 2 of the original LPs was re-assembled, or as their fellow Universal company DG did between LP sides 5 and 6 of their Pfitzner Palestrina. Instead, and with incredible lack of awareness, they have instead inserted [on the Blu-Ray disc] a pause of a couple of seconds right in the middle of a supposedly continuous passage. The German company responsible for the sub-contracted Blu-Ray transfer make great claims for their technical engineering work on their website. Did their engineers even look at Wagner’s score at this point? This is quite simply a disastrous example of spoiling a ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.”
I also went on to observe that “the break between the last two discs comes after Wotan’s “Weisst du, was Wotan will?” where Wagner’s score indicates Langes Schweigen; but this is a dramatic pause – the supposedly all-wise Erda is unable to answer his question – and a better break could have been made just after Siegfried’s entrance some minutes later, where the Goodall set (in both its EMI and Chandos issues) makes it.
When I returned to the recording earlier this year, reviewing the sampler disc that Decca had produced as a herald of their new remastering, I once again raised my concerns about the side breaks on the CDs with a plea that this should be addressed – but also expressed some rather dark forebodings about the prospect, which some disastrous proof-reading in the booklet with that disc did nothing to dispel. But let us all rejoice with unbounded joy, because someone at Decca has finally realised that there has been a problem with all the releases of this recording going right back to 1963 and has done something about it. Indeed they have not only done precisely what I recommended regarding the side break in Act One (finally restoring the music as Wagner wrote it), but have also taken the opportunity to shift the break in the opening scene of Act Three to a more appropriate place slightly later on – indeed, to exactly the point that I suggested in my 2012 review. Since no other critic had ever made such a suggestion, and indeed Arthur Lintgen in Fanfare magazine had commented that my complaints were those of a “Wagner purist”, I think I may be entitled to add a mild claim to a personal victory as well. Future generations of listeners to the Solti Ring may wish to thank me silently as they listen to their new recordings – and Decca, too, of course.
Having got my little bout of self-congratulation out of the way, let us turn to the other very real gains in these remasterings. I mentioned earlier when reviewing Decca’s sampler disc that the differences in sound between the new SACD discs and the 2012 Blu-Ray were quite noticeable, partly as the result of a return to the original 1960s tapes which at the time of the 2012 release were regarded as beyond salvation or restoration. Hearing whole sections of the recording continuously makes it clear how the subtle differences in perspective bring new insights. The voices, which in the last transfers had a sort of semi-isolated existence in an acoustic superimposed onto that of the orchestral sound in the hall – rather like a film soundtrack – are now slightly more recessed, more clearly placed on a stage somewhat behind the orchestra in what is obviously a more realistic theatrical balance. This can sometimes have its disadvantages, especially with Wolfgang Windgassen’s hero whose voice seems slightly smaller in more conversational passages. In more strenuous sections such as the forging scene, on the other hand, the resonance seems to increase although whether that is the result of sympathetic microphone placement or the singer naturally turning up the volume might be the subject of argument – I suspect that there are elements of both. But then, how many times and how often would such considerations even enter into play during the course of listening to a performance? Is it not simply the nature of the production that invites such scrutiny, which we would never dream of applying even to a live performance in the opera house? Other voices too suffer from the shifts in perspective; the unsteadiness of Hans Hotter, especially in Act One when Culshaw remarks in his Ring Resounding that the singer was becoming tired through overwork, becomes more noticeable with his occasional asthmatic “woof” more evident that any other point in his performance. Gustav Neidlinger, on the other hand, benefits from the more precise observation, and the performance of the two basses in the opening scene of Act Two is thoroughly enthralling and dramatic with the contrast ideally realised between their quarrels and the distant voice of Kurt Bohme’s Fafner resounding from his cave.
One of my other niggles in my original review of this recording concerned Gerard Stolze’s Mime, which remains an acquired taste. In this new version the clarity of the sound brings his precision of pitch into better focus, and the actual sound of his nasal characterisation is improved. Nonetheless there remain his chillingly inappropriate war-whoops when attempting to poison Siegfried (when he recorded the role for Karajan some years later, these had been toned down considerably). The first two of these are if anything more prominent in the new remastering, but the final one has receded somewhat behind the more agitated orchestral and vocal lines that surround it. The remainder of the singing is as excellent as always – Joan Sutherland and Birgit Nilsson incontestably the greatest assumptions of their roles in any recording anywhere – and there remains only one other minor concern.
In the final Act the opening prelude has a thrilling sense of excitement and presence, but the following scene between Wotan and Erda brings further doubts about balance. Hotter has clearly been placed well forward in the audio spectrum, and sounds steadier than in his Act One utterances (which were recorded some six months later). On the other hand Marga Höffgen is observed at decidedly more of a distance, not only when she emerges from her deep caverns (when she descends she has been reduced to a dumbfounded silence) but throughout the whole of the scene. The dynamic range between the two voices is much wider than it was on the last remastering, and indeed so great as to give the impression that Höffgen was a much weaker singer than she actually was (even if Jean Madeira in the same role in the Solti Rheingold was more commanding in tone). If this was indeed what Culshaw captured on the tapes, the later digital smoothing out of the contrasts might indeed have been to the benefit of domestic listeners. It is rare that I find myself hankering after a reduced dynamic range, but this might be one of those rare occasions. But then again the results may well be more realistic.
But these are distinctly minor quibbles. Those who delight in the sheer sonics of Culshaw’s production and Solti’s excited traversal of the score, but who have chafed at the annoyance of the inconsiderate layout of the music on discs, will welcome this new remastering with open arms and Stolze-like whoops of rejoicing. The new booklet, not quite as luxurious as that with the 2012 set, is nevertheless an excellent piece of presentation and devoid of the errors of collation that plagued the booklet with the Golden Ring sampler. John Culshaw’s introductory essay from the original LP set is retained, along with the text with Stewart Spencer’s translation and many new photographs. And all of the material is provided in both English and German. The discs are packaged in an LP-sized sleeve together with the booklet, considerably less bulky than the 2012 edition.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
see also Decca’s Golden Ring – The 2022 Remaster an overview by Jack Lawson
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