Recording of January 2013: Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, Gustav Neidlinger, Gerhard Stolze, Gottlob Frick, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kirsten Flagstadt, Set Svanholm, James King, Régine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, many others; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti
Decca 0289 478 3702 2 (17 CDs, 1 BD, 1 DVD). 195866/1997/2012. John Culshaw, prod.; Gordon Parry, eng.; James Lock (1997), Philip Siney (2012), remastering. ADD. TT: 14:36:56 (Ring only)
Gramophone called it "the recording of the [20th] century"; Stereophile named it No.1 of the 40 essential recordings of all time. Fifty-four years after the first Rheingold sessions, there is still nothing like this history-making first studio recordingby conductor Georg Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic, and producer John Culshawof Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, originally taped and released on LP from 1958 to 1966. The unsurpassed quality of singers and orchestra, Solti's astonishing ability to tell a dramatic story in music, the epic scope and sweep of work and performanceand the sound, as much a wonder for our own time as half a century agomake these recordings seem more precious, their combinations of qualities less likely to ever be repeated, with every passing year.
This deluxe set, issued in a limited edition of 7000 numbered copies and listing for $300, contains what Decca claims is the "definitive" edition of the recordings, remastered for CD in 1984, again in 1997, and now yet again. But it contains much more. Inside a white slipcase is a black slipcase; inside that are four LP-sized hardbound volumes. Vol.1 is Culshaw's book-length memoir of the recording of the operas, Ring Resounding, long out of print. Culshaw wrote well, and his story is fascinating. Vol.2, The Music, contains a Blu-ray disc of the entire tetralogy in higher-than-CD resolution (see below); the 14 CDs of the Ring; a CD of Wagner overtures (Rienzi, Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser) recorded by a rather frenetic Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic in the years of the Ring's recording, and two chamber works associated with the Ring, the Siegfried Idyll and Kinderkatechismus, the latter out of print for at least 30 years; and the two CDs of musicologist Deryck Cooke's excellent Introduction to the Ring.
In Vol.3, The Guides, are five large-format prints of session photos; a booklet reproducing Decca's promotional materials: Gramophone's reviews of the original LP releases; a 2009 collection of reminiscences of the recordings by various musical worthies; the complete text of Cooke's Introduction (out of print since the original LP edition); facsimiles of Solti's marked-up score for The Ride of the Valkyries, with detailed explanations; and, on DVD, The Golden Ring, Humphrey Burton's terrific 1966 documentary film on the recording of Acts II and III of Götterdämmerung. Vol.4 is The Libretti, in Wagner's German and Stewart Spencer's English. In short, it's everything the serious lover of this work and this recording could want, all in one place, beautifully organized and designed.
There was great improvement in the sound of the Decca Ring between the 1984 and 1997 CD editions; for the latter, the late mastering engineer James Lock did a terrific job of "de-hissing" the master tapes, using CEDAR and other tools, and archived the results as 24-bit/48kHz files (though the 1997 CDs were of course still only 16/44.1). It's well he did; when engineer Philip Siney returned to the master tapes to prepare this new edition, they had so deteriorated as to be unusable; Lock's hi-rez archives were used for the new CD and BD versionsand will be, I assume, for all future reissues.
See the January 1998 Stereophile for my detailed report of the 1997 edition, which still sounds very good. The new versions almost always sound better, though to varying degrees. In the prelude to Das Rheingold on CD, the celli now only seem spread farther across the soundstage, but on BD there are many differences: The double basses' low E-flat has greater bottom-end authority; the eight horns in canon are much easier to distinguish from one another by nuances of phrasing and microdynamics that reveal each player's distinctive interpretation of the theme, the final top note sounding different each time; and there is a greater sense of verticality of soundstagenot really possible in two channels, and surely a trick played by my ears, but Vienna's Sofiensaal sounds more its actual size.
In the very dark music of the prelude to Act II of Siegfried, the 1997 CD still had lots of unavoidable hiss; the hiss is audible on the new CD, but the greater palpability and texture of timpani heads and the increased "blattiness" of the low brass now take the fore. On BD, the hiss seems much lower in level, but perhaps only in contrast to the smidgens of greater bottom- and top-end extension, which make big differences in the experience of this music. They particularly affect the voice of Gustav Neidlinger when he entershis sibilants and consonants are far more audible; in contrast, all earlier digital editions suddenly sound muffled.
In the prelude to Siegfried Act III, the new CD has increased clarity in the rising brasses in the background figures of this complex music. The BD adds to this a wonderful sense of "air" for the piccolo and flutes at the climax, which tend to either get buried by the churning brass and violins, or just become part of a general high-frequency hash. Not here, not any longer.
With the beginning of Wotan's Narration in Act II of Die Walküre, I heard no difference between the 1997 and 2012 CDs. But as I listened to the BD, I realized that the subtle differences I was hearing applied to all of these test passages. At 24/48, my experience of the music as it unfolded in time seemed to slow and expand. It wasn't Solti's tempos that seemed slower; rather, my experience of musical duration itself had altered. More musical information was being presented within a given span of time, which increased the density of musical meaning per moment. A minute, an hour seemed longer while listening to BDnot because it was more dull or tedious or difficult to endure, but because so much more was happening within it.
Listening to the last section of Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, in Act III of Götterdämmerung, as I switched from 1997 CD to 2012 CD to 2012 BD, the sense of audible space among instruments and parts, and the depth of the soundstage, increased. But on the BD, when Birgit Nilsson hit one of her uniquely perfect high notes, the spacethe hallseemed to open up above and beyond my speakers. Or rather, the sense of musical space seemed to have grown. This sort of audible improvement, repeated again and again, quickly became indistinguishable from a sense of increased mental space in which all of this glorious music and sound could be more capaciously entertained.
Which enters the realm of the imponderable. What needs no pondering is whether or not this is the best sound yet for these historic recordings, or if this set is a fitting tribute to the late Georg Solti on the centennial of his birth. It is both. The price seems reasonable at $300 (ca $200 at Amazon). The 1997 CD edition will remain available; although Decca has as yet no plans to release separate, lower-priced CD and BD editions of the new 16/44.1 and 24/48 remasterings, that seems inevitable; and soon they will be available for digital download. But at any price, these performances deserve to be heard in the best possible sound. This set delivers it, and much more.Richard Lehnert