The Solti Ring Remastered...Again
WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen (digitally re-remastered)
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, Clair Watson, many others; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti
London 455 555-2 (14 CDs). 1966, 1997. John Culshaw, prod.; Gordon Parry, eng.; James Lock, re-remastering eng. ADD. TT: 14:36:56
Also available separately:
Das Rheingold, London 455 556-2 (2 CDs). 1958, 1997. TT: 2:25:45
Die Walküre, London 455 559-2 (4 CDs). 1965, 1997. TT: 3:48:59
Siegfried, London 455 564-2 (4 CDs). 1962, 1997. TT: 3:57:05
Götterdämmerung, London 455 569-2 (4 CDs). 1964, 1997. TT: 4:25:07
A few conductors have perhaps equaled Georg Solti in their conducting of Richard Wagner's baton-breaking Der Ring des NibelungenKarl Böhm, Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Keilberth, and Reginald Goodall have all had coherent visions of the work which they were able to translate effectively to disc. But no one has ever equaled what Solti, producer John Culshaw, and what looks increasingly like a hitherto unsuspected golden age of Wagner singers, together accomplished: what is still the recording art's crowning achievement. No one has bettered Solti's London/Decca Ring in terms of sweep, scope, grandeur, dramatic immediacy, and sheer adrenalin. His Ring was the first in stereo and the first recorded in the studio. Four decades after its first notes were laid down on tape, it also remains Solti's greatest accomplishment.
But the very popularity of Solti's traversal of the Ring's four component music-dramas, recorded between 1958 and 1965, meant that they were, in 1984, among the very first analog recordings to be reissued on compact disc. The Solti Ring thus fell victim to all of early digital's worst faults: a foreshortened soundstage, midrange glare, painfully screechy highs, and sibilants that were excruciatingly overemphasized or omitted entirely.
The only sound that seemed to have been transferred with absolute fidelity to the 1984 CDs was the master tapes' considerable hiss. It was no longer possible to sit through the four hours of Siegfried, or even the two-and-a-half hours of Das Rheingold, without a bad case of earstrainthe dreaded digital "listener fatigue." If any great recording of the past seemed to beg for digital reremastering, it was this one.
Now James Lock, London's mastering engineer, has done itin celebration of the 50th anniversary of Solti's affiliation with London, and, in an unhappy accident, as a memorial to the late conductor. The result is a fascinating example of the paradoxes that run through any art, whether that of composition, conducting, or recording: how much restraint is required to do the job right, and how the most important differences can call the least attention to themselves.
Lock understood his assignment to be "de-hissing the Ring." He used CEDAR's "latest device," the DE-HISSER DH2, to "significantly lessen the hiss without damaging the musical end result." Lock's liner note shows admirable humility in the face of a complex, constantly changing technology, and an awareness of certain audiophile unanswerables that would do a hard-core subjectivist proud: "When, after all, does tape noise end and music begin? Does the 'hiss' create a false impression of extra overtones on the old recordings? The answer is very subjective..."
The new set is certainly attractive enoughthe elegant packaging reinstates most of the original art from the debut British LP releases, and takes up half the shelf space of the previous CD edition. Rheingold is now on two CDs, not three, and the new versions of Walküre and Götterdämmerung each eliminate one of the previous set's music-interrupting side breaks.
When I began listening to the re-remastered Ring on my entry-level system (Vandersteen 2Ce's), the differences between the 1984 and the new version were subtle enough that I wasn't sure they could justify replacing the older discs, or even if some of them were there at all. But two CDs later, when the gods had entered Valhalla to those final crashing chords of Das Rheingold and I was pulling out disc 1 of Die Walküre to continue the saga, I realized that something unprecedented had happened: For the first time in listening to Solti's Ring on CD, I felt no digital listener fatigue. My ears didn't hurt. I could have listened to these discs all day. In fact, I did. More was going on here than was clearly audible.
I dropped by Wes Phillips' house to do some comparisons on his very revealing (but not "analytical") $7000 Dynaudio Contour 3.3 speakers driven by $19,000 worth of Mark Levinson electronics. Most of the differences were still subtle, but now it was clear what was happening.
Analog tape hiss had been most egregious in the quieter passages of the two oldest recordings, Das Rheingold (1958) and Siegfried (1962). (Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre, recorded in 1964 and 1965, respectively, took advantage of the quieter mixing console installed in the recording venue, Vienna's Sofiensaal, in 1964.) Though not entirely eliminated, the hiss has been much reduced, and seems not to have taken the overtones with it. On the new CDs, the hiss seems less a part of the music itself and more of a discrete artifact that, after a few minutes, the listener's subconscious easily and automatically "reads out." The result is a deeper soundstage, a far more clear and distinct bass, and highs more airy but less harsh.
Two places ideal for comparison are the famous Rheingold Preludehere the differences in hiss between the two CD versions are anything but subtleand particularly the Siegfried Act II Prelude. In the latter, some of the Ring's darkest music, Wagner sets the scene for Fafner's cave, in which the giant-turned-dragon guards the Ring and the rest of the Nibelung hoard. The orchestration is appropriately heavy and thick, the score weighted toward timpani and the lowest ranges of the trombones, contrabass trombone, bass tuba, and double basses. The brass are now warmer, more true, but most pronounced are the differences in the lower midrange. On the 1984 CDs, the orchestral textures were thick to the point of overloaded opacity. Here, though the re-remastering doesn't provide the X-ray clarity that some digital recordings offerand which Wagner, with all his voice-doublings, worked very hard to avoidwhat I now hear sounds like the dark richness of those instruments in that hall, with a minimum of extra thickening added by the recording medium.
George London and Gustav Neidlinger were blessed (or cursed) with two of the brightest baritones in all opera. On the old CDs, London's voice had such unbearable glare that it was sometimes difficult to hear what pitch he was singing. Here that glare is considerably tamedhe no longer sounds like a cheap trombone. Neidlinger's harsher tones still have some brassy edge and blare, but now even that sounds more like an aspect of his uniquely harsh voice than a terminal case of digititis.
Wotan's Narration in Act II,ii of Die Walküre ("Als junger Liebe") is even more revealing, if more subtly so. This is another mostly quiet passage with a good bit of bass content, but it is Hans Hotter's immense, foggy baritone that is the focus of the music and the recording. On the 1984 version Hotter sounds as if he's singing in a disembodied space inset into the broader, deeper orchestral landscape, his voice very "live" in the worst ways: bright, jazzed-up, brassy, hard-edged, "brilliant" in a way that Hotter simply never sounded. On the new CD he sounds, simply, real: warm, human-scaled, his voice fully integrated into the shared ambience of orchestra and singers with no loss of clarity. The older CD sounds as if an old-fashioned loudness contour had kicked in: not so much exciting as artificially excited. The new set excites on its own terms: distortion has been removed, not added.
Birgit Nilsson's massive, steely, icepick-in-the-forehead soprano could overload a 3000-seat opera house, let alone a mere stereo systemwith the old CDs, I cringed at the approach of her high C. But here those notes ring out clear, icy, and full, without the occasional breakup and more-frequent dentist's-drill edge of the '84 discs. And with all of the voices, changes in position within the soundstageproducer Culshaw took great pains to convincingly "stage" the dramaare now more evident. The result is a considerably improved dramatic immediacy.
But, again, the most important difference between the editions was cumulative, and not at all subtle, even on my system: the complete lack of ear fatigue after five or six straight hours of high-volume Wagner. The new Ring seems to possess all the advantages of digital and analog: low noise floor, little or no surface noise/tape hiss, and a top end as open as it is listenable. While the music retains all of its tension and vibrance, the sound itself lets the listener in more easily; it's simply more relaxed.
Which means that you will be too, regardless of the quality of your system. Even if you buy this new edition and hear not a single one of the differences I've described, I expect that, after listening to one of these four-CD operas, your ears will feel a lot better than mine invariably did after hearing one disc from the earlier set. If have a more serious high-end system, you'll hearand appreciatethese differences even more.
The liner notes of the '84 edition boasted hollowly that those early CDs would provide a "lasting impression...of a great recording experienced more vividly than before." Thirteen years later, that promise has been fulfilled: James Lock has done an outstanding job of re-remastering one of the greatest recordings of all time. I applaud his sensitivity and restraint.