It is ironic that a work like The Ring, which is a dauting challenge to conductors, orchestras, soloists and choruses, has been blessed with several outstanding recorded versions. Among stereo versions, the Solti has rightly been favored for its superb cast, great playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, passionate conducting, and still-remarkable engineering, including sound effects. Of course, there have been caveats, including the view that Solti, while certainly bringing forth the raw passion of the score, sometimes lacked a certain coutnerbalacing subtlety, which made for a certain brashness and lack of the gravitas and mystery also in the music. Because of this, I have always had a slight preference for the live Bayreuth versions under Krauss and Kempe, with the Krauss perhaps havng a slight edge because of certain of the soloists. Both recordings are hihgly desierable, although being mono, they lack the clarity and sonic impact of the Solti. Well, that situation may come to an end with the release of the Stereo Keilberth/Bayreuth performance from 1955.
As is well known, Decca recorded this cycle, only ot have John Culshaw veto its issue because of his prejudice against recording live performances. If this "Rheingold" is any measure of the rest of the cycle, this will be a Ring with which to contend. To begin with, Keilberth, well-known in Germany but not appreciated elsewhere, sounds like another unsung hero if the podium. His conducting is in the Krauss/Kempe manner, energetic, fiery, yet fully appreciative of the mystery of the music. The very first scene in the Rhine begins darkly, gravely, and gradually builds to swirling figures that really sound like water flowing. The Rhinemaidens are saucy and exhuberant, absolutely exhilirating in the "Rheingold! Rheingold!" hymn to the gold. Neidlinger's Alberich is even more brilliant here than other Rings, both demonic and desperate. Hotter delievers his finest Wotan, even firmer of voice than in the hallowed Krauss of three years earlier. Kuen likewise is a more musical Mime than usual, and the rest of the cast leaves nothing to be desired; I am especially impressed with von Illosvay's dark, foreboding Erda. Throughout, Keilberth maintains an unusually firm yet flexible hand on the music, taut but never rushed. How he could remain overlooked as one of the conductorial greats is mystifying. And the sound surpasses any other recording, even the Solti, because of the unique clarity and balance only found at Bayreuth. The stereo effect is entirely natural, never exaggerated. What you hear is the orchestra at your lap, supporting and never overwhelming the singers on stage. This is a "Rheingold" for the ages; if the rest of the Ring (I am soon going to purchase "Die Walkuere") measures up to this, then this will be the essential Ring.