I'm recommending this 2-disc set because it's the best way I know of at the present time to get an inexpensive, manageable, accessible introduction to Wagner's masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly called the Ring. The Ring is a sequential cycle of four operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. With the exception of Das Rheingold, they are all of great length (Wagner was a colossal egotist who seemed to believe that no opera could be too long if he was its composer). As a result, acquiring and getting familiar with the entire Ring is an expensive and time-consuming proposition (my choice among complete Ring recordings, the landmark Solti/Vienna Philharmonic set on Decca/London, is 14 CDs costing around $145-$160). Wagner purists will object to any attempt to excerpt "highlights" from the Ring, and they do have a point: unlike the standard Italian and French operas, which are readily divisible into recitatives, arias, duets, etc., the Wagner operas do not lend themselves to excerpting, with the result that "highlights" sets like this one are a collection of "bleeding chunks" torn from the body of the whole work.
Nevertheless there is a need for a way to approach the Ring, to be introduced to it and to get its flavor, and this generously filled (2 hours 28 minutes of music) 2-disc set fills that requirement reasonably well. These are excerpts from all four Ring operas from live 1966-67 performances (the second Wieland Wagner production) at Bayreuth, the famed Wagner Festspielhaus in Bavaria; they are not studio recordings. They are not great performances, but they are good, capable, workmanlike ones. The sound is not the equal of the better studio recordings (like the Solti and von Karajan cycles), but it is good enough: clear and never objectionable. The conductor, Karl Bohm, was not a great Wagnerian; he gives a competent reading, favoring brisk tempos, generally lacking repose, keeping things moving along in a business-like manner, but the result is that he seems more interested in moving on to the next scene than in shaping the scene at hand to realize its full potential. His performance overall is characterized by persistent, even relentless, forward pressure. Sometimes this works, sometimes not; if he can be accused of insensitivity, of failing to make the most of his opportunities, he can't be accused of lingering, melting, dawdling, going slack. He is certainly not in the class of Solti or Furtwangler as a Wagner conductor. The notes all get played, but there is little magic fire coming from the pit here.
Most of the singers are able and well suited to their roles, and they are all singers who actually sang their roles on the operatic stage (not just in the recording studio). Outstanding are Birgit Nilsson and James King. Here is a chance to hear Nilsson, the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the second half of the twentieth century, "live" in her most celebrated role, Brunnhilde (who figures in the last three Ring operas), and that is an opportunity not to be sneezed at. She offers ringing vocal power, amplitude, stamina, with a brillliant, secure top, an unusual combination that is rarely found in Wagnerian sopranos, and she has no competition in any of the other complete sets except the Solti, where she is competing with herself. When it comes to unleashing her huge voice and letting it soar out over the potent Wagner orchestra, she has no peer, and reminds us of what great Wagnerian singing, heroic singing, used to be all about. James King is the Siegmund in Die Walkure (as he is in the Solti set), and his bright, attractive tenor and musicianly singing are a treat after the ersatz, makeshift Heldentenorizing we've usually had to make do with in Wagner since Melchior retired in 1950. Compare his singing here with the dry, threadbare, underpowered Siegfried of Wolfgang Windgassen--whose creditable performance is a triumph of professional skill over lack of natural resources--and you will see what I mean. Theo Adam as Wotan knows his stuff (he was a well-regarded Wotan) but his vocal endowment is not prepossessing either; he too, like so many Wagner singers of the post-Flagstad-Traubel-Melchior era (i.e., after 1950), is underpowered for the role.
This 2-CD set has direct, head-on competition from a similar (and similarly priced) Deutsche Grammophon 2-CD set of highlights from the Ring. The DG set is from the Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic studio recordings of the Ring operas (1967-1970). Here's how I stack up their pros and cons: The Bohm set has generally superior, more involved singing, including Nilsson as Brunnhilde, by singers who sing the same roles throughout (no switching horses in midstream, as in the Karajan, which has two different Wotans, two different Brunnhildes, and two different Siegfrieds), and who actually sang their roles in the opera house, not just in the recording studio (this is a problem with the more "artificial" Karajan set). Also, since the performances are "live," there is a certain sense of vividness, immediacy, and excitement missing in a studio recording. On the other hand, the Karajan set offers generally superior conducting and orchestral playing; his studio recording can be more note-perfect (with its opportunities for re-takes); and the sound of Karajan's set is better than that of Bohm's live performances (although still not as good as Solti's Ring, or the best more recent opera recordings).
So, between the Karajan and Bohm 2-CD Ring highlights sets, there is not a clearcut winner. To make choosing more difficult, both are priced the same and both offer very generously filled CDs (both have about two and a half hours of music). I marginally prefer the Bohm "live" performances, but I couldn't argue with anyone who listened to them both and preferred the Karajan.