on 15 March 2009
Wagner's Ring cycle is just too great a work for one performance to be considered definitive. For too long the Solti version - the first complete studio recording to be made - was considered so and, as a result, that by Karajan was relegated to second place. We now can see that Solti (although very fine) did not conduct the 'Ring for the ages' and that Karajan's alternative approach is equally valid on its own terms.
For me, this recording is certainly the most beautiful ever made and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic quite superlative. None of the singers is bad and some are outstanding. However this is Karajan's Ring and his 'chamber music' approach will not appeal to everybody. At times one regrets the dramatic approach of a Solti or a Boehm; perhaps the sound is just too beautiful? At others though you can be completely mesmerised and hear details in the score that are only hinted at in other recordings.
The latest DG remastering is very good and the presentation excellent with individual boxes for each opera and very clear libereti.
I would hesitate to recommend one Ring recording above all others but this one is certainly among the finest for interpretation, performance, and sound quality. It is also a throughly enjoyable listening experience. However this is such a great work, do try and hear other recordings as well - both the modern stereo sets and those recorded 'off air' at the Bayreuth Festival in the 1950's. The Karajan however remains a benchmark performance which well deserves its continuing place in the catalogue.
on 2 March 2007
I have grown up with both Georg Solti's pioneering cycle for Decca and Herbert von Karajan's slightly later DG account. For me the perfect Ring would lie somewhere between the driven excitement of the former and the lyricism and vocal clarity of the latter. On balance, I'd give the vote to Solti for (a) the theatricality of John Culshaw's recording, (b) the grunt of the Vienna Philharmonic and (c)the unwavering consistency of Birgit Nilsson's awe-inspiring Brunnhilde. However if Karajan's smooth Berliners can't quite match the oomph of the VPO they can equal the Viennese for beauty of sound. The many other joys of DG's cycle include Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's liverish Wotan in Das Rheingold, Jon Vickers' incomparable Siegmund and (in the final two operas, but not Die Walkure) the very human and appealing Brunnhilde of Helga Dernesch. Karl Bohm's brisk account of the same period leaves me cold and nothing I have heard in the last 30 years has inspired me to buy another full "Ring". Put a gun to my head and I'd take the Solti, but I'd much rather have both him AND Karajan.
on 18 July 2001
For many years, Karajan's Das Rheingold was my standard for this work, even though Solti, at the time, was the more brilliant alternative. I never owned the complete Karajan set on vinyl, since the recorded sound seemed to lack deep bass and, on many occasions, the appropriate power. However, the 'Originals' transfer has changed all that. Now one really can hear the Berliners at their very finest, and Karajan's unique way of unleashing his forces at precisely the right emotional moment. Many will find some of the singers a shade bland: Thomas Stewart is a dependable Wotan rather than a profound one; Helga Dernesch, such a glorious artist in the flesh, certainly struggles with the very highest notes but brings nobility and sensuousness to the rest; Jess Thomas and Helge Brilioth are both very good Siegfrieds; Vickers is a memorable Siegmund; Ridderbusch a muted but still dangerous Hagen. That being said, the glory of this set is Karajan's special understanding of the score. Listen, for example, to the Prelude to Act III of Siegfried: Karajan brings out Wotan's desperation by concentrating on the horn line, as no other conductor even attempts - and to great effect. Examples of this felicity are numerous and, for Karajan's unique insights alone, this set is worth the outlay: couple that with the Berlin Philharmonic's sumptuous sound, and it is irresistible.
on 9 March 2013
There are two ways you can listen to musical theatre:
a) caring about music;
b) caring about theatre.
The latter is why some people like so much Maria Callas (whom I find rather uninteresting as a singer - sometimes even unpleasant) and why many singers /and musicians) forget their job (music!!!) and start making horrible noises so that the performance is more "likely".
Wake up, guys: opera IS NOT likely: it's a highly stylized tragedy where people (often fat ladies) sing; do you spend your day singing? No, I don't think. Nineteenth century opera is stylized in a far more evident way than twentieth century opera: aria and recitativo first, then Wagner's fluid everlasting music, but it's always obviously music. You have to wait for (Richard) Strauss for some talking-like singing. And even that's singing. And if singers are not singing, then it's no longer opera.
Personally, I look for music quality when I check possible recordings; that doesn't mean I dislike acting, but I look for a different acting - music-styled - from that many people look for.
I believe Karajan's is the best Ring recording I ever heard - even far more compelling than Solti's lifeless rendition (compare just some passages such as Walkürenritt, more vivid in DG), and Karajan's directing is always aware of the singers' presence, so that you hear both characters and orchestra. The cast is superb: great Wotans (Fischer-Dieskau and Stewart), bright Siegfrieds (Thomas and Brilioth), wonderful Brünnhilds (Crespin and Dernesch); plus outstanding minors: Talvelta and Ridderbusch, Stolze and Kelemen, Veasey and Domínguez, Ludwig and Janowitz, and Vickers, most of them doubling.
Karajan's smart and vehement conducting brings the most beautiful sounds and exciting rendition of Wagner's music, in the way I think we could have heard it in 1876, when verismo had just began to be though of, and barking tenors and coughing sopranos were still far away from stages (remember: passionate singing DOESN'T mean bad singing). This means that Callas/versimo fans will find it too polished and smooth, even though it is quite gritty compared, say, to Levine's 1990s Met video recording (I think he was sleepwalking during that performances - you can't play Walkürenritt and so on that slowly and be aware you're doing that!). It's true that Karajan envisioned music in his own way, but, as long as it's Wagner, he carves a wonderful work of colourful, ductile, brisk music. It's all about personal aesthetics (and historical accuracy).
Let me just say about Solti, that his Ring is slow-slow-SLOWER than Karajan's (I'm talking about his tempi, not the total timing): Solti seems to be erratic (or better, with less tempo nuances, starting slowest and then going fastest), going either with a fast oomph or a sleepy zzz, nothing between. Moreover, his big voiced cast is just big NOT great: dark voices that sometimes just can't do it (I'm thinking about Wotan, who, when sung by London, is just a bass singing too high, and, when sung by Hotter, just seems to be chocking). Karajan's singing is smoother, lacking three-penny vocal effects (such as Nilsson's last "hojotoh!" at her first appearance in Walkure act II), and because of that they call it plain and lifeless. But again, it's a Callas era recording: better sneezes and cough than belcanto! Karajan gives a more subtle rendition of the score, leaving heroic oomphs to Solti and weaving a psychological orchestral world where gods and heroes may unravel their inmost fears and ambitions - by the way, Wagner's Wotan/Odin (as an instance) has a psychological development that his mythological counterpart never has (whenever did Oðinn look for Ragnarök?).
Said this, let's try to understand the great question about this set: "Why, oh why, two singers for one rôle?"
It seems many would just say: "He got few money, he did what he could".
It's not that simple: see many recurring characters such as Alberich and Fasolt and 2/3 Rheintöchter who play their parts throughout the recording. See Thomas Stewart who sings Wotan in Walküre in 1967 and Siegfried in 1969, whilst he doesn't sing it in Rheingold in 1968. Here we have to do with Karajan's aesthetics, since he already did something like this in his 1961 Parsifal, where he had two Kundrys: 1) Höngen/wild Kundy and 2) Ludwig/sexy Kundry.
So, all the changes have some motivation:
A) Fischer-Dieskau --> Stewart (Wotan): Young arrogant Wotan vs. old, dependable Wotan (i.e. Wotan willing to dominate the world vs. Wotan willing the world's (and god's) end);
B) Wohlfahrt --> Stolze (Mime): Rheingold Mime is insignificant and miserable, Siegfried Mime is wicked and scheming; Stolze had already played the trickster rôle in Rheingold (Loki is the trickster "par excellence"), so he plays another if lesser trickster rôle (and thanks God);
C) Crespin --> Dernesch (Brünnhilde ): Crespin has a somehow icy voice which suits the warrior goddess, but Dernesch's warm voice is perfect for a loving Brünnhilde (and her mezzo nuances just give her character something quite motherly, so that we understand quite well why Siegfied mistakes her for his mother (other than Freudian theories, I mean));
D) Thomas --> Brilioth (Siegfried): Young Siefgried is an idiot teenager waving a sword, so Thomas' big wild voice is meant to express his wild temperament, whilst Brilioth's brighter voice marks Siegfried's come of age and transformation into a more standard (opera) hero - I think Thomas darker voice also suggests very well the voice of a teenager, not because of its sound but because of its "dirty" nuances, that makes me think of the teenagers' voice change. Thomas did indeed perform Gotterdammerung in Salzburg, so it's quite clear that Karajan just wanted Brilioth for the recording.
As for other rôles that were doubled, here are some theories (my basic theory is that Götterdämmerun for Karajan is the microcosmos of the Ring's macrocosmos - sort of a compendium):
A) Riddersbusch as Hagen?: Talvela, who was said to be singing the rôle, already sung Fasolt and Hunding, two "loving" men (though their love was unilateral and somehow violent - in fact, they both kidnap their love interests); Ridderbusch, on the other hand, played the fratricide Fafner, a greedy man, so he was a more coherent casting, Hagen being Alberich's (the personification of greed) son and Siegfried's half-bloodbrother/brother-in-law (he did not swear blutbruderschaft, but he's Hagen's and Gutrune's half-brother, so ...);
B) Stewart as Gunther: why not Fischer-Dieskau, or Berry or Wächter or whoever? Because it's Freudian: he is the embodiment of power (not a power yet to be attested as in Rheingold, but and old firm power), so he is somehow the father in a double oedipal triangle (Wotan, who tries to stop both Siegmund and Siegfried, respectively his son and grandson, from having Sieglinde and Brünnhlde; and Hagen, who gives Gutrune and takes Brünnhilde for himself); he's not really evil, but he's the patriarch who the son (i.e. Siegfried) must fight in order to become a man;
C) Janowitz as Gutrune: much more than Dernesch's motherly voice, casting Janowitz, who already played Sieglinde, must have some oedipal reflection both on Siegfried AND the listener. Whilst Brünnhilde is a mother because 1) she protected and saved the unborn Siegfried (and gave him his name) and 2) because she's Siegfried's half-aunt (precisely 2/3, since both Siegfried's parents were her half-siblings), Gutrune has no immanent reason so that Siegfried (once forgotten Brünnhilde) falls in love with her, if not something oedipal as I just said.
Think about it.
on 17 January 2011
Although I have spent much time listening to a substantial number of the ring recordings available via spotify (Boehm, Solti, Karajan, Boulez, Levine), it is this cycle that I found myself most won over by and that I eventually purchased (as a student I need to be selective in how i invest my money).
Although Solti's ring boasts singers that are superior on balance (Birgit Nilsson alone being a good enough reason to reccomend the cycle) there are still to my mind not really any weak links in the cast here and nothing like the glowing orchestral sound can be found in any of the alternatives. Passages such as the conclusion to Walkure and prologue to Gotterdammerung are just incomparable in terms of their incredible, sumptuous sound.
Karajan's Rheingold in particular must be singled out as good enough reason to reccomend this cycle. It is easily the most engaging and exciting version I have ever heard.
on 8 February 2012
When I was 16 years old my father bought Karajan's Ring as records. This was my first great experience with Wagner's music. For the next years I only swallowed this romantic power drama and nothing else. In most cases I did this by closing and shutting down the windows, turning on the record player at full volume (with the help of a torch, it was pitch dark), lying on the sofa, closing my eyes and entering another world.
When I was 35 years old I bought Karajan's Ring as CDs. The old love came back. For half a year nothing but Wotan, Fricka, Siegfried and Brunhilde.
Now, at the age of 48 years, I know the clue to this mistery which has only one name: Herbert von Karajan. And I can proof this:
 My first idea of this fantastic recording is that the music is beautiful. Only my second thought is dedicated to the singers. This means: Karajan wanted to present good music, first of all, and not only good voices.
 The average Wagner fan expects singers with big voices. Therefore, he must be a little bit disappointed with this recording. Karajan never engaged singers who shout, bark and bellow but musicians with whom he was able to make good music.
 The orchestra is very important, and with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Karajan could fulfil all his wishes. The orchestra does not accompany the singers, but it always creates the suitable athmosphere where the singers are embedded as part of the whole composition.
 Karajan really makes good music. He never produces noise. On the contrary, in those noisy parts of the composition he always finds a way to see musical lines. This is a definite characteristic of this conducter where he is best of all, even until today.
 Now one word about the singers of this recording: where do you find a better Siegfried than Jess Thomas, where a smarter Loge and wicketer Mime than Gerhard Stolze, where a more revengeful Hagen than Karl Ridderbusch and where a more frustrated Alberich than Zoltan Kelemen ? These are only a few brillant singers out of many, not to forget Christa Ludwig as Fricka and Waltraute, Gundula Janowitz as Sieglinde and Jon Vickers as Siegmund.
 I recommend not to listen to this music as a whole but to devide the CDs into subsections of a few tracks and to repeat those several times. Only then, the full intoxication carries you away and makes you a hermit to all other wishes of the world.
Now, Doctor, I am ready to go. I have already put on my white clothes, my white jacket and my white shoes. Please, please, can I take Karajan's Ring with me in my white bag ?
The drama and politics surrounding the creation of Karajan's ring, on Disc and Stage simultaneously almost rivals the plot intricacies of the Ring itself! There is a book to be written that would make John Culshaw's Ring Resounding read like a Beatrix Potter! DG did not want to record it, did not support Karajan financially with it and were unhelpful in terms of casting artists. In order to get the project off the ground Karajan had to create a Salzburg Easter Festival , again with little financial support, arrange to record the works in advance to be able to use the orchestra tracks for early rehearsals on stage as he could not finance the BPO being present , and "sell" the productions to the Met in advance. Karajan is usually "blamed" for some of the choice of artists-the plain fact is that he could not get many of the artists he actually wanted without the non-forthcoming support. To some extent, he found himself making the best of a bad job as a result.
The surrounding tales, whether true or apocryphal are legion-Did Fischer-Dieskau record his Wotan separately in a studio to a "backing tape" subsequent to the main recording? Christa Ludwig certainly agreed to sing the 2 final Brunnhildes but abandoned the task some few weeks before Siegfried was due to be staged as she just could not cope with the role physically, with Dernesch almost being "plucked out of the chorus" to save the day-the falling-out between Talvela and HvK leading to Ridderbusch replacing him as Hagen etc.-all this adds fascinating background.
Suffice to say, here we are interested only in the final results. There is no greater lover of Wagner's music than I-I buy all complete recordings (and most extracts discs too!) and have all the current available commercial recordings of The Ring.I am also an unalloyed admirer of Karajan so would love to give this set AT LEAST 5 stars as it is a unique and fascinating achievement, almost beathtaking in its beauty at times. Let me first dispel a myth-apart from Act one of Die Walkure , this Ring is generally quicker than Solti's -Solti was of the slow school at this stage of his career, but the rhythmic dynamism and nervous energy make it seem faster.
Whether Karajan's so described "lyrical cosmos" as opposed to Solti's "Ecstatic Dynamism" was by force majeur or his absolute vision is a moot point-the resultant experience is in general magical.
Individual performances are very much a matter of subjective taste-reading other reviews I find myself in disagreement with many contributors-I find Crespin, Thomas Stewart and Jess Thomas to be superb, and Gundula Janowitz unsurpassed as Sieglinde.There are no really weak castings at all-the faults, for there are some, lie with Karajan and the recording respectively. Karajan goes "off the the boil" quite markedly twice-the climax of Rheingold after the death of Fafner, more or less from "Schwules Gedunst" onwards and the result is really dull-and Gotterdammerung apparently ends with Siegrieds Funeral Music as the maestro loses interest from then on-with again dull results.
As far as engineering is concerned, when Gotterdammerung was released on vinyl, its dynamic range made it almost unplayable in domestic conditions-super quiet followed by super loud. The re-mastering has not corrected this , and worse there is now an inordinate level of tape hiss which is distressing.
The Rheingold has virtually none by comparison. DG have missed a trick here. I would not want to discourage anyone from buying this magnificent Ring-it is the "sine qua non" for many, but there are drawbacks-and the final one is the cost! At nigh on £100 it is not cheap-if you are looking to buy only one recording, the Bohm now re-released at under £30 would be an obvious choice-for a markedly different experience of course. So the Karajan Ring is artistically superb, mostly, but let down in some few areas, hence the 4 stars only. One final vignette-there is again a story (true? urban myth?) that having heard the Solti Rheingold in 59 Karajan offered to record the Ring for Decca (with Rheingold last!) as he was recording for them with the Vienna Phil, but Culshaw would not break his word (there was no contract) to Solti. If only.....Stewart Crowe.
COROLLARY SEPTEMBER 2012. A new biography of the late Fischer-Dieskau and referred to in the "128" Magazine of the Berlin Philharmonic CONFIRMS that D F-D broke his toe prior to the Rheingold recording, and DID indeed "dub" his performance as Wotan in an empty studio with no Karajan or BPO. After this Rheingold, D F-D was not cast again by Karajan either in concert or opera much to D F-D's annoyance and regret. Not an Urban Myth after all. SC.
on 11 September 2013
These remarks come after decades of exploration and comparison - going back to and forth. What actually strikes me apart from anything else is that there are no dead passages: everything is understood. I think particularly of something like the third act of Die Walküre which even with the finest conductors most often seems like a broken backed affair compared with acts one and two (if finally redeemed by Wotan's Farewell and the Magic Fire Music). On the other hand with Karajan the flow and the expression are convincing throughout and you know exactly why Wagner wrote it as he did.
I don't know why people complain about chamber music: that's how much of it should be: when the force needs to be overwhelming it is - I have just been listening to the end of Rheingold and the Wallhall motif, loaded with irony, towers like in no other recording I know. The real idiosyncracy - and I wouldn't say it doesn't matter - are all the changes in cast from opera to opera: two Wotans, two Brünnhildes, two Siegfrieds. Perhaps strangest of all is Stolze returning after Loge in Das Rheingold as Mime in Siegfried, his sound being so distinctive that it is hard not to make a spurious continuity (even if this is a common practice). As we know nearly all of this was planned and it may be that Karajan was searching for expression that he would not have achieved if he had stuck to one singer to a role.
Almost everything is beautifully executed, and the rhetoric is always right. Of course, there are incredible things in several other recordings (Boulez and Sawallisch among my favourites) but none of them realise as much as Karajan overall.
I wish there wasn't a sidebreak between Forest Murmurs and Siegfried's horn call (which wasn't even on the original LPs).
on 29 January 2011
I've heard ths epithet applied to the Karjan recording, because its 'intimate', internal approach seems to contrast so vividly with Solti's extroversion. While perhaps overstating the case, I can see what is meant by it: predictably, Karajan is smoother, less excitable than Solti (while never being exactly phlegmatic) and it's eay to see why some people, coming off the Solti version, feel that this recording lacks drama. Drama there is, though, but of a more internalised kind: I feel that Karajan's gods, giants and dwarfs in Rheingold are recognisable human beings, not the superhero/villian figures we get in Solti; and the same is true of the familial relationships in Walkure and Gotterdammerung.
Thomas Stewart is a hugely impressive Wotan, extremely virile and masculine and still (one senses) in the prime of life. Crespin, though not ideally suited to the role of Brunhilde, does catch the femininity that evades so many other interpreters. Jon Vickers is, as always, a tower of strength as Siegmund, but Gundula Janowitz as Sieglinde leaves me cold: I know I'm out on a limb here, but I always find her singing static and unmoving (and her timbre has a disturbing similarity to that of Aled Jones!). Some people think Jess Thomas is seriously underpowered as Siegfried, and I can see what they mean: but he doesn't spoil things for me and the set is lifted by the appearance of Helga Dernesch's Brunhilde.
If you like the Ring, I'd say this is a mandatory set, which you should at least hear, even if you decide you don't need a copy for your shelves.
on 11 July 2010
This is the best Ring on record, and by some considerable margin. It is as beautiful as it is restrained. Voices are in balance with the orchestra, and each scene is in its own place in the whole epic. The entire thing plays like a single piece, recorded as a single effort (some achievement across several years), by a conductor who deeply feels the great range of this epic's emotions and arranges both the orchestra and voice choices to deliver a unified vision. Most importantly, the recording is engineered to be listened to as music, not pumped up for live-effect bombast - we can watch DVDs, attend performances, or listen to live recordings for that effect.
If you are reading this and haven't made up your mind already, here is the key point - it is the beauty of Wagner's music that transcends. The music is ultimately why sensible people listen to 15 hours of a gods and dwarfs story written 150 years ago. And this is where Karajan has something special - the idea that the music is so powerful, it doesn't need bigging up with recording drama, brisk pacing, steely vocal pyrotechnics and other stunts on offer elsewhere. The music is best served by controlling continuity and balance, and letting the interwoven motifs wash into the listener's brain.
I have followed the received wisdom and listened to alternate versions, including the Solti and Keilberth (Testament) in full. I found the Solti unlistenable except in fragments cued on the set pieces. In fact, it sounds better in excerpts in Deryck Cooke's Introduction to the Ring (which I very much recommend) than in its entirety. One word best describes my feeling after long sessions of listening to the Solti - exhausted. I like the Keilberth, but I think it's value is in the memory of great live performances of the era. I have also listened to parts of Bohm and Barenboim, and own the DVD set of the Boulez-Chereau centenary Bayreuth production. I tried a couple of the earlier, poor quality live recordings, but it's an acquired taste. Watching a performance is a different experience, but as audio presentations go, this Karajan set is quite special.
(The US Amazon site has a larger selection of reviews of this Karajan set.)