I first reviewed the individual compo nets of this "Ring" tetralogy separately, but have now collated those reviews as per below, slightly modified, as the best way of acquiring it is via this super bargain edition.
The individual box-sets of this "Ring" are becoming harder to find, but the cycle as a whole is still available very cheaply; you could do a great deal worse than invest in it to hear this music done justice by a relatively unknown but highly proficient cast. This might not be a first choice when considered alongside starrier, prestige recordings and it is true that if you want a budget "Ring" there are now other options, especially Böhm's, but I maintain that this makes a fine introduction for any Wagner tyro and a great supplement for the seasoned collector. It is wholly convincing and represents extraordinary value.
This super-budget "Ring" was not especially highly regarded at the time of its appearance in the late 60's, especially in the wake of Solti's blockbuster set, but with the passage of time we must surely show greater appreciation for such secure, vividly articulated singing as we hear in this first instalment.
The clean, bright, sound is the product of the placement of just two microphones and there are some nice effects which mimic Decca's, such as the reverberation surrounding Alberich's voice when he commands and terrifies the Nibelungen hoard - and the Alberich here is second only to Neidlinger for the intensity of his singing. None of the singers is a household name or star, although some were regulars on the Wagner circuit and made some valuable recordings; all are native German speakers except for the distinguished Japanese bass Takao Okamura who also sang Verdi bass parts very well. His black Fafner is matched by Otto von Rohr's old school Fasolt. The vibrancy of the Rhinedaughters' singing instantly make the listener sit up and the Wotan is excellent if hardly charismatic or thrilling in the way that the greatest bass-baritones can be. The secondary roles are taken with distinction; there are three first rate tenors as Froh, Mime and Loge - the latter being Fritz Uhl, best known for his "Tristan" eight years earlier with Nilsson under Solti; here he lightens his voice and deliberately assumes a more whining tone as he had already long been singing Heldentenor roles. The Donner makes his mark in his hammer-strike passage towards the end. Ursua Boese is not ideally sepulchral as Erda but still impressive. The Fricka is Ruth Hesse, who went on to have a distinguished career. Only the Freia is a little shrill but not damagingly so. All in all, this is a cast which we would kill to hear today, given the dearth of true Wagnerian voices.
The scratch orchestra, made up of Prague bands and local German orchestras, is very fine and if Swarowsky's conducting is somewhat literal and straightforward - some big moments pass rather prosaically - nor is he irritatingly interventionist and much of the time one is simply listening to Wagner as he is meant to go.
This can be picked up for ridiculously little and makes a satisfying first introduction to a masterwork.
This is recorded in more than acceptable, occasionally slightly wiry, stereo sound, as you may hear from the superb double basses and timpani in the Prelude. Swarowsky goes on to conduct the love music with swelling passion although later some of the narratives need more pace and bite to avoid becoming longueurs. However, the crucial climaxes to Acts 1 and 3 are handled very well, even if in the latter there is some roughness in the otherwise powerful singing of the Wotan, Rolf Polke. He can strain and even yell on his top G flats, yet he is an excellent vocal actor, really makes something of the Act 3 narration which can drag, and his Farewell is very touching and expressive; "So kusst er die Gottheit von dir" is simply magical in its tenderness. Gerald McKee puts in a great few days' work as Siegmund. His legato could be smoother but he has considerable heft and power at his disposal; the sustained cries of "Wälse" are thrilling. His delivery of text can border on the mechanical and stentorian but he finds more expressiveness when caring for his twin in their flight. His Brünnhilde makes a terrific impact on her first entry with her "Hojo-to-hos", cleverly exploiting the break between her registers to yodel magnificently. She can become a tad unsteady but is generally very impressive. She is backed by a first rate team of Valkyries. The Fricka, Ruth Hesse has a big, hooty, powerful mezzo and makes strong impression as the wronged and indignant goddess. Otto von Rohr lives up to his name with his large, purring bass, his lowering, glowering presence oozing menace. Ditha Sommer is considerably more rewarding here as Sieglinde than she is as Gutrune later in the cycle; her soprano can be both fruity and shrill - its registration is not ideally developed - but she is firm and involved, rather in the Rysanek school of protrayal.
First of all, I must contradict a previous reviewer who states that "there are no world class voices here"; I guarantee that if any of the three lead singers were available to sing in modern Wagnerian productions they would be fighting off offers for years to come. Furthermore, we may hear a first class Mime with top notes to rival his Siegfried - in fact both tenors hit notes head on without sliding - and the ability to whine and moan without being irritating, an Alberich second only to Neidlinger despite a bit of swooping, an excellent Woodbird and a superb Fafner in the great Japanese bass Takao Okamura. It is true that Gerald McKee is audibly stretched in the Forging Scene but he gets there, is touchingly tender and boyish in the Forest Murmurs and exhibits remarkable reliability and security in the fiendishly taxing eponymous role. Kniplova has a big, grainy sound which verges on the unwieldy, especially when her vibrato starts to obtrude, but she also has a really solid lower register and a top with that laser penetration essential to a really good Brünnhilde. The Wanderer is the highly competent and experienced Rolf Polke, who sometimes skimps top notes but is generally resonant, tonally centred and very impressive. He might not rival the very best Wotans; he lacks London's heft and Hotter's subtlety with the text, but we are talking about comparisons with the very greatest artist ever to assume that role; this remains a noble assumption.
There has been talk of this being a scratch orchestra assembled haphazardly just for this very rushed recording project but it is really much better than that, being an amalgam of some of the best Czech and German musicians available, and recording the whole "Ring" all of a piece plus "Lohengrin" too over a mere four weeks lent a kind of live immediacy and tension to proceedings. Hans Swarowsky keeps things moving but manages some telling effects, such as the very atmospheric opening, and he finds both poetry and detail in the more lyrical sections of the score, such as in the aforementioned "Forest Murmurs" where McKee acquits himself so well, and the Transformation scene between the smashing of Wotan's spear and Siegfried's discovery of the firewall. Indeed, again despite some acerbic observations from a couple reviewers who I suspect hear want they want to hear from what was so obviously always a budget recording, I hear little wrong with Swarowsky's direction and the climax to this opera really delivers.
The simple two-mike placement gives more than adequate stereo sound.
Always a bargain edition, this is currently available for very little either individually as per here on Weltbild Classics or as a set on the Profil label, both well remastered. It completes an eminently satisfying and distinctly under-rated cycle recorded in haste as something of a scratch recording over a few days in 1968 under the vastly experienced mentor-teacher-conductor Hans Swarowsky. That it is cast in strength is immediately apparent, even if the artists are no longer well known today. I don't think either principal recorded much else but they were established Wagner singers on the circuit, with big, slightly blowsy voices and they acquit themselves magnificently. There is a slight whine in Gerald McKee's Heldentenor, some occasional approximation of notes and rhythms and a few slips in his German but he is the real thing and manages all the difficult passages, including the top C on "Hoiho". I'm not surprised that he sounds a bit tired in the scene where he swears upon Hagen's spear point and yells a bit, but generally he is very satisfactory and would be a star today.
Nadezda Kniplova is really very impressive at times, sometimes sounding like Nilsson in the middle of her voice though occasionally letting a rather plaintive tone obtrude. Like her Siegfried,she has all the notes and is at her best for the climax of the opera. I find her German clear, well enunciated and serviceable. Her vibrato can become too prominent which makes her sound a bit matronly but there is power and stamina aplenty. She, too, delivers on her top C on "Heil" in the opening love duet. It's a pleasure to listen to two such hefty voices rather than the pale substitutes fielded too often these days.
The rest of the cast, with the exception of Ditha Sommer's wobbly, strident Gutrune, is superb. We start with three very strong-voiced Norns and later hear three delightful Rhinedaughters. The Gunther - also a fine Donner in "Das Rheingold" - is almost too virile and nobly voiced for such a craven coward and often sounds rather too like Otto von Rohr, the a black, baleful Hagen - a properly menacing basso profondo - but they are terrific with Kniplova in the crucial vengeance oath scene. The Alberich,as in "Das Rheingold" is second only to Neidlinger for biting scorn and rage and the scene where he appears to Hagen in his dream is superb in its atmosphere and word-painting.
I like Swarowsky's non-interventionist conducting; he never lingers and while listening I simply forgot to note any "interpretation" as it all proceeded so naturally. Either he or the recording brings out some pleasing detail like the piccolo's top line in the Rhine Journey. The orchestra is wonderful, especially the brass; sample the Prelude to Act II to hear their quality. It is matched by the spiritedness of the Vienna State Opera chorus who could not be lustier in the Act II "Hoi-hos" scene.