TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 March 2014
If you are seeking the best single, stereo, studio recordings of the “Ring”, it is now apparent that the twin peaks of Solti’s and Karajan’ cycles, regardless of their relative weaknesses and failures, will never – at least in the foreseeable future - be exceeded.
If you include the 1948 mono radio broadcast by Moralt and live recordings by Furtwängler, Keilberth, Krauss and Knappertsbusch in the 50’s and 60’s, the competition for more modern recordings becomes even tougher, especially as so many of these sets have been subjected to skilful, tasteful, state-of-the-art re-mastering by such as Pristine to render them technically enjoyable beyond an historical collector’s wildest dreams. I do not personally rate any of the post-cycle 1970 studio cycles by such as Boulez, Janowski, Haitink and Levine, simply because, for all their virtues, they do not feature the plethora Wagnerian vocal giants who sang in that earlier era.
However, Böhm’s “Ring” drawn from the 1966 and 1967 Bayreuth cycles, somewhat straddles the two live and studio categories in that the recording is “live composite”, thus combining the advantages of the momentum of a live performance with the ability to patch minor flubs or select better versions of certain passages. I think I have been under-estimating - or perhaps neglecting - this Ring" for many years, having always preferred to pick and choose amongst different cycles or simply buying individual issues, such Leinsdorf's "Die Walküre", which to my mind remains the single most satisfying of all recordings of this one opera, but if you are looking for one complete set, this latest re-mastering is such a bargain that there can be no argument: this is it.
A previous reviewer states that Böhm's and Solti's casts are "virtually the same", which is something of an exaggeration but they certainly have several superlative artists in common, starting with Birgit Nilsson's Brünnhilde, a role which she herself called her finest hour, towering above all other assumptions. She is partnered by a young James King as Siegmund and the ever-reliable Wolfgang Windgassen, even if he was never anyone’s ideal Siegfried. The roster of great Wagnerians is bolstered by the incomparable Alberich of Gustav Neidlinger and four Big Beast Basses: Gerd Nienstedt (I tend to confuse him with Neidlinger for obvious typographical reasons) as fine Donner and a lowering Hunding, Josef Greindl as Hagen, Martti Talvela as a massive Fasolt and Kurt Böhme as Fafner. As is so often the case with that great artist, Leonie Rysanek begins in husky voice and "lowing" too much, but becomes a radiant, gleaming Sieglinde as she warms up. Eminent singers such as Helga Dernesch (Wellgunde), Anja Silja ( Freia and Third Norn) and Martha Mödl (Waltraute) pop up in a variety of smaller roles. With Böhm at the helm, what could go wrong?
You might have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the Wotan. For some, even the incipient wobble in Theo Adam’s tone is off-putting, but is on his best behaviour here and his vibrato is far less troublesome than I remembered it. True, his bass-baritone is somewhat lighter than the ideal, but the top is thrilling and he is very moving and expressive in his handling of the text. To be fair, Solti and Karajan are hardly problem-free in the Wotan department; an aging Hans Hotter is decidedly labouring by the time he came to record the role for Solti in “Die Walküre” in 1965, and Karajan’s ill-advised miscasting of Fischer-Dieskau in “Das Rheingold” still brings tears to my eyes. Furthermore, Böhm’s Wotan is consistent throughout the cycle, whereas both Solti and Karajan use two different singers – although I find both George and London and Thomas Stewart superior to Adam in terms of vocal splendour.
Böhm’s pacing throughout is urgent and driven; some deem him unduly rushed but this suits many for whom this tetralogy is prone to longueurs and he is clearly galvanised by the circumstances of live performance. Audience noise is minimal and the re-engineering has removed most of the hiss without compromising the upper frequencies.
The re-mastering is triumphant and I see copies of this set available on Marketplace for around £20 - ridiculously cheap by any standards and still a great bargain at the proper list price for a new set. Decca included this "Ring" in their 33 CD "Great Operas from the Bayreuth Festival" box set which of course offers only the complete "Bayreuth Ten" operas performed at that festival. From a production point of view, that was a slapdash affair: no libretto (although that can be downloaded easily enough), paper sleeves, minimal documentation, wrong timings and misdating of "Das Rheingold" and "Siegfried" as 1971 instead of the correct 1966, but the sound was still superb.