Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde in  Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1989 Bavarian State Opera ‘Ring’
Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde in Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1989 Bavarian State Opera ‘Ring’

Half a century ago Der Ring des Nibelungen represented the Everest of classical recording. It ran to 19 LPs – a mammoth investment as much for record companies as for record collectors. Today the market is awash with 14-CD sets, some of them incredibly cheap, supplemented by a healthy variety on DVD. This proliferation of Ring recordings will be matched in coming months by a feast of live performances, starting next month at London’s Covent Garden, as the opera world celebrates the bicentenary in 2013 of Richard Wagner’s birth. So: which version should opera-goers turn to as they prepare for the upcoming Ring-fest in the theatre?

If 14 hours in an opera house is a stretch, a complete Ring at home is asking even more. Dedicated Wagnerites think nothing of comparing six or seven sets at leisure, but those of us living in the real world are unlikely to have that sort of time. Given the extraordinary demands the four Ring operas place on interpreters and listeners, it is worth sorting out the best from the rest.

It must have been a matter of pride to Sir Georg Solti that his version, the first complete studio recording of The Ring, remained top choice from the 1960s, when it came out, to 1997, when he died. It still holds good today. I always get goose-bumps when I hear Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic reaching the climax of Siegfried’s Funeral March, and it is impossible to imagine such a stellar cast – Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, James King, Gottlob Frick, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – being replicated. In that sense, Solti’s Ring is “of its time” – a golden era for Wagner singing. In every other sense it is timeless. Humphrey Burton filmed some of the later studio sessions (on DVD as The Golden Ring) and record producer John Culshaw wrote a book (Ring Resounding) about how the Solti Ring was made. Both are fascinating adjuncts to the listening experience.

Once that summit was scaled, others followed and were duly forgotten, including Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic and James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. Solti’s only rival is Joseph Keilberth. Taped live in stereo (by the same record company) at the 1955 Bayreuth festival, Keilberth’s set was ditched when Solti’s studio version became a prospect, and lay in the vaults until Testament rescued it six years ago. Many Wagnerites now regard it as superior to Solti, and I can understand why: it is less manic and more obviously “of the theatre”. You get a sense of a vintage Wagnerian ensemble at its peak.

Also in contention is Karl Böhm’s 1967 Bayreuth set. It shares some of Solti’s cast but profiles Leonie Rysanek’s exciting Sieglinde and shows how much warmer Nilsson’s Brünnhilde could be in the theatre than in the studio. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s early 1950s Italian Radio Ring (not to be confused with his inferior Milan recording) is revered for its monumental grandeur and Martha Mödl’s humane Brünnhilde, but the sound is boxy and mono. Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1989 Bavarian State Opera Ring, with a cast led by Robert Hale and Hildegard Behrens, has many merits – on CD, not the DVD version. Sawallisch conducts with fire, the sound has atmosphere and Julia Varady’s Sieglinde is a huge plus.

The Ring on CD allows you to enter the world of gods, giants and Gibichungs on your own terms – without visual distraction. But two DVD versions succeed in communicating powerful ideas about The Ring without narrowing its focus. Patrice Chéreau’s centenary staging at Bayreuth changed the face of Wagner interpretation and includes the most sexually charged scene of any opera on film – Jeanine Altmeyer and Peter Hofmann in the closing scene of Die Walküre Act One. Filmed more than 30 years ago, the Chéreau Ring is still worth watching, despite singing of mixed quality and Pierre Boulez’s un-Wagnerian conducting.

Just as powerful dramatically, and much more persuasive musically, is the late 1980s Daniel Barenboim/Harry Kupfer “runway of history” production, also from Bayreuth. It turned Wotan – John Tomlinson as never heard before or since – into the most human of Wagner’s mythical creatures, consumed by ambition, energy and temperament. Barenboim’s conducting has an epic quality, and the performances he and Kupfer drew from Siegfried Jerusalem, Anne Evans, Linda Finnie and Graham Clark have survived the test of time.

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