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Michael Tanner's Guide to audio recordings of Der Ring des Nibelungen

Die Walkure

The effect that the Ring, like all Wagner's mature dramas, has on listeners is strong enough to make individual weaknesses in performances, which there are bound to be in any staging or even purely concert performance of a work involving so many individuals, and lasting so long, less damaging than they might be.

But there are limits, and the first thing that is required is a great Wagner conductor. At present there are none, so it is pointless to hope for a great new recording of the work: and the greatest period of Wagner singing, roughly 1920-1960, means equally that we must look further back for our choices of great recordings than we might for most works.

Georg SoltiTitle: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Decca 414 115-2
Conductor: Georg Solti

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The most famous, partly because the first, Ring ever released, between 1958 and 1966, is conducted by Georg Solti with brazen vigour, and has an ostentatiously glamorous sound - in fact it is all sound effects - but its cast consists too largely of great singers not at their peak, and it is a matter of exciting moments at best, rather than a moving whole. It retains immense prestige, but I wonder how many people still manage to survive listening to it through [Decca 455 555-2, 14 CDs].

Herbert von KarajanTitle: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Deutsche Grammophon DG 457 780-2
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan

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It was followed closely by the Herbert von Karajan recording, a very different affair, all refinement and silky textures, except for occasional outbursts of brutality. Already, between the late 1950s and a decade later, we can hear a decline in the standard of singing. Whatever weaknesses a recording can absorb, the roles of Wotan, Brünnhilde, Siegfried and Alberich must be at least fairly impressive, and Karajan's recording, with changes for each of the major roles from one drama to the next, shows that he himself was uneasy with the results, and rightly. Marvellous playing from the Berlin Philharmonic is not enough.

Title: Wagner - Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Philips 446 057-2
Conductor: Karl Böhm

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Not long after that, the first complete 'live' cycle was issued, of performances given at Bayreuth in 1966 and the following year under Karl Böhm. The casting overlaps considerably with the Solti Ring, but he is more sympathetic to his singers, and so is the balance of the recording, as with anything recorded in the Bayreuth Festival Theatre. Böhm is a rapid Wagner conductor, to the point of breathlessness. Though Birgit Nilsson is a fantastically athletic and tireless Brünnhilde, the pathos and tenderness which are such crucial elements in the role largely escape her. And Theo Adam is a dull and dry-voiced Wotan, in a role that should be electrifying from start to finish. It is nonetheless often a thrilling experience, certainly preferable to the first two recordings - though the prompter plays far too large a part [Philips 446 057-2, 14 CDs].

Pierre BoulezTitle: Pierre Boulez - Der Ring des Nibelungen Box Set DVD only
Label: Philips, 070 407-9
Conductor: Pierre Boulez

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Bayreuth's next issued Ring was of the fiercely controversial 'centenary' production of 1976, in which costumes, settings, action were largely updated to the nineteenth century, making the Ring a parable of capitalist greed and decline. Pierre Boulez's conducting makes Böhm sound a slowcoach, and the singing is alarmingly uneven. Seen on DVD, it is still a powerful if not a beautiful experience, but it is hard to cope with those ruthless tempi and the pervasive lack of expressiveness. Only the DVD version is listed as being available at present.

Reginald GoodallTitle: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Chandos, CHAN 3065
Conductor: Reginald Goodall

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At roughly the same time that the Boulez Ring was being conceived, in London a starkly different enterprise was under way: a recording of staged performances, under the by then legendary Reginald Goodall, with English National Opera. He favoured extremely broad tempi, coached the singers for years in their roles, loved every note and yet had a sovereign concern for the architecture of the whole structure. There may be a lack of international stars in this set, but the singing is never less than adequate, and Alberto Remedios and Rita Hunter as Siegfried and Brünnhilde are wonderful and very moving. Andrew Porter's translation has weathered the years very well. It sounds implausible, but this is one of the greatest achievements of Wagner interpretation on disc, and is indispensable for probing the depths and details of the inexhaustible work.

Wilhelm FurtwänglerTitle: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Gebhardt JGCD0018, 12 CDs
Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler

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Meanwhile, many people were sensing that the last great period of Wagner singing and conducting was the 1950s, which opened auspiciously with Furtwängler, the central figure in the history of Wagner performance, conducting transcendent performances of the Ring at La Scala, Milan, with some distinguished singers, above all Kirsten Flagstad as a mature but warm-toned and generous Brünnhilde. Sonically far from ideal, this cycle is nonetheless extraordinarily moving and thrilling, and cheap into the bargain.

Three years later Furtwängler conducted the work act-by-act in the broadcasting studios of RAI Rome, and that is a better-recorded, more consistently sung, less manic view of the cycle, though no-one rivals the sheer muscularity of Furtwängler's Wagner[EMI 7671232]. Both deepen our feelings about the Ring and our grasp of its significance and structure more than any others.

Title: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Label: Orfeo C660513Y, 13 CDs
Conductor: Hans Knappertsbusch

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Yet at Bayreuth at that time there was a cast, largely different from and overall superior to Furtwängler's, which performed the cycle year after year under the great Wagnerians Joseph Keilberth and Hans Knappertsbusch. Orfeo has lately released a 1956 cycle under Knappertsbusch in excellent mono sound, and with an unrivalled team of singers, at mid-price. Tempi are broad, the feeling is of epic spaciousness, and an overwhelming cumulative grandeur.

Title: Siegfried
Label: Testament SBT 4, 1392, 4 CDs
Conductor: Jopeph Keilberth

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The year before, the Decca team of engineers recorded largely the same set of singers in a great cycle under Keilberth, in quite staggeringly impressive sound, and that cycle, now being released on the Testament label, will be first choice when it is completed later this year. So far only Siegfried is available: hear it and marvel. It is a more lyrical, less grandiose view than Knappertsbusch's, but Keilberth rarely fails to rise to the Ring's greatest occasions [Testament SBT 4, 1392, 4 CDs].

If you are adventurous enough to look round for 'pirate' recordings, there is an extraordinary number of them, ranging hugely in price and sound-quality, but if they originate in the 1950s they are almost bound to be worth investigating. There are also several Ring cycles of more recent origin on very cheap labels, but don't be tempted: the casts and/or conducting on them are so uneven as to be frustrating.

Bernard HaitinkTitle: Wagner - The Ring
Label: EMI CMS7647752
Conductor: Bernard Haitink

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There have been several other commercially recorded cycles of more recent date, any of which will excite someone who doesn't know the Ring at all, but hardly any providing sustained satisfaction on repeated listening.

James LevineTitle: Wagner - The Ring
Label: EMI CMS7647752
Conductor: James Levine

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Both the EMI Ring under Haitink and the DGG one under Levine suffer from major cast weaknesses, which can't be compensated for by their sumptuous recorded quality.

Daniel BarenboimTitle: Wagner - The Ring
Label: Warner Classics 2564620912 [14 CDs]
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim

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It's a sign of the times that when Decca attempted to record a new cycle under Christoph von Dohnanyi in the late 1990s, they abandoned it after the second instalment. Best of the modern cycles is certainly that under Barenboim, recorded at Bayreuth in the early 1990, with a fine cast and idiosyncratic but forceful conducting. Several of the leading singers were trained by Goodall, and it shows. And if you want sound of stunning depth and fullness, this and the Testament cycle are the ones to go for.

© Michael Tanner/BBC

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