Notes and Editorial Reviews
This set includes
"The Birth of an Opera" featuring rehearsals for the Tristan und Isolde's performance included in this set with narration by John Culshaw.
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
A recording of Lohengrin in which the first voice heard is that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is playing for high stakes. Moreover, even before this most magnetic of Heralds has made his mark, Sir Georg Solti has moulded the great arch of the Prelude with fine judgement, the long line emerging with marvellous certainty and eloquence. Each department of the VPO is on top form, the woodwind outstanding even for this orchestra, and the recorded sound is full, widespread but well focused. In a phrase, the final item of Solti's Wagner cycle for Decca is superbly launched. But is its promise fulfilled? Do the high stakes pay off?
The short answer is 'yes'; and although, as one would expect with any enterprise as complex and protracted as the recording of a Wagner opera, it is a 'yes' with some reservations, these amount to relatively little. So far as casting is concerned, Solti has made no secret of his views on the current crop of Heldentenors. So, instead of Peter Hofmann or Siegfried Jerusalem, both of whom have given fine performances of Lohengrin in the theatre, we have Placido Domingo in the title role. Not so exotic or daring a choice as may at first appear: Domingo has already recorded one other major Wagner role and has sung Lohengrin in the theatre. Domingo is notably, if not uniquely, versatile in what is now the post-Vickers generation of opera tic tenors, but even he cannot be expected to sound authentically German in Wagner. For many listeners, this will not matter in the slightest: after all, Lohengrin is a stranger in Brabant, and Monsalvat is closer to Madrid than to any northern city. A good test of whether it matters or not is provided by the opening of "In fernem Land", where Domingo's unidiomatic German is most pronounced. My own view is that the 'accent factor' is noticeable but never irritating, as it might be in an interpretation of lesser musical distinction or dramatic credibility. The crucial point is that Domingo sings the music, and interprets the role with so much conviction: the nobility and anguish, the devotion and despair, all are vividly realized. In this he is greatly assisted by the Elsa of Jessye Norman, the tone fined down to a ravishing beauty in the extensive lyrical music. In the Bridal Chamber scene of Act 3, supported by Solti with characteristically fervent but never fussy attentiveness, Norman and Domingo lift this performance to the loftiest heights—beautiful as sound, gripping as drama. Earlier, in the Act 2 exchanges with Ortrud, this Elsa reveals an imperious streak that could give the character an improbable strength of purpose. But the sheer ardour of Norman's singing ensures that a plausible impulsiveness remains the central quality.
To say that the opera's other principals (the Herald apart) are cast more from stock may be to damn with faint praise, but there is always the danger that, with two such special leading singers, the remainder may pale in comparison. Not Hans Sotin, a positive as well as sonorous King Henry. But neither Eva Randova nor Siegmund Nimsgem seems to me ideal in this company. Randova is a tireless, effective Ortrud in the theatre, and her voice is well suited to the character's wiles and sinister asides. But in the great outbursts there's a lack of sheer attack and amplitude, of the blend of fullness and force that makes Christa Ludwig for Kempe on EMI and, above all, Astrid Varnay on the currently deleted Keilberth set so superb in the role. Solti's choice of Siegmund Nimsgern for Telramund might be questioned even more determinedly, simply because he has already recorded the part for Karajan (EMI) and cannot be said to produce a significant rethinking of the role here. Though excellent in the implacable recitatives of Act 1, he is too much the ranting Alberich in Act 2. Those who admire Donald MacIntyre's power and authority in the role might well feel than an opportunity has been missed. Meanwhile, in the absence of Hermann Uhde's absorbing account for Keilberth, it is Fischer-Dieskau for Kempe who conveys most of the character's genuine torment, and keeps mere villainy most successfully at bay.
Solti's Act 2 is therefore not on the same high level as the rest. Apart from the bluster of the Ortrud/Telramund scene, the later exchanges between Elsa and Ortrud tend to lose momentum as Solti's rather slow tempos don't quite fit together. But Solti's hand is generally sure as well as strong, and that despite some very broad tempos. He knows better than to hurry the big processions—that only makes them sound even longer And the recording, the Sofiensaal's swansong, is splendidly lifelike and spacious. Only in the final ensemble of Act 1 was 1 disconcerted by the closeness and clarity of the solo voices, simply because one never hears them like this in the theatre. As a studio recording, nevertheless, this is far less mannered, in tempo and balance, than Karajan's, even though that account has qualities which far outweigh its irritations. In some ways Rene Kollo's interpretation of the title-role for Karajan has a greater range, from harshness to tenderness, than any of the others. Greater than James King's for Kubelik on DG, certainly, for despite the fine voice, heard at its best at the end of "In fernem Land", this is a Lohengrin more resolute than regretful. It's the latter dimension that both Jess Thomas (Kempe) and Wolfgang Windgassen (Keilberth) capture so well. Since the best complement to the new Solti would be a live recording, the sooner the Keilberth 1953 Bayreuth version is reissued the better; despite the dated sound it remains a thrilling and touching experience, unlikely, one suspects, to be easily surpassed, even by Bayreuth itself.
Many readers will have vivid memories of getting to know Solti's Wagner over the years, especially if (like me) they can remember first hearing that radical Das Rheingold when it was new, in 1959. In its dramatic vitality, emotional honesty and directness, and its sure integration of the small into the large, this Lohengrin ranks with the best that Solti has given us. The CD format is particularly welcome, since it enables us to hear Acts I and 3 on single discs, with sensible track divisions. Maybe it is too special to be that elusive, scarcely conceivable phenomenon, the definitive Lohengrin. But it provides a magificently bold, imaginative conclusion to one of the greatest projects in the history of sound recording.
-- Gramophone [10/1987]
Der Ring Des Nibelungen
"'Not again!' could be the seasoned reader's reaction to the above heading. But even classics of the gramophone have to move with the times, and in its latest manifestation the Decca Ring, first issued on CD in 1984-5, is now available at medium price.
Thirty years to the month from the first LP issue of Dos Rheingold, a brief reappraisal may not come amiss. As perspectives on the Solti/Culshaw enterprise lengthen, and critical reactions are kept alert by the regular appearance of new, or newly issued, and very different recordings (Krauss, Levine, Haitink) it may seem increasingly ironic that of all conductors the ultra-theatrical Solti should have been denied a live performance. There are indeed episodes in this recording that convey more of the mechanics of the studio than of the electricity of the opera house—the opening of Die Wiilkure.. Act 2, and the closing scenes of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, for example. Yet, in general, dramatic impetus and atmosphere are strongly established and well sustained, sometimes more powerfully than is usually managed in the theatre. As just one example I would instance the superb control with which the intensity of Donner's summoning up of the thunder in Das Rheingold is maintained across Froh's greeting to the rainbow bridge (which often falls flat in the theatre) into Wotan's own great salutation. At the majestic climax of this scene the power of feeling conveyed by George London's fine performance counts for more than any 'artificiality' in the way the voice is balanced against the orchestra. Equally memorable in a totally different context is Solti's management of the long transition in Gotterdammerung between Hagen's Watch and the appearance of Waltraute. Nothing could be less mannered or unnatural than Solti's grasp of perspective and feeling for the life of each phrase in this music.
Even so, I am not proposing to offer a full-blown revisionist interpretation of Solti's Ring, arguing that he always prefers deliberation to impetuosity and that the recording itself has the ideal natural balance. On CD the clarity of instrumental detail is consistently remarkable, and while not all the singers sound as if they are constantly in danger of being overwhelmed (Hagen's Watch is a good example of an appropriately forward vocal balance) there are some vital episodes, especially those involving Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson. Where awareness of what these artists achieved in other recordings strengthens the suspicion that they may have been giving more than we actually get in this case. Windgassen in particular is not allowed to dominate the sound-picture in the way his part demands, and Nilsson can seem all-too relaxed within the comforting cocoon of the orchestral texture. Factors like these, coupled with those distinctive Soltian confrontations between the harddriven and the hammily protracted, have prevented the Decca cycle from decisively seeing off all its various rivals over the years.
It is nevertheless still open to question whether any studio recording of The Ring could reasonably be expected to be more atmospheric, exciting or better performed than this one. The Vienna Philharmonic are not merely prominent, but excellent, and such interpretations as Svanholm's Loge, Neidlinger's Alberich and Frick's Hagen remain immensely impressive. Above all, there is Hans Hotter, whose incomparably authoritative, unfailingly alert and responsive Wotan stands up well when compared to his earlier Bayreuth accounts. Nowhere is he more commanding than in Siegfried Act 1, where one even welcomes Stolze's mannerisms as Mime for the sparks they strike off the great bass-baritone. Earlier in this act the interplay of equally balanced instruments and voices in relatively intimate conversational phrases displays the Culshaw concept at its most convincing. So there can be no doubt that, despite the occasional thumps from Solti, and however many other Rings you may have, your collection will be the poorer without this one."
-- A.W., Gramophone [3/1989]
"Solti's singing cast could hardly be stronger and the complex balances of sound are beautifully caught; throughout, Solti shows his sustained intensity in Wagner."
-- Penguin Guide [2003/4 Edition]
Tristan und Isolde
"Nilsson is masterly in her conviction and she never attacks below the note, the
Liebestodis al the more moving for clean attack at the climax. Fritz Uhl is a sensitive Heldentenor. The production has the usual Decca/Culshaw imaginative touch."
-- Penguin Guide [2003/4 Edition]
"Solti gives one of his very finest Wagner performances on record, helped by superb playing from the Vienna Philharmonic and an outstanding cast, superlatively recorded."
-- Penguin Guide [2003/4 Edition]