The Big Listen Solti's legendary 'Ring' cycle

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen by Sir Georg Solti, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

To commemorate the centenary of Georg Solti’s birth, Decca is re-releasing his most famous recording – the complete Wagner 'Ring' cycle, voted the greatest recording of all time. Warwick Thompson gets to grips with this luxurious, limited issue.

Label: Decca Classics

Rating 5

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Wagner wrote the longest operas in the repertoire. Productions of his works are always the most expensive in any opera house. Even Wagnerian singers tend to be plus-size. Which all suggests that your average Wagnerite is used to big things in big packages. But now there’s a Wagnerian object so big, it might surprise even the most avid aficionado.

To commemorate the centenary of the great Hungarian-British conductor Georg Solti (21 October 1912-5 September 1997) Decca is reissuing his legendary recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle in a luxurious new packaging. Roughly the size of an old LP box set, it weighs in at around seven kilos and there are plenty of hefty add-ons.

It costs at least a few hundred pounds to see a Ring cycle in the theatre. People who get hooked on Wagner take his music seriously

It has been released in a numbered edition of 7,000 copies. Solti was an exclusive Decca artist for an astonishing 50 years, so the company has presented Copy No. 1 to his widow in gratitude for his legacy. The remaining 6,999 copies are retailing online and elsewhere at around £200 each. So what bang do you get for your considerable buck? Actually there are several bangs, and the biggest of them is undoubtedly a new remastering of the whole cycle on 14 CDs. The recording (which was made between 1958 and 1965) was last de-clicked and de-noised in 1997. It has now been completely overhauled once more by Decca engineer Philip Siney to make the original sound even more vivid, clear and intense. This version is only available in the new box-set.

Solti’s Ring presents the Vienna Philharmonic on top form, an unbeatable team of singers, and a conductor seemingly inspired by the gods. So a remastering is welcome news indeed. But it still doesn’t quite justify the new price tag alone, so Decca has added in a host of other goodies, including a DVD of the wonderful BBC documentary, The Golden Ring, about the making of the recording, and scholar Deryck Cooke’s famous introduction to the work on two CDs (there’s also a single Blu-Ray audio disc containing the whole cycle).

Ringboxsetimage

Along with the libretti and translation, the box also contains the book Ring Resounding, an entertaining memoir written by the original producer of the cycle John Culshaw (and long out of print). There are art-quality photographs of the performers, and a facsimile of Solti’s marked-up score of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ (with explanations of his markings) too.

I spoke to Raymond McGill, manager behind the project at Decca, and asked him who he thought would spend such a large amount on this admittedly luxurious item? ‘It is a big outlay,’ he concedes, ‘but people who adore Wagner are used to spending big bucks. It costs at least a few hundred pounds to see a Ring cycle in the theatre. People who get hooked on Wagner take his music seriously.’ He also sees the new set as a fitting tribute to Solti’s memory. ‘He was the most dynamic of musicians, and he was never boring. Whatever he did, you simply couldn’t be indifferent to it. This Ring cycle was recently voted the greatest recording of all time by BBC Music Magazine, so what with Solti’s centenary this year and the Wagner bicentenary next year, it seemed the perfect time to revisit it.’

Artists: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti

Warwick Thompson is the opera critic for Metro newspaper, and writes on the performing arts for Bloomberg.com.

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