Georg Solti
Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker
20 May – 24 November 1964
Sofiensaal Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedWolfgang Windgassen
BrünnhildeBirgit Nilsson
GuntherDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
GutruneClaire Watson
AlberichGustav Neidlinger
HagenGottlob Frick
WaltrauteChrista Ludwig
WoglindeLucia Popp
WellgundeGwyneth Jones
FloßhildeMaureen Guy
1. NornHelen Watts
2. NornGrace Hoffmann
3. NornAnita Välkki

The Decca ‘Ring’, recorded in Vienna between 1958 and 1965, is what used to be called a classic of the gramophone. Decca assembled casts of the leading Wagner singers of the day to record the tetralogy. They also spared no expense. For example, John Culshaw, the producer, relates in his book about the project, Ring Resounding, that two of the three Rhinemaidens, Gwyneth Jones and Maureen Guy – Lucia Popp was the third; what a trio! – were flown out to Venna from London to record their contributions, lasting in total about 16 minutes, and were then flown back that same evening in order to fulfil commitments at Covent Garden. Though, inevitably, the soloist roster changed from one music drama to another, the constants in the whole project were the Vienna Philharmonic and Georg Solti (his knighthood came much later).

The recordings have been through several iterations. Most notably, in 1984 the cycle was remastered and issued on CD, and in 2012 another remastering (from 1997) was issued on Blu-ray Audio. In 2022 Decca announced that, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Solti (1912-1997), ‘The Ring’ would be reissued on SACD in a new remastering. Here, now, is the final instalment in the SACD release: Götterdämmerung.

So much has been written about the Decca ‘Ring’ over the years. On this site alone I would refer you to Paul Corfield Godfrey’s magisterial 2012 review of the tetralogy when it was released on Blu-ray Audio. There was also a later review of the BD-A issue by Brian Wilson who declared: “The Solti Ring has never sounded better in audio terms”. It was reading the appraisal by Paul which caused me to invest in the BD-A, when it was available individually (without the CDs). You can also find plenty of perceptive comment from Ralph Moore in his survey of ‘The Ring’. In appraising this latest reiteration of Götterdämmerung it seemed to me unlikely that I would have much to add to the existing literature about the performance itself. Instead, I have approached the task by concentrating on the audio side of things and, specifically, by making comparisons between the 1984 CD release (kindly loaned to me by Len Mullenger), the 2012 BD-A, and the brand-new remastering on SACD. To ensure a level playing field, I listened to everything on the same player, a Marantz UD7007. Normally, when reviewing I do some of my listening through headphones. On this occasion, though, I waited for opportunities when I had the house to myself, cranked up the volume and let the sound flood out of the speakers.

In the booklet accompanying the SACDs we read that Decca “have utilised a completely new set of high-definition 24 bit/192 kHz transfers of the original two-track stereo master tapes”. There’s further enlightenment as to the nature of the task: “Working with 38 reels of original master tapes – some up to 65 years old and spanning seven years of recording – there were inevitably instances where some individual tapes needed edit repairs or suffered oxide shedding. Tapes in poor condition were baked for ten hours at 55˚C to restore their integrity”. MusicWeb has already published a discussion of this remastering – and the previous remastering history of all four recordings – in an article by Jack Lawson.

So, having set the scene in a kind of Vorspiel, what does the music sound like in its latest incarnation – and compared with earlier releases?

Listening on CD to the Prologue and the initial appearance of the Norns, I thought there was, perhaps, a touch of graininess to the string tone, though the VPO’s overall playing establishes a terrific atmosphere. The Norns are all excellent. The SACD sound took my experience of the performance to a different level. Now I could hear the sumptuous richness of the orchestral sound. Those arresting horn chords compel attention and the opening bars seem to well up in a way that leaves the CD far behind. All sections of the orchestra now sound resplendent. Furthermore, the three Norns are heard to better advantage: not only are the voices themselves reported in a much more present fashion, but also one gets more of a sense of the acoustic space around the singers. I felt that the BD-A sat between these two formats: the sound is an enhancement on the CD but without quite the degree of presence and depth of tone that the SACD offers.

The First Act duet between Brünnhilde and Siegfried is exciting in all three formats. Listening to the BD-A, the urgency and ecstasy in the singing of Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen is palpable. Once again, though, the SACD offers an enhanced audio – and therefore musical – experience. Nilsson’s voice seems to have acquired even more presence and there’s an extra roundness to her tone which, I’m sure, more truly than ever before reflects what those in the Sofiensaal that day would have heard. Windgassen’s voice is also heard to better advantage. The ardour in the music is unforgettable. In the Rhine Journey which follows, the SACD enables us to hear the VPO in all its glory. The recording does full justice to the orchestra’s wide dynamic range. The sound shows up what some, including me, may feel is the rather pinched tone of the oboes but, on the other hand, it reveals the full golden splendour of the horns and brass.

The second scene of Act I ends with Hagen’s monologue ‘Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht’; it is a terrific example of the magnificent role interpretation of Gottlob Frick. The CD presents his imposing, dark voice well against the deep, black sound of the orchestra. The ominous orchestral interlude which follows also comes over very successfully. How much more there was in Decca’s tapes became apparent when I switched to the SACD. Before we’ve heard a note from Frick, the orchestral sound is riveting. Now we can properly hear the sombre depths of the low brass and woodwind instruments and the results are gripping. Frick’s voice sounds, if possible, even more sonorous than before; the voice seems bigger and even more daunting. The result is a performance of this section which is vocally and orchestrally compelling. In the subsequent orchestral interlude, the enhanced SACD sound means that the listener experiences a dark atmosphere that is almost tangible. This was but one passage where I found myself marvelling at the fact that I was listening to a recording which is, at the time of writing, fifty-nine years old; frankly, it’s astonishing.

I was just as impressed by Frick in his scene with Alberich in Act II, scene 1 (Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’). This is one of the passages where John Culshaw and his team controversially (at the time) used recording techniques to create what one might term a theatre of the mind for the listener. Such inventive production techniques are commonplace nowadays but in the 1960s they raised eyebrows. The SACD translates into vivid sound the eeriness with which Gustav Neidlinger’s voice was recorded at the beginning and end of the scene; Culshaw’s visionary approach is completely vindicated. As for the performance itself, Solti and the VPO establish great tension in the short Prelude, after which the exchanges between Hagen and Alberich are riveting. Has there ever been on disc a more effective exponent of role of the wily Alberich than Neidlinger, I wonder? Here, there’s an evil edge to his voice which is entirely appropriate.

One episode which I was especially keen to hear on SACD was the point in Act II, scene 3 where Hagen summons the Vassals. It’s a thrilling passage in any of the three formats. The CD conveys the immediacy of Frick’s voice; perhaps there’s a bit of edginess in the orchestral sound, but not to an extent that troubled me. The steerhorns ring out menacingly and the mens’ voices are strongly projected. The SACD sound is in a different league, however. For one thing, the definition in the orchestral sound is significantly enhanced. Frick’s voice is immense. Be assured, there’s no barking: this is just tremendously powerful singing; he produces a huge sound from what must have been a very large chest cavity. It’s formidable Wagner singing. And then there are the three steerhorns. Culshaw and his team rejected the conventional (and cheap) option of using three trombones and instead went to considerable trouble and expense to have three steerhorns made specifically for this recording. Trombones? Pah! These steerhorns are the real deal. One player stood on the stage next to Frick and the other two were positioned at a distance. The baleful, primitive sound of the instruments comes across thrillingly on SACD, fully vindicating Culshaw’s obsession with authenticity. Faced with such an elemental summons from Frick and the steerhorns, could any vassal not obey? The men of the Wiener Staatsopernchor respond with full-throated alacrity. This is an all-round performance that raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. The SACD offers sound which has great impact and definition; the sound of the brass is particularly punchy. The BD-A sound has more definition than the CD but it hasn’t got quite the visceral impact of the SACD, nor does the sound have the same body and impact.

In his survey of the ‘Ring’, referenced earlier, Ralph Moore says this of the Decca Götterdämmerung: “If ever I want to convince anyone of the greatness of this recording, I turn to the oath-swearing trio concluding Act 2, when Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen, superbly sung by Nilsson, Fischer-Dieskau and Frick respectively, vow to wreak revenge on the unsuspecting Siegfried – it’s electric. The whole thing tingles throughout…” Naturally, this statement impelled me to experience the scene on the new SACD. The CD sound certainly conveys the intensity of the exchanges between Hagen and Gunther, to say nothing of Brünnhilde’s vengeful interjections. On this evidence alone, Ralph’s judgment is correct. The BD-A offers a bit more definition but, truth to tell, it doesn’t advance the CD experience all that much. Put the SACD into the player, however, and the music fairly leaps from the speakers. It’s not just that the voices have more impact; in addition, you can hear more ‘around’ the voices. If this were not enough, the orchestra seethes and a tremendous amount of detail registers. The VPO horns are simply magnificent but, then, the whole orchestra is on superb form. This scene offers great Wagner singing and as you listen, especially in such vivid sound, you may wonder if there is a more intense episode in all opera.

My first exposure to this new SACD incarnation of Götterdämmerung came a few weeks ago in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio when my colleagues and I listened to Siegfried’s Funeral March, comparing the SACD and CD. Before I discuss the sound offered in the three formats, it’s relevant to point out one detail. In his review of the sampler SACD, referenced above, Paul Corfield Godfrey expressed the wish that the Funeral March “could have started a couple of bars before, with the timpani beats as Siegfried dies”. It’s a slightly perverse oddity that in all three formats Decca begin the track for the March at slightly different points, meaning that none has exactly the same playing time. I can report, however, that in this latest issue Decca have got it right – at last: the March begins, as I would expect it to do, with the soft timpani strokes. The SACD made a tremendous impression in the Studio, but I thought then that the CD sound seemed a bit harsh. When I played the CD on my own equipment, I didn’t have the same reaction; maybe my equipment, being less analytical than the Studio kit, helped in that respect. The March is properly imposing on CD. On BD-A the track starts with the three crescendo double bass notes, which are increasingly powerful. The whole March is even more darkly impressive than the CD. But the SACD sweeps the board. Those three double bass crescendi have a terrifying intensity; the players really dig in. Solti and the VPO invest the music with the grief-laden intensity it needs; the brass are almost overpowering at times but never do you feel the tone is being forced. This account of the Funeral March is a shattering experience when experienced on the SACD.

Finally, let’s consider the Immolation Scene. On the CD – which I’d not heard prior to this exercise – Birgit Nilsson sounds magnificent, as does the VPO. She gives a fearless piece of dramatic singing, riding the washes of orchestral sound imperiously. The thunder claps and the orchestral tumult that follows register thrillingly, and the VPO’s depiction of the majesty of the Rhine is rich and full-toned. The BD-A, with which I am familiar, offers a significant enhancement in terms of impact – the thunder is more potent – and better conveys the marvellous sound quality offered by the VPO in the last two or three minutes of music. It will come as no surprise, though, when I say that the SACD is better yet; indeed, it represents a major step up. Nisson’s voice comes across thrillingly; there’s even more presence and clarity compared to the other two formats. The thunder is simply explosive, as is the orchestral cataclysm which Solti unleashes in its wake; the power of the VPO’s playing is awesome. Finally, the richness and majesty of the orchestra as they depict the endless rolling-on of the Rhine is wonderful to hear.

Comparing these three iterations of Götterdämmerung has been an enthralling experience, though I’d soon reached conclusions about the relative merits of each which continuing listening served to reinforce. This comparative exercise has reinforced in spades my admiration for Decca’s superb cast in which there is not a single weakness. It has also reminded me of the dramatic intensity with which Solti conducted this music drama; his is not the only way with Wagner, but heard like this it is highly convincing. My listening has heightened significantly my admiration for the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. At one point in his book, Ring Resounding (I can’t put my finger on the exact passage), Culshaw says of the orchestra who turned up for a late-night session, “they played like gods”. When you hear the VPO in all their collective glory as revealed on the SACDs, that comment doesn’t seem like hyperbole. As much as the singers and Solti, the orchestra members are heroes of this set.

And, of course, hearing this remastered recording has enhanced my admiration for John Culshaw and his gifted, determined team. Culshaw, his assistant producers Christopher Raeburn and Erik Smith, and the engineers, Gordon Parry and James Brown went to enormous trouble and exercised great ingenuity and technical skill to make this recording – and the rest of the cycle. In Ring Resounding Culshaw relates that when the Götterdämmerung sessions were finished, just before Christmas 1964, he and some members of the team had doubts as to whether they had achieved what they wanted. “When we got back to Vienna after Christmas we knew as soon as we played the first tape that we had been utterly wrong. The thing sounded fabulous.” Indeed, it does. Thanks to the painstaking remastering work of Dominic Fyfe and his team, domestic listeners can at last appreciate the scale not just of the artistic achievement of Solti and his musical colleagues but also the audio achievement of Culshaw and his team. Debate will doubtless continue among Wagner aficionados about this or that aspect of the Decca cast in comparison with other recordings and about Solti’s conducting as compared with his peers. I think, though, that anyone listening to these SACDs is likely to conclude that in audio terms Decca gave us a recording for the ages, now revealed in all its splendour.

The discs are housed in a slim, handsome black-and-gold box which is about the size of an LP sleeve. One great benefit of this is that the excellent and copiously illustrated booklet is the same size and that means that the various essays and the libretto have been produced in in a good-sized font, which is far easier to read than is the documentation accompanying either the CDs or the Blu-Ray. Decca have not stinted in the matter of documentation, which is in English and German. The 56-page booklet (how inadequate that word seems!) includes a most informative essay by Dominic Fyfe, who has produced this reissue, in which he explains the background to the re-mastering. There’s also John Culshaw’s Introduction to the recording, and a comprehensive synopsis. The full libretto is supplied, together with Stewart Spencer’s 1993 English translation. Finally, the booklet contains a great number of photographs, many of which were taken at the sessions.

The four music dramas are all now individually available on SACDs: each one occupies four discs with the exception of Das Rheingold, which comes on two discs. Currently, investing in the lot will set UK buyers back about £315 (I don’t know what the prices are in non-UK markets). I’ve only heard Götterdämmerung so I can’t vouch for the sonic qualities of the other three recordings. That said, Paul Corfield Godfrey’s review of the SACD version of Siegfried was extremely positive about the remastering. In addition, we’ve published reviews of the sampler SACD which includes extracts from all four parts of the tetralogy. Judging by the comments of Ralph Moore and Paul Corfield Godfrey, I think it’s likely that the audio revelation is pretty comprehensive across the whole cycle.

How can I succinctly sum up the three different formats? I must be careful not to appear to disrespect the CD format, which has served the Decca ‘Ring’ very well for nearly thirty years. The BD-A also has much to offer. However, the best analogy I can think of is airline travel. The CD represents Premium Economy; the BD-A moves the listener up into Business Class; but the SACD gives you a seat in the First-Class cabin. When I invested in the BD-A version of the Decca Ring back in 2016 I thought that this would offer the optimum sound in which I’d ever hear this music. I was wrong. The new SACD remastering now takes the palm.

John Quinn | OCTOBER 4, 2023

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Esoteric, Decca
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 606 MByte (MP3)
2.8 Mbit/s VBR, 96 kHz, 5.3 GByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.