Das Rheingold

Georg Solti
Wiener Philharmoniker
24 September – 8 October 1958
Sofiensaal Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanGeorge London
DonnerEberhard Waechter
FrohWaldemar Kmentt
LogeSet Svanholm
FasoltWalter Kreppel
FafnerKurt Böhme
AlberichGustav Neidlinger
MimePaul Kuën
FrickaKirsten Flagstad
FreiaClaire Watson
ErdaJean Madeira
WoglindeOda Balsborg
WellgundeHetty Plümacher
FloßhildeIra Malaniuk

My end is my beginning. Having tried about every recording of Das Rheingold in the catalogue, in a vain search for an ideal version that wasn’t Solti’s, I now return to the version which introduced me to the work as an undergraduate – borrowed from the University record library in the early 1960s – and which subsequently was the second opera recording that I bought. The first was the Erich Kleiber Marriage of Figaro, an earlier Decca recording which still wears its years lightly (Decca 466 369 2 or Documents 222932), and Mozart and Wagner have remained my two favourite opera composers ever since. The Decca recording of the Todesverkündiging and Act III of Die Walküre (Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm and Solti) soon joined my collection and, later, the Karajan Götterdämmerung.

With the advent of CD, I bought the Solti versions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – living with the Karajan LPs of the latter had convinced me that his was not the Ring that I wanted, despite its many virtues, and the Boulez, though it made good television, did not appeal – but I looked elsewhere for the first two operas in the cycle. Leinsdorf’s Walküre was, and remains, a satisfying alternative to Solti, especially as it comes on three mid-price CDs instead of the usual four, thanks to Leinsdorf’s tendency to push the tempo. (430 391-2 but no longer listed by UK dealers though it appears to be available from Amazon.com and other US dealers on 470 443.)

The Flagstad/Solti Act III recording, now extremely well refurbished (96kHz, 24-bit), makes an excellent supplement to it. (467 124-2 – see review by CC. Incredibly, this CD seems to have been deleted and is not even available to download. Surely it must reappear as a Decca Original, otherwise Arkiv to the rescue, perhaps? Or look out for remainders.) Her companion recording of Act I with Hans Knappertsbusch is available on Australian Eloquence (466 678-2).

Rheingold, however, remained elusive. Marek Janowski on Eurodisc/RCA is very good, but lacks that final degree of magic and soon found its way to the back of the cupboard with the CDs that are rarely played – in any case, his version is now available only in a complete Ring: excellent value, but not my ideal , though Theo Adam is superb and the original presentation of Rheingold alone was excellent for a budget-price set – more lavish, in fact, than the new Decca reissue (82876 55709 2).

Just for fun I bought Günther Neuhold’s live 1993-5 recording, available incredibly cheaply (Documents 223057); no libretto but an otherwise lavish presentation for the price, complete with Arthur Rackham illustrations. This very decent account is also available as part of a complete Ring, which I have seen on sale for as little as £9.99. (CF was not impressed by much of the singing in his review of the complete Brilliant Classics incarnation of the Neuhold – see review).

My most recent purchase, the mid-price reissue of Bernard Haitink’s EMI digital recording (3 58699 2, also available as a complete Ring package) certainly has a great deal going for it but, again, it turns out not to be my ideal version. At around the same price as this Decca reissue, it comes in a cardboard box with no libretto.

My colleagues DH and CC had too many reservations about the Naxos/Lothar Zagrosek for me to go for that version (see review). Nor does Barenboim seem to offer that ideal account, unless one is seeking a DVD version – see review. GF was not entirely enthusiastic about the ‘Australian’ Rheingold – see review – but very recently he made Decca’s complete DVD recording of the Ring under Michael Schønwandt his Recording of the Month; I haven’t yet had time to sample this, though it looks very promising – see GF’s enthusiastic review. (Decca 074 3264)

I have yet to hear the Keilberth versions of any of the operas on Testament, which have won so many golden opinions, or the Kempe Ring from 1957 recorded at Covent Garden and available complete from Testament (again) or opera by opera from Walhall.

So, when I saw this Solti recording offered for review, I speedily placed my bid for it – I’d just about come to the conclusion that I was going to buy it, anyway. Distance can sometimes lend a nostalgic enchantment that disappears on reacquaintance, but such has not been the case here: this Rheingold goes right back to the top of the list. I was very pleased to receive the Hyperion Helios reissue of Francisco Guerrero’s Missa Sancta et immaculata in the same package (CDH55313 – expect an enthusiastic recommendation), but this Decca set pips it at the post as my Bargain of the Month. Some dealers are still offering this recording more cheaply in its previous incarnation (455 556 2), making it even more of a bargain for the time being.

This Solti version is not ideal in all respects: the orchestral contribution from the VPO can almost be taken for granted, not just in the superb orchestral opening, the descent to Niebelheim and the depiction of the entry into Valhalla; they also accompany the voices clearly without ever swamping them – they can probably play Wagner almost as well in their sleep as the music of Strauss for the New Year’s Day Concert – but, though the singing is never less than thoroughly satisfactory, some of the singers were not at the peak of their career.

Kirsten Flagstad in particular was 62 even when she made the Walküre Act III recording a year earlier, having ‘retired’ in 1952, but her second-best is more than good enough for me and, in any case, her role in Rheingold as Fricka is far less central than her Brünnhilde in Walküre. In both operas one somehow hears the wonderful voice that was through its slightly tremulous afterlife. Birgit Nilsson, Leinsdorf’s Brünnhilde, who took over that role in the remaining Solti operas and sang them very well, would have been in better voice, but she didn’t quite (yet) have the Flagstad magic. When Wotan praises the newly-created Valhalla (Vollendet das ewige Werk) and Fricka replies that she is more worried about the fate of Freia (Mir bangt es um Freia) reminding Wotan of the price he must pay (Vergaßest du was du vergabst?) the slight tremulousness is actually a vocal advantage.

What makes this version extra special is the sense of drama, achieved through Solti’s direction and the commitment of the singers and aided by John Culshaw’s magic as producer. Solti’s tempi fall midway between Neuhold and Haitink on the one hand (4 and 3 minutes, respectively, slower overall) and Janowski on the other (6 minutes faster). Since this is the version of Rheingold that I first got to know, I am, of course, biased, but it doesn’t seem to me that Solti’s pace can be faulted in any particular and, in any case, the differences are minimal. If any opera dictates its own pace, Rheingold is it.

The recording of Walküre III was a significant development; for Rheingold the Sonicstage technique was even more effective. More developments were yet to come, notably the advent of quieter editing facilities in 1964, in time for the last two operas, but even in 1958 the Decca engineers were achieving a fidelity which is still remarkable. Without everything coming into place at once, it would never have happened – a later broadcast concert version of Siegfried with different singers comes nowhere near repeating the magic.

When Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim, you can really imagine their descent; when Alberich bullies Mime, the menace is palpable and it becomes even more so as Wotan and Loge work their trick on him. When Alberich dons the Tarnhelm to transform himself, the magic is conveyed in the very sound that we hear.

The effects would all have counted for nothing had the performers not played their parts. Set Svanholm’s Loge, for example, is masterful. Compared with his earlier Wagner performances, the part of Loge may have seemed a let-down, but he sings it perfectly. Without adopting the sneering tone that some singers bring to the part, he plays the role forthrightly – some have even said too forthrightly – but he hints at the detached role of this misfit among the gods, the one who stands back at the end of the opera and observes that Wotan has sown the seeds of his own destruction: Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu – they are hastening towards their end.

In the Old Norse poem Vøluspá, Loki turns on his former colleagues at the end of the world and brings about Ragnarøk, the downfall of the gods, which Wagner translates as Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods:

Kjóll ferr austan, / koma munu Muspells of løg lýðir, / en Loki stýrir; fara fíflmegir / með freka allir, þeim er bróðir / Byleists í før. [A ship comes from the east; there shall come across the sea from Muspell (hell) its inhabitants – Loki is the steersman; the monstrous brood comes, all the men, and in company with them the brother of Byleist (i.e. Loki?) goes.] (Vøluspá stanza 51, text from Snorri Sturlasson, Edda: Gylfaginning, ed. A Faulkes, (London: University College for Viking Society for Northern Research, 1988, p.51).

One could easily believe Svanholm’s slightly detached Loge fitting into this scenario. When Loge calls Alberich Vetter, cousin, he may be employing the appellation in its colloquial sense – ‘mate’ – but there may also be a hint there from Wagner of Loge’s relationship with evil. Certainly the other gods have little time for him:

Froh: Loge heißt du, doch nenn’ich dich Lüge. [Loge you are, but I call you Lie]

Donner: Verfluchte Lohe, dich lösch’ich aus! [Accursed fire, I’ll put you out!]

Did Wagner see the highly talented but morally very dubious Loge as an analogue of himself? Wagner was certainly genial but Gottfried Keller must have been supremely naïve to have believed that he was also a good man – ein genialer und auch guter Mensch.

In Walküre III, Otto Edelmann had been a superb Wotan, able to capture both the imperious and tender aspects of his unwilling punishment of Brünnhilde. George London is not quite in that category – significantly, he was replaced to splendid effect by Hans Hotter, the Wotan of his day, for Die Walküre and Siegfried – but his singing is never less than good.

The whole action of the cycle begins with Alberich’s greed for the Rhinegold and ends with the destruction brought about by his revenge. In Gustav Neidlinger Solti had a superb exponent of the role: he never needs to resort to vocal tricks to bring out the nature of this creature. When he sings that he would rather give his life than the ring, we believe him: Das leben – doch nicht den Ring!

That the magic should be a joint effort between musicians and engineers is appropriate. Wagner himself skilfully melded the Middle High German Nibelungenlied with material from the Norse Edda and the Vølsungasaga and Thidrekssaga (all in translation) together with material of his own invention, and he employed the latest technology of his day in staging the operas of the Ring cycle. The BBC programme The Golden Ring, detailing how the same magic was worked on record, remains available on DVD (Decca 0743196) but John Culshaw’s book Ring Resounding (Secker & Warburg, 1968) seems to be out of print.

Some of the effects which Wagner envisaged could not be realised in live performances, then or even now. Such is the entry of the gods into Valhalla, signalled by Donner’s earth-shattering hammer stroke as the rainbow bridge shimmers into existence. The music itself creates some of the magic, the strings serving to remind us why this bridge was known in Old Norse as Bifrøst, the trembling one, but you would need CGI fully to create the vision – at one and the same time the magnificent creation shining in splendour – in prächtiger Glut prangt glänzend die Burg – and also a reminder that Wotan played foul to get it: Mit bösem Zoll zahlt ich die Bau.

John Culshaw didn’t have CGI, but he was developing its aural equivalent. Even in the 1957 Walküre he had built a stage mountain for the Valkyries to clamber over. On stage, Donner’s hammer stroke comes over as not much more than a loud ting, as it does also on the rival recordings; on Decca the effect is still shattering even fifty years on. When Decca were looking for a sampler of Solti’s best performances in 1992 they chose this cataclysmic entry into Valhalla to represent his Ring cycle. Solti’s Haydn and Mozart, also on that sampler, are certainly not beyond challenge, but his Chicago Till Eulenspiegel and Miraculous Mandarin and this excerpt from Rheingold make that CD still worth keeping (436 753-2).

Wisely, in remastering this latest 96kHz, 24-bit version, the engineers have decided to leave well more or less alone. They have applied a modest degree of de-hissing, using the latest CEDAR technology, but have left in some background noises – creaking chairs and the like, audible only on headphones – for fear of diminishing the dynamic range of the recording. When RCA have reissued many of their recordings of this vintage in SACD, it seems surprising that Decca have not gone for this option.

The booklet is of necessity less lavish than that which graced the SET LPs; now that it is fitted inside the usual double case, it is even diminished from the initial CD release with the case and booklet housed in a cardboard slipcase. It does, however, contain the full libretto and an idiomatic English translation when, at around the same price, the EMI Haitink offers only a detailed summary with a link to a libretto on the website which I have never been able to find. That need not be a problem, when there is an excellent paperback offering the Andrew Porter ENO translation face to face with the original – Richard Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung, English translation by Andrew Porter (London: Faber and Faber, 1977).

All in all, there is no doubt in my mind that this is still the Rheingold. I’ll keep Janowski, Neuhold and Haitink, each with its own strengths – I’ve enjoyed re-hearing them for comparison and if, for any reason, Solti doesn’t appeal, you could do much worse than with one of these – but they mainly serve to remind me of the superiority of this Solti version.

Brian Wilson | 8 August 2008

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 334 MByte (MP3)
2.9 Mbit/s VBR, 96 kHz, 2.9 GByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.