Der Ring des Nibelungen

Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
22 November (R), 24 November 2012 (W)
1 March 2013 (S), 15 March 2013 (G)
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


Audiophile Audition

If Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an ultimate realization of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art), then Pentatone’s self-described “Epic Ring” set must be called a Gesamtkunstwerk of recording releases. Perhaps this is to be expected, or at least hoped for, if one is to invest in a mammoth multi-hour tetralogy composed during three 19th-Century decades. Pentatone delivers, achieving classical recording’s elusive goal of presenting a contemporary experience.

Recording in five-channel surround sound, Pentatone’s goal is “to offer an unrivaled classical music experience through superior audio technology.” Achievement cannot be understated. From the opening of the Das Rheingold Prelude, listeners are pulled into a new Wagnerian experience introducing layered and sustained sound as never heard before. Conducted by Marek Janowski in Berlin, the operas were recorded in performances with the orchestra on the stage instead of in the pit. Pentatone captures this symphonic experience, convincing us that Wagner’s orchestration is the soul of the work.

Pentatone’s 13-disc collection contains a massive 250-page book fit for coffee table display. In an era of online music, labels must look for ways to convince listeners that purchasing a physical album is preferable to downloading or streaming. Collections like this provide essential connection. Stark and simple, its minimalist design captures a sense of inevitable power, like a modern take on medieval bookbinding. We can feel the flames waiting to explode from within the stark exterior. The collection’s resemblance to an LP record set is a strategic aesthetic choice. LPs have seen a strong resurgence, perhaps because of the need for more tangible physical contact in a digital world.

Despite decades of excess, from vintage Bugs Bunny to SF Opera’s recent pyrotechnically heavy production, Pentatone proves that Wagner’s musical genius endures over aesthetic theory. Perhaps excess goes hand in hand with Wagner, but what we define as excessive changes over time. Contemporary audiences have seen every special effect in the book. Traditional decadent visual stimuli have become commonplace and even distracting.

Pentatone presents musical excess in the form of decadent sound and unadulterated access to background knowledge, a contemporary achievement of Gesamtkunstwerk. Like all SACDs nowadays, these have a standard CD stereo layer for those lacking playback of hi-res SACD stereo or surround. Listeners will welcome the clutter removal, which allows the over-stimulated to experience the Ring mindfully and personally by focusing on sound.

Anne Suda | July 23, 2016

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Concert performance