One Ring to Rule Them All
In honor of the 144th anniversary of the full Ring cycle's premiere, this article will compare and contrast three of the best Ring Cycle recordings.
One of the most difficult challenges for a conductor is to conduct the epic Ring Cycle. Many conductors have even recorded the full 16-hour saga. Which recordings are good and bad is not the main topic of debate; rather, the question is: which is the one Ring that stands out the most? - the one that captures the drama and Gesamtkunstwerk of the work the most?
There are a few things that can make or break the piece: Mime sounding too much like a regular tenor, the Rheinmaidens sounding like three singers rather than one collective group, Wotan and Brunnhilde -- notice how I did not say Siegfried and Brunnhilde -- lacking chemistry. A good conductor ties everything together, hopefully flawlessly, to immerse the listener in the world that is the Ring -- and to, at the end of the day, tell a story.
As any fan of the Ring Cycle, or Wagner in general, should know, Wagner has a unique ability to tell the story through the music. This happens not just through simple leitmotifs (which are used by composers from Cagnoni to John Williams) but through the development of those leitmotifs. Moments such as the ending to Walkure, wherein Wotan speaks of the man who shall surpass the flames and awaken Brunnhilde, singing Siegfried's leitmotif as he does so; or the ending to Gotterdammerung, where all that has happened throughout the saga comes together in a final moment of destruction and pain, are what make the Ring special.
Numerous conductors immediately jump to mind, and, of course, with a great conductor play a great orchestra and great singers. The 'grading' of each recording, is not all about the conductor and the orchestra; the singers must also be in perfect chemistry. The mark of a good recording is that, even without staging, there is still Gesamtkunstwerk. Let's go through all the most famous Ring recordings, and discuss their merits.
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Orchestra: Berliner Philharmoniker
Brunnhilde: Régine Crespin / Helga Dernesch
Siegfried: Jess Thomas / Helge Brilioth
Wotan: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau / Thomas Stewart
Karajan recorded this Ring Cycle with his own orchestra, the great Berliner Philharmoniker. As always, he summoned the greatest singers in the world to sing under his baton in this landmark recording. Karajan's Ring, exceptional in every aspect, particularly in its calm moments -- the forest murmurs of Siegfried and the jolly Rheinmaidens of Gotterdammerung --, although European, lacks the husky brass sound of Solti's Ring. Karajan's brass section is far more wholesome, far sweeter. This is not to imply that Karajan cannot bring out big sound when necessary; on the contrary, Karajan's Ring also provides some of the most chilling moments in all of music. Pieces such as Gotterdammerung's second act's revenge trio seem to flow by in an intense, show-stopping rush of adrenaline. If one wants to feel the same way one feels at the end of the full saga, speechless and as if transported to another world, but without listening to the whole thing, one must listen to the finale to Karajan's recording. It, in and of itself, will give one that feeling. Suppose one feels like listening to the forging song or Walkurenritt. In that case, one must look no further than Karajan's recording to feel the same exhilaration felt in the theater. Karajan's Ring is complete in that it provides a little bit of everything.
Karajan, the 'emperor of legato,' as they call him, manages to balance the Wagnerian sound against which many are prejudiced for being 'too heavy,' with the light, pure, romantic music that comes naturally to the ear.
The finale to Act 2, the interaction between Siegfried and the Woodbird, is utterly beautiful. The soft trills of the strings and the chirp-like singing of the Woodbird make for a cute, delightful finale to the act that fills us with the sort of glee that Siegfried must have felt himself at that moment. There are many dramatically ironic moments in the Ring, including the finale to Rheingold and Acts 2 & 3 of Siegfried. In the latter, we see just how innocent and immature Siegfried is; having just killed a dragon and his lifelong guardian, he continues to run jollily around with the birds. His childlike attitude makes us root for him; we smirk, listening to this piece, understanding the adorable irony behind this sweet, lovely music. This boy has killed, and yet he and the music represent the joy of life!
The third act to Siegfried under Karajan's baton begins more steadily than other recordings. It takes a moderate tempo, oscillating between forte and piano and crescendoing and diminuendoing. While other maestri take this Vorspiel extremely fast, Karajan makes us yearn to see where it'll go next, keeping our attention as we await a resolve. We are anxious; we want the climax; we want the closure. Karajan, though he takes the piece more slowly, excites us just the way Wagner intended to.
The only main problem with this recording is the inconsistency of singers. To be fair, recording the Ring takes years, so it is understandable that many conductors choose to mix up the cast. Additionally, many Wagnerites see the Walküre Brunnhilde as an entirely different role than the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes, and the Rheingold Wotan as different than Der Wanderer. This might be why some conductors choose to change the singers. As the role changes, so must the voice.
In all his recordings, Karajan proves to us that he is capable of everything; that everything on which he places his baton will come out almost, if not, perfect. It is not surprising that the man who gave us the greatest Beethoven Symphonies set of all time produced such a pristine Ring.
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Orchestra: Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Brunnhilde: Anne Evans
Siegfried: Siegfried Jerusalem
Wotan: John Tomlinson
Barenboim's recording, led by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, which plays Wagner as naturally as a cow moos or baby cries, is arguably the best Bayreuth recording of the Ring. Barenboim is one of few conductors who can bring such immense, chilling power from the orchestra in all the right moments. It is not just sheer volume, though: his careful choices of what instrument section to highlight are nothing short of perfect! Barenboim's Ring has moments of absolute power such as in Solti's recording (which we shall discuss below), and moments of calm legato such as in Karajan's. The most brilliantly unique part of the Barenboim Ring is the finale -- one of the piece's major challenges. Barenboim chooses to dive straight into the final few bars -- from a triumphant accent to a soft decrescendo, from the conjunction of the strings and the brass, and the chaotic fire leitmotif with the ever-powerful Valhalla leitmotif -- lifting the listener off his/her seat as they gasp in awe and relief: 'It's over. Valhalla is ruined. Brunnhilde is dead. It's all over,' we think as we listen in awe. The music drama ends, sounding more complete than anything in our wildest imaginations. It is unresolved, though, in that the listener is left in such wonder that they are left wanting more. They are left stunned -- nay, shocked! The catharsis of Gotterdammerung leaves us amazed; the circle of life, the wonder of nature, it is all in the music. And Barenboim shows us just that. We went from pain, from suffering... to nothing! Nothing! And amongst this nothingness swim the Rheinmaidens, and below them lurks Alberich. And the whole thing might just start all over again!
Indeed, one might argue that that Wagnerian sound for which we all search (and yet can't seem to define) is presented most clearly in Barenboim's Ring recording. For many, it is Solti's Ring that is 'perfect'; well, maybe the true Wagnerian sound, the sound that gives us the feeling that Wagner intended to convey, lies in the imperfections -- the ever-so-slight screeches and wrong-sounding accents of the brass, the exaggerated ugliness of Mime's voice. If moderated so as to not become extreme (which Barenboim does), a little imperfection might be what the great perfectionist himself desired.
Conductor: Sir Georg Solti
Orchestra: Wiener Philharmoniker
Brunnhilde: Birgit Nilsson
Siegfried: Wolfgang Windgassen
Wotan: George London / Hans Hotter
Often regarded as the 'best recording of all time' of any piece of any genre, Solti's Ring is a treasure. Birgit Nilsson is as great as always, as is the rest of the superb cast. An excellent touch in this recording is the 'special effects.' For example: at the end of Das Rheingold, there is a moment wherein for a few seconds, the gods laugh care-freely, mocking the Rheinmaidens. This touch makes the moment feel more like a live performance, and further highlights the dark irony of the music drama's ending: while the gods ascend, laughing, into Valhalla, in a triumphant finale, Fasolt lay dead on stage, brutally murdered by his kin, as Loge thinks of the gods' ignorance and naiveté and impending doom. Another example of Solti's brilliant extra touches is the finale to the Ring itself. At the end of Götterdämmerung, as Valhalla is set aflame and destroyed, a thunder-like sound comes not from the timpani, but from, presumably, a machine. While this is not written in the score, it certainly makes for a more picturesque finale. Few conductors can make the listener visualize the stage -- and indeed, the entire world that is the Ring -- the way Solti does, bringing chills to one's body. A third example is in the famous Walkurenritt of the third act to Walkûre: Helmwige, the valkyrie whom Gerhilde calls at the very beginning of the ride, is heard singing from what sounds like a long distance. This is because she is technically supposed to be singing backstage, theoretically from her flying horse. Solti doesn't forget a thing!
Some excerpts from the Ring truly test a recording -- the Rheingold finale, the 3rd act to Walküre, the Trauermarsch --, and among these is the opening to Act 2 of Walküre. As Wotan and Brünnhilde rush to meet each other, the strings pant, representing the wind; the timpani gives us the might of the thunder; the rhythm of the trumpet, the one stable element of an otherwise tempestuous storm, drives the piece forward. While most maestri take this piece thrillingly volant, Solti takes the piece at a moderate tempo and makes the continuous rhythm of the strings stable and controlled. While at first, this Vorspiel sounds duller than other recordings, the slow pounding of the strings on the downbeat only makes the heroic entrance of Brünnhilde more powerful.
Another example of Solti's recording's uniqueness is at the end of Rheingold when Donner pleas that the sky clears up to build the bridge to Valhalla. It opens with strings symbolizing the winds, building up and up climactically until they fall back dead and silent. While most conductors choose to start the piece with quiet brushes of the bow, Solti begins frantically and maniacally, almost as if in panic. The winds are strong and formidable, but Donner, their lord, shall tame them.
Of course, as in all recordings, Solti's has its flaws. For instance, I was never a fan of Joan Sutherland as the Woodbird in Siegfried. I much prefer Catherine Gayer under Karajan. While Sutherland can hit the high notes, she lacks the bird-like quality and lightness of the voice necessary to excel in this, albeit short and offstage, significant role.
Unlike Karajan, Solti was fairly consistent in his casting (except Wotan, who is sung by a different singer in Rheingold). As the drama progresses, so does each character, and thus it understandable that Karajan would want fresh singers. Well, this was unnecessary for Solti, for he had Birgit Nilsson, arguably the best Brünnhilde of all time. She excelled in all three music dramas, altering her tone and style whenever necessary. Solti and Nilsson are, indeed, the epitome of a dream team.
All in all, there is good reason that this recording of Der Ring is the most famous, having won countless awards for its exquisiteness.
One finds something amusing in going through all the best recordings: that the singers are largely the same. Birgit Nilsson sings Brünnhilde in Solti's Ring and even Leinsdorf's recording of Walküre; Wolfgang Windgassen sings Siegfried in Solti's Ring and Furtwängler's Ring; Siegfried Jerusalem sings Siegfried in Barenboim's and Levine's; James Morris sings Wotan in Levine's recording as well as Bernard Haitink's! I could go on.
Which recording is the absolute best -- the one that Wagner would have preferred -- is but a matter of opinion. Of course, there are even more Ring recordings -- Furtwängler's (both of them), Thielemann's, Levine's, and more -- that are solid contenders. A true Wagnerite must listen to all!
The truth of the matter is that no matter how much we praise a conductor or a singer, their contributions are insignificant compared to the composer. Whereas Solti or Karajan get the immediate praise, it is Wagner himself who deserves the vast majority of the credit. He gave Der Ring to us, and thus there is one mark to be given: not an A or B or C, but a mark of genius.