Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen revolutionized 19th-century opera: an epic four-opera cycle, that uses ancient stories to forge a shattering modern myth, set to music of unprecedented beauty, originality, and power. Created over three decades between 1848 and 1876, it tells a tale of a world broken and plundered and a society ruled not by love but by gold, as once-mighty rulers struggle to hold back the tide of change. The characters are gods, humans, and magical beings, and the setting is a vividly imagined world of ancient Germanic myth. But the emotions Wagner portrays are startlingly modern, and his all-embracing music asks as many questions as it answers. That was the challenge that the record producer John Culshaw (1924-1980) faced when, in 1958, he set out to make the first studio recording of The Ring. Before the invention of the long-playing record (LP), the very idea of recording the complete 16-hour drama was unthinkable. Even in the late 1950s, with the advent of stereo sound, many of Culshaw’s colleagues at the record label Decca were skeptical. In the event the project would take an entire decade before the full Ring cycle was released—for the first time ever—as a single set of LPs. In order to achieve his vision of recreating Wagner’s theatrical universe as closely as possible on disc, Culshaw had to overcome technical and artistic challenges on a scale never before seen in the recording studio. Wagner broke the rules, said Culshaw. “And when we set out on the recording of Rheingold, I fear that we too broke many of the rules which had prevailed in the world of professional recording.” He didn’t have much choice. Whether balancing Wagner’s colossal orchestra (including 18 anvils and six harps) or simulating the echo of a dragon’s cave, inventive and innovative solutions had to be found if Culshaw was to stand any chance of recreating Wagner’s sonic world in the acoustic of the Sofiensaal, the converted Viennese swimming bath that was used as a studio. By comparison, assembling a cast of the greatest Wagner performers of the period was relatively straightforward. Culshaw was able to draw on Decca’s whole roster of star singers, and the Vienna Philharmonic was conducted by the brilliant 46-year-old Hungarian Georg Solti, whose energy and commitment to the project matched Culshaw’s own. The result, when Der Ring des Nibelungen was finally released as a set in 1968, was overwhelming: the single most ambitious opera recording ever made, as immediate and as fresh as a live theatrical performance. “Without ever quite releasing what we were doing we made something which many critics hailed as a new conception of opera on records,” recalled Culshaw. More than 50 years on, it remains an unforgettable listening experience, and the benchmark against which all Wagner recordings—some would say all opera recordings—are measured.

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