How to Ring

Posted on September 21, 2014 by psu

As a cultural force, the European classical music tradition arguably reached its peak sometime in the mid to late 19th century. This period produced the last group of towering musical geniuses, from Brahms to Bruckner to Wagner, and later Strauss and Mahler. Of this group I think you can say one thing: Wagner was the craziest of them all.

Let us put aside his horrible personality, his repugnant politics, the possibly offensive social and political symbolism in his work, and the fact that his work influenced one of the greatest forces of evil in the history of the world. Wagner was a mostly self-taught composer who went on to write the largest, most ambitious pieces of musical theater ever conceived by man, and he mostly succeeded. That’s nuts.

His best-known piece is, of course, the Ring cycle.

The Ring is a work intended to be delivered over four consecutive nights. It consists of a two hour (or so) prelude and three full sized operas. If you sit through the whole thing at once, you will be dedicating 15 or 16 hours of your life to one performance. That’s pretty nuts.

Wagner, who spent most of his life running from creditors, somehow not only managed to write both the words and music to this piece, but also found someone to finance the construction of a custom theater to perform it in. That’s nuts too.

Finally, the subject matter and plot of the Ring involves an all-powerful cursed ring made out of magic gold which indirectly brings about the destruction of the entire power structure of the Gods of the Norse myths. Oh, and there is also incest, a giant magic sword, Freudian innuendo, adultery, filicide, murder, theft, a dragon, warrior females born from Mother Earth herself, and a huge explosion and fireball at the end. All of this is also crazy.

Sidebar: It’s unthinkable to me that Peter Jackson could waste a decade of his life making the Lord of the Rings into a six movie snooze-fest without considering doing the same with the Wagner Ring. The special effects alone could keep a whole country of digital artists employed for a decade.

The Ring survives because it contains some of the best music ever written for voice and orchestra. You’ve probably heard most of the big numbers in one context or another. Here’s a video of the most famous one:

For all of its overblown pretension, the piece is ultimately effective structurally, dramatically and emotionally. This is true not only for the climaxes, but also for how the whole work hangs together in a huge web of inter-related musical themes (c.f. leitmotif). The fact that Wagner can set something up in the first hour of a 15 hour piece that actually pays off in hour 15 is astounding. I think that anyone with an interest in classical music, and opera in particular, should work through a recording of the piece at least once in their lives. It really is worth it, and that’s nuts too.

I first became seriously interested in the Ring in graduate school when I found a library copy of John Culshaw’s autobiography, Putting the Record Straight which covered much of his time recording classical music at Decca Records. This led to reading a second book called Ring Resounding about the production of the first, most famous, and most popular commercial recording of the Ring. Culshaw produced this recording between 1958 and 1965 with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. You can still buy a deluxe and super expensive version of this set. I found the story of recording the four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) to be fascinating and I figured that anything that these people were willing to work this hard for must be worth investigating.

Being a poor graduate student, I hunted down some used LP copies of the set and managed to work my way through most of Siegfried before pooping out. I went on to get my PhD and a few jobs, and even picked up the Solti Ring on CD, but never made it all the way through to the end.

Since I was recently re-infected with the music collecting virus it was only a matter of time before I came back to this work. Of course, the classical music marketplace is different now. I talked about some of the differences in my earlier post, but I did not get to the heart of the biggest one: the market for classical music, even more than the rest of the music industry, is a buyer’s market.

In 1990 if you wanted to get one copy of one Ring cycle on CD it would have cost you a minimum of $10 per disk, so you’d be looking at around $150 to $200 for each box. In addition, you’d probably have to travel to a major city (Boston, NYC, etc) to get to a Tower Records to be able to find the box at all. If you went to the same city and found a good used record store, a poor graduate student could get a whole set of LPs for about $40. So that’s what I did. I also only picked up the one recording, because I had no information about which other ones I should investigate.

In 2014, CDs have become the new LP. Under pressure from downloads and streaming services (more on streaming later), record companies have started off-loading their huge back catalogs at prices that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. You can buy entire catalogs of entire record labels all at once for prices that approach zero dollars per disk. Recently, against all good sense, I bought a boxed set that collects almost everything Bach ever wrote in reasonable performances by a group of high reputation. 172 CDs cost me about $200. This same set cost $1700 in 2001 when it was first released. Similarly the Solti Ring now comes in at about $40.

2014 also provides the budding Ring-obsessive with various web sites and Internet fora that list all of the various recordings that one should look for. In 1990, all we had was the American Record Guide Wagner Overview… but the CDs were too expensive back then anyway.

So now in about a week you can find the following sets to put on your shopping list, all for relatively low to completely insanely low prices:

Finally, if you are really cheap, you can just subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music for a few months and listen to all of the above sets to your heart’s content, and then go out and buy your favorites if you like. They are all there. Even fringe pieces like the Chandos set that is sung in English are there. Spotify makes it really easy to compare the various performances in the same numbers without needing to spend $600 buying all the sets first. This is great, especially because the various performers really do have their own particular style and sound. Solti is very different from Böhm, Karajan and Janowski, who are in turn different from those crazy Brits. In other works this tends to boil down to tempos and more subtle stylistic differences, but in the Ring everything is magnified and little things seem much more obvious.

I could only find a few recordings that were not on Spotify. Two of these more novel sets stand out for their back story.

The first is the famous 1955 live recording from Bayreuth (Wagner’s custom theater) with Joseph Keilberth conducting an all-star cast of “silver age” singers. This record was made by Culshaw and Decca just before the Solti Ring got started and conspiracy theorists like to claim that it was explicitly suppressed by Decca so that it would not compete with Solti. You can’t stream this on Spotify, but some of it is on Youtube if you are interested.

The second is this reconstruction of a “dream” Ring done by an outfit called Immortal Performances. To make these recordings, Immortal Performances spliced together pieces of multiple broadcast tapes from the MET in the 30s and 40s to create a single composite performance. This is a lot of digital trickery and processing and the extent to which the performance is “real” is highly debatable. Still, no work is more deserving of this treatment than the Ring. Wagner surely would have loved the meta-circularity of creating a recording of the Ring made out of samples of other recordings.

After spending the last few weeks listening mostly to Solti and Böhm, but also comparing bits and pieces to the other recordings on Spotify, here are my Ring listening tips and other thoughts:

  • Go through the works an act or so at a time. This is not too hard to pull off even in our frantic modern lifestyle. If you’ve been playing an hour or so of Dark Souls PVP at night, do this instead.

  • Try to listen to the music rather than paying overly much attention to the text and plot. The Ring has a complicated narrative that spends a lot of its time in repeated exposition. Trying to follow every micro-detail in real time will rob you of the real pleasure in the work. So just relax and let the Hojo-ho’s wash over you.

  • To follow the text, buy an old LP set of the Ring to get the large liner booklet so you can actually read the libretto. The little books that come with the CDs are completely useless. The e-book version of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is also pretty good for this.

  • For those times when you just want a little fix, get a highlights disk. My buddy Pete likes this one because it gives you all the high points without needing to listen to all that crappy singing in German.

  • After working through the Solti again, I can see why some people find it annoying. It does seem to lurch from Big Moment to Big Moment at times, and it suffers from a couple of instances of unfortunate casting. Some of the sound effects and other processing are also a bit dated. However, in the largest moments of the piece it still does the best job of combining excellent recorded sound, great singing, and heart-felt (if overwrought) conducting.

  • I have not investigated the various live recordings in any depth except for the Böhm from 1966. I like the Böhm recording a lot. Especially for Die Walküre. It has a bit of extra tension from the live performance, and Böhm is less hyperactive as a conductor than Solti.

  • I’ve only listened to parts of Janowski and Karajan. What I’ve heard I have enjoyed, but I need to work through more of each before I have a more considered opinion. The Janowski is a smoother and less jagged performance in remarkably good studio sound. The Karajan is, for lack of a better term for it, Karjan. He gets a luscious sound from his orchestra, and his singers are sometimes stronger actors than Solti’s. In any case, if Solti turns you off, you should be able to find happiness in any of these major alternatives.

I leave with one final thought. At the end of Ring Resounding John Culshaw muses about what Wagner would have thought of his huge magnum opus being available in mass media. After my last month in a Ring deep dive, I wonder if Culshaw could have possibly imagined how far this mass media would evolve in the 50 years after he finished that first recording. When his project finished up in 1965 it was the only way to hear a complete performance of the Ring on recorded media. Now, in late 2014, you can sit at your laptop and flit between dozens of them. And I didn’t even talk about the videos.