Lord of the Ring

Written by Richard Murison

Sir Georg Solti was one of the preeminent conductors of the latter half of the 20th Century.  Many conductors are polarizing figures, particularly among the musicians over whom they hold sway.  It is in the nature of the beast.  But the polarizing opinions of Solti are equally distributed among musicians, critics, the general public, and even his fellow conductors.  Most unusually, Solti’s reputation was built upon one particular recording, or rather one series of them, Wagner’s legendary Ring Cycle which he recorded for Decca between 1958 and 1964.

The Ring Cycle is a demanding undertaking.  It is a series of four Operas of colossal duration.  Most of them go on for a good four hours.  It is the very definition of Heavy Opera.  Unlike most Operas, the Ring Cycle has no arias.  They are constructed like vast tone poems, with the various themes and ideas upon which the plot is constructed being represented by ‘leitmotifs’ – recognizable music fragments – which weave in and out throughout the entire cycle.  Wagner wrote all his own libretti, which are obtruse and allegorical, and in German.

The Ring Cycle is a compositional tour de force.  Not only did Wagner turn the entire concept of what an Opera should be upside-down, he turned the whole idea of how an Opera should be experienced upside-down.  He built a custom-designed Opera House in Bayreuth for the express purpose of performing the Ring Cycle.  To this day, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is used solely for the production of Wagner’s Operas.  And if you should want to go there and hear one, the demand is such that you will have to enter a lottery!

The design of the Festspielhaus was totally radical in its day, and to some extent remains so even now.  It has no boxes or privileged seating.  Wagner felt that all men were equals when it came to listening to his Operas, and there should be no privileged seating for those of high status, who would mingle with those of the lowest status who could still afford a ticket.  There is not a single bad seat in the house.  The orchestra pit is most unusual, not only in shape (a large part of it is in a shallow space underneath the stage), but also in the way its acoustics work.  The pit, the orchestra, and the conductor are totally invisible from the auditorium.  It is designed to project the sound directly onto the stage, and from there to be reflected back to the audience.  To that end, the violins in the pit sit to the right of the conductor, not to the left, so that their sound dispersion pattern favours projecting back over the stage.  The idea was that the sound would seem to emanate from stage itself, and by all accounts [I haven’t been] it is considered to hold good today.

Wagner wished for his Ring Cycle to be experienced as one single entity.  Das Rheingold, the first to be completed, was given its own premiere, but the other three, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, were not performed until the opening of Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876, as part of the first complete Ring Cycle.

Wagner was so determined to achieve the exact sound palette he had in his mind that he went so far as to design a whole raft of brass instruments especially for The Ring, and then commissioned instrument makers to go away and produce them.  [Bruckner and Strauss are composers who went on to call for some of Wagner’s brass tubas in some of their own symphonic works. Das Rheingold even demands an ensemble of 18 anvils with hammers, and (naturally) specifies the dimensions and weight of each of them!

Into this musical context we must also thrust a heavy measure of political context.  The Ring Cycle is dosed to the eyeballs with Germanic symbolism and mythology, expressed always in the most abstract of ideas.  It is therefore manna from heaven for those who would wish for it to be construed to support their own extreme philosophies, particularly as they bear on race, history and culture.  Wagner was also somewhat of an anti-semite, an attitude which seemed to develop relatively late in life in response to his perceived public adulation of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer – and not Wagner.  Anti-semitism was quite fashionably established across many walks of life in a mid-19th Century Europe which was still a good 100 years away from discovering political correctness.

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement adopted Wagner’s music as being emblematic of what they perceived as their own philosophy, the linkage became indelibly cast for an entire generation of Europeans who faced death, destruction, and even extermination at the hands of Germany over the course of two world wars in rapid succession.  The Nazis perceived in Wagner’s writings support for their most extreme ambitions, and many observers were willing to take these interpretations at face value.  Even today there remains considerable disagreement over what Wagner’s personal beliefs may have been, and how to properly interpret them in the light of today’s very different societal mores.

At the outbreak of WWII, Georg Solti was a young conductor seeking to embark upon a career is his native Hungary.  He was also a Jew, and had the good fortune to find himself in Lucerne when the war broke out.  He was wisely advised not to come home, and saw the war out in Switzerland.  At the end of the war he was invited to participate in the reconstruction of post-war Germany by taking on the prestigious post of Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  Although he had no real experience conducting Opera – and was a Jew to boot, never mind not being a Catholic – he took up the post and held it for 5 years before moving on to a similar post in Frankfurt.

Fast forward to 1956, and John Culshaw of the Decca Record company in London was anxious to record a major classical work that would showcase the capabilities of the new stereophonic music systems that were just being introduced.  He knew that the drama and sonorities of Wagner’s Ring Cycle would be absolutely perfect for the task, but received a lot of resistance within Decca because of the political ramifications.  This was, after all, only 11 years after the war, and in Britain the population was still on rations.  So the complications – and cost – of recording such a work were not to be underestimated.

But neither was Culshaw, and in 1958 the project got underway with the recording of Das Rheingold.  Georg Solti, by this time gaining a reputation as a rising star in the world of Opera – and not having risen so highly that his availability to commit to such an undertaking was not an issue – was contracted for the task.  The Vienna Philharmonic, the most prestigious orchestra of the day, were also signed up.  Culshaw wanted to recreate for the home audience the experience of going to the Opera, but he did not wish to record a live performance, with all the ‘warts-and-all’ aspects of doing so, even though it would have been a lot cheaper.  So he committed to a studio recording.  Also, he wanted the flexibility which a studio setting would give when it came to microphone placements.  His attention to detail was such that he even had 18 new anvils custom-made to Wagner’s original specifications.

Das Rheingold, the first and the shortest of the four Ring Cycle Operas, was an ideal vehicle to test the waters.  It would take less work to record it, and Decca could spend some time seeing how the record did before committing to the remainder of the cycle.  As it happened, Das Rheingold was a great success, outselling even Elvis Presley’s latest offering (to the enormous consternation of rivals EMI), but even so it was not until 1962 that the forces were reassembled to record Die Walküre.  By the time Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were completed in 1964 the whole enterprise was beginning to take on almost legendary status.  The BBC even sent a film crew out to Vienna to make a documentary about the recording of the Cycle which is still available on DVD as “The Golden Ring”.

Success was not an adequate word.  Solti’s Ring Cycle was a stunning success.  To this day this 15-hour exposition of some of the heaviest Opera on the standard repertoire remains the best selling classical music recording of all time.  Let me give you an idea of how highly it is rated.  In 2009, the Esoteric company of Japan performed a complete multi-channel digital remaster and released the result in a 14-SACD boxed set.  They put it up for sale in December 2009 in a limited edition of 1,000 sets priced at $800 by mail order only.  By April they had all sold out.

Solti’s recording of the Ring Cycle remains a tour de force, and is still regarded as probably the finest classical music performance – certainly the finest Opera performance – ever captured for posterity.  The success of the recording made Solti an international sensation.  He was appointed Director of the Royal Opera Company, Covent Garden, and from there went on to hold the Directorship of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 25 years.  In each case he took over a provincial ensemble of no great reputation and shaped it into one of the finest in the world, collecting both admirers and detractors along the way.  Sir Georg Solti died in 1997, on the same day as Mother Teresa, and in the same week as Princess Diana.  But his name will forever live on in association with his great recording of the Ring Cycle.

Here is a cool YouTube extract from the BBC Documentary “The Golden Ring” that I mentioned.  The excerpt is Siegfried’s Funeral March from Act III of Götterdämmerung.  I think it captures the essence of Georg Solti and his Ring Cycle rather wonderfully.


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