The classic BBC documentary on Decca's gargantuan first studio recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen was first broadcast in 1965, just after the company completed the project with Götterdämmerung in 1964, and the bulk of the film is devoted to the final days of the recording sessions. One thing that sets it apart from the tone of many documentary films made in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries is the complete lack of hyped-up drama. This is simply the story of a large team of remarkably capable performers and engineers united in a generous, mutually respectful, professional collaboration on a grand project. Decca producer John Culshaw and conductor Georg Solti emerge as heroes of Wagnerian stature (but with considerably more dignity, integrity, and good humor than Wagner's). In one remarkable exchange, after a spirited debate, Solti agrees to a major tempo change that Culshaw insists is critical to the larger dramatic arc of the music.
Directed by Humphrey Burton, the film captures the diverse elements that went into such a colossal undertaking -- the complex logistics and coordination of schedules for the many participants ("Don't forget that in this scene we need to bring in the six harps."), the musical preparations and rehearsals, the configuration of special effects such as screaming and the use of tuned steer horns (that had to be designed and built for the recording since the only existing set disappeared during the War), the elaborate choreography required of the singers as they moved around the stage, the precise technical preparations that consumed the recording engineers, the tense editing sessions where the tape was cut and spliced, and the parties that provided relief from the stress of the work. For listeners familiar with Decca's sound recording of Götterdämmerung, it's especially intriguing to see how the singers come across visually and dramatically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are few surprises. Wolfgang Windgassen is stiff and undramatic, his nose usually buried in the score. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's smoldering intelligence is evident in everything he says and sings. Birgit Nilsson is intensely focused and effortlessly dramatic, her face frequently transfigured by the music, but her giggly girlishness is unexpected. Gottlob Frick is a darkly menacing, iconic embodiment of Hagen. The film should be of interest to any fan of the Ring, or anyone intrigued by what was probably the most ambitious and intricately involved opera recording project of the twentieth century. The DVD also includes about an hour of music -- basically the operas' greatest hits -- from Solti's Ring, in Dolby Digital Surround Sound.