This first complete studio recording of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, made between 1958 and 1966, was a groundbreaking technical and artistic achievement, the most ambitious and intricately involved opera recording project of the 20th century. Produced for Decca by John Culshaw, whose vision and untiring devotion brought the gargantuan project to completion, the 14 ½-hour release set a new standard for opera recordings. The details Culshaw lavished on the production, which included building new musical instruments, precisely calculating the placement and choreography of each singer to maximize the theatricality of each scene, and creating an array of fabulous special effects resulted in a landmark recording that has lost none of its power with the passage of time.
Culshaw and conductor Georg Solti assembled the most impressive Wagnerian musicians available. The Vienna Philharmonic, one of the very finest orchestras in the world, plays with a sure grasp of Wagner's style, with passionate intensity and with impeccable musicianship. Solti's epic vision of the Ring glows in its details and overwhelms in its sweeping drama. A number of very fine interpretations of the Ring have been recorded since, but Solti's version remains close to the top and is in a class by itself. Casting the many daunting roles was a challenge, but for the most part the soloists are wonderfully effective. The producers were able to enlist Birgit Nilsson, one of the outstanding Wagnerians of the century, as Brünnhilde, when her voice was at its peak, with both a youthful bloom and a towering artistic maturity, as well as Kirstin Flagstad, the leading Wagnerian soprano of her generation, then in the twilight of her career, as Fricka in Das Rheingold. Heldentenors are a rare breed, and two of the few weak links in the cast are Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried and James King as Siegmund. George London is superb as Wotan in Das Rheingold, but Hans Hotter brings even greater gravity and insight to the role in Die Walküre and Siegfried, even if his voice had lost some of its luster. Régine Crespin is warmly ardent as Sieglinde. Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich is appropriately forceful, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is a smoldering, fiercely troubled Gunther. The cast list is dazzling, with principals including Set Svanholm, Gottlob Frick, Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender. Even relatively minor roles feature such luminaries as Eberhard Wächter, Helga Dernesch, Lucia Popp, Helen Watts, and Joan Sutherland. Listeners looking for an introduction to Wagner's massive opus can't go wrong with this monumental version.