It said something troubling about the state of the classical recording industry in the early twenty first century that the most eagerly anticipated Ring cycle release was not a brand-new digital recording but rather a 50-year-old, previously unreleased recording. Of course, this was not just any 50-year-old Ring: it was the first-ever stereo Ring recorded at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival in a theater specifically built for the work featuring performers specially selected by the composer's family. Although originally intended for release on Decca, the project was shelved when senior producer John Culshaw decided to record the Ring in the far more controllable atmosphere of the studio instead, a decision that eventually resulted in the release of the Solti/Vienna Philharmonic Ring. For older Wagner fans, this Ring was a chance to hear what might have been but never was. For younger Wagner fans, it was a chance to hear what might have been the best Ring to be released any time in the near future.
How was it? Mostly pretty good, sometimes great, occasionally transcendent, and, for what seemed like long stretches, fairly ordinary. By far the best thing about the performance was Hans Hotter's Wotan, who totally dominated the stage with his commanding voice and imposing characterization. Astrid Varnay's Brünnhilde was next best, her imperious voice and passionate delivery creating a portrayal of tremendous power and depth. Regrettably, Hotter and Varnay don't appear in Act I, and neither Gré Brouwenstijn's wilting Sieglinde nor Ramón Vinay's weak-kneed Siegmund were able to convey their character's fate-driven intensity with anything like the strength of Hotter or Varnay. The performance's long stretches of fairly ordinary were supplied by conductor Joseph Keilberth and the Bayreuther Festspiele Orchester. Keilberth could rise to an occasion -- the blazing climax of Act III is astounding -- but most of the time he is more of an accompanist than a conductor and consequently much of the drama drags. The Bayreuth orchestra likewise could rise to an occasion -- the glowing colors in the Act I finale are astonishing -- but too often it sounds not quite together -- the strings in the Act I Prelude -- or not altogether in tune -- the low brass in the Ride of the Valkyries at the start of Act III. The live stereo sound was amazingly fine considering its vintage and provenance -- the sense of time, place, and motion is palpable even if the orchestra sounds a bit harsh -- but, it has to be said, nowhere near as vivid and immediate as Culshaw's studio sound.
For older Wagner fans who already have a half-dozen or more Rings, this cycle will make an interesting addition to the collection. For younger Wagner fans looking to get their first Ring, try the Solti/Vienna cycle. It's still the most successful performance ever recorded.