Which Ring Cycle recording should I buy?
January 23, 2006 7:36 AM   Subscribe

I want to listen to Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. Where should I begin?

I want to purchase a recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle, but I don't know which one would best suit me.

I sometimes listen to classical music, but I listen to opera less often. I have enough of an ear for classical music so that, given two recordings of the same piece by two different conductors, I have a preference for one conductor's style over another, for reasons that I can generally articulate. I don't feel that I have enough of an ear for opera to reliably discern between a truly excellent singer and one that's just really good.

Given this, which recording of the Ring cycle do you think would be the best for a newcomer? The advice given by Wagner junkies on various websites (Amazon reader reviews, etc.) seems to favor purchasing two or three recordings in order to be completely happy, but I don't want to do that. What I'd like to do right now is purchase one recording and listen to it two or three times over a long period of months or years, and then pick up another recording later on if I feel like it. I would prefer a recording that's concerned with conveying a sense of narrative over the entire course of the work over one that lavishes specific attention on the bits that show up in film scores, if that makes sense.

I suppose I have a choice between the Solti recording and the Karajan recording--are there any others that I should consider? Bonus question: is there anything I should know before I dive into what appears to be a difficult piece of music (other than not to try to listen to it all in one sitting)?
posted by Prospero to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
Best answer: I'm a big fan of the Solti/Decca recording - as a recording. I have a serious issue with the package though, the packaging and libretto booklet are fine, but the libretto is not cross-referenced to track numbers on the CD, so you will absolutely need to add these in by hand, otherwise you'll get totally lost. Perhaps someone can comment on the Karajan package, it may not have this problem.

If I were in your shoes however I would look for a DVD, the Opera is more than the music - it would be helpful to have the visual elements, plus some translated subtitles, to be able to figure out what's going on.

It is probably the largest, if not the greatest, work of art ever completed by one man. Its scale defies comparison. Take it gently, fortunately Die Rheingold is easily the most accessible. In the end it will either speak directly to you, or it won't. You will know after the first few minutes of Rheingold. If it doesn't then no recording will help and you might want to try something completely different. They say that Wagner is better than it sounds. For Wagner buffs (like me) it's a completely different type of musical experience. That's what makes it great.
posted by grahamwell at 8:06 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Is money an issue? If it is, I'd suggest joining the BMG Classical CD Club and working the system to get enough points and take advantage of box set deals to get the Solti, if they still have it (that's what I did). If money is not an issue, the best thing to do is to fly to a city that's having a Ring Cycle and see it in performance. The true way to have Wagner blow your mind is to get the whole experience.
posted by matildaben at 8:09 AM on January 23, 2006

The Solti recording of the Ring is one of the true high points in classical music recording history and was totally groundbreaking for its time. I love it, and think that it still holds up well. Certainly the singing and playing is all fantastic, and because of its landmark status it is "the" interpretation of the Ring to a lot of listeners. The recording itself was way ahead of its time, and even now, almost 50 years later, it still sounds impressive to me.

I haven't heard more recent Rings to compare it to (my other recording is a old live Clemens Krauss set), but you really can't go wrong with Solti. I am disappointed to see that it's still quite expensive; I would have thought it would be a prime candidate for a <$100 special price edition.
posted by dfan at 8:10 AM on January 23, 2006

Best answer: By the way, if you want to get to understand the work better, I hear that Deryck Cooke's Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen is excellent; it's a 2 CD set using excerpts from the Solti recording. (I learned my Ring from books.)
posted by dfan at 8:13 AM on January 23, 2006

Seconding dfan's recommendation of the Introduction. Check your local library; they probably have it.
posted by matildaben at 8:20 AM on January 23, 2006

as a passionate Wagner-hater, I can only second the gist of grahamwell's comment. go with the Solti set, for all its limitations. Karajan's is, well, very Karajan. if you know what I mean.

if you feel adventurous, instead, get Wilhelm Furtwängler's cycle. the La Scala one if you'd rather hear great playing, the RAI recording if you'd rather hear superior singing but a not-so-exciting orchestra

and if you find out you like Wagner, you should also check out, in the future, Sinopoli's work (esp Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer)
posted by matteo at 8:26 AM on January 23, 2006

Hit your local library. I bet they have several different versions to lend so that you can try before you buy.
posted by caddis at 8:28 AM on January 23, 2006

If you don't mind the loss of fidelity that comes with mp3s, you can get the Furtwangler La Scala for about $30 at emusic.com. They've also got several other operas (in mp3 format, of course).

I've got that and the Solti CDs, which cost about $180 (which, not being an audiophile, I listen to as mp3s I ripped form the CDs).
posted by orthogonality at 8:37 AM on January 23, 2006

Oh, so the Solti I've got semi-anal mp3 tags that I think I did by hand. As an example (fileame, title, album, artist, track, re-release year, genre, composer):

"06- 06. Scene 1- Der Welt Erbe gewänn' ich zu eigen durch dich_ (Alberich) -- Das Rheingold - Sir Georg Solti.mp3","Scene 1- Der Welt Erbe gewänn' ich zu eigen durch dich? (Alberich)","Das Rheingold","Sir Georg Solti","06/30","1997","Opera","Richard Wagner"

if anyone wants a copy.
posted by orthogonality at 8:48 AM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have the Solti recording, and I agree with the recommendations. There are some "sound effects" added to it in a sort of "radio theater" style here and there - I believe these were added because at the time of the recording they knew many listeners would not have had the chance to see it or hear it all before, so they wanted to help tell the story a bit. But there aren't many of them and they're not too distracting to me.

I would also second the idea of getting a DVD set instead, except that I think the only DVDs available currently are the Metropolitan Opera from NYC...which, though lavish in sets and costumes, is rather dull and boring staging-wise. (But then, on the other hand...James Morris as Wotan, who is awesome. I've heard him in this live twice now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.) Afew years ago they made DVDs of the 1970's somewhat avant-garde staging by Patrice Chereau from the Bayreuth Festival in the late 70s. I haven't seen that production all the way through, just a few scenes. Not sure I'd recommend it to a newbie, and I haven't seen the DVDs for sale new in a while.
posted by dnash at 10:23 AM on January 23, 2006

Best answer: With Anna Russell.

No, seriously. I've heard that educators use her "analysis" of the Ring Cycle as a breezy and entertaining introduction to the major themes, events, and leitmotifs. Also, it will make you laugh your socks off.
posted by jokeefe at 10:37 AM on January 23, 2006

Best answer: Two recommendations, neither about the particular recording itself.

First, if you are just going to listen to it, consider purchasing P. Craig Russell's excellent and faithful graphic novel adaptations to go along with the recording:

Volume 1
Volume 2

John Weinstock of the University of Texas has also produced a nice Web site that provides a wealth of information about the music, the characters, and the story. You can find his site here:

The Wagner Experience

posted by zueod at 1:37 PM on January 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

A big second for jokeefe's mention of Anna Russell. Do not miss that! She's hilarious. Both times I've seen the Ring live, at odd moments one of her jokes would pop into my head and I had to stifle a snicker.

"She's the only woman Siegfried's ever met, by the way, who hasn't been his Aunt. I'm not making this up, you know!"
posted by dnash at 1:58 PM on January 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations--it looks like the Solti edition is the one to get. I'll most likely get the comics linked to by zueod and the guide linked to by dfan as well. I'll see if I can rent the Levine DVDs somewhere, but they seem to get mediocre reviews on all counts, and I don't want to spend $100 on them.

@grahamwell--I looked at the libretto for the self-contained London Solti Das Rheingold that's on shelves right now (oddly enough, hearing a bit of Das Rheingold in the score for The New World this weekend reminded me that I need to get around to listening to this, so maybe it's for me). That edition does have track numbers printed alongside the text. Is your copy of the complete cycle the most recent one? It seems odd (but plausible) that London/Decca would print the track numbers for the standalone operas, but not for the box set.

At any rate, if it's the case that tracks are identified by the first words sung, then I should be able to key the tracks to the libretto easily enough.
posted by Prospero at 2:06 PM on January 23, 2006

My copy of the Solti complete box set does have CD track numbers in the librettos. I just got it about 2-3 years ago.
posted by dnash at 7:46 PM on January 23, 2006

Apologies, my copy of the complete set is about seven years old. It was such an odd oversight that it doesn't surprise me that its been fixed. It's easy enough to fix yourself (I did) but I have a kind of allergy to writing on printed material so it was uncomfortable. No reason not to then, enjoy.
posted by grahamwell at 1:49 AM on January 24, 2006

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