Georg Solti’s recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle made between 1958 and 1966 has probably had more words written about it than any other classical recording. They are perhaps best. summed up by Gramophone Magazines comment that it is “The greatest of all the achievements in the history of the gramophone record”. It’s an amzing cast that no-one could afford to assemble for a studio recording today, it’s the Wiener Philharmoiker and, of course, Solti himself. But most opera lovers and certainly the audiophile ones will know all this. So why am I writing about it?
Two reasons. First, it’s being re-released in a new high definition version and, second, the Das Rheingold was the first full opera I ever heard. So let’s tell that srory first. It would have been 1973 and I had just started studying for my A levels (Pure maths, applied maths and physics FWIW). The elderly gentleman who taught me applied maths had a fantastic, if eclectic, record collection (you have to be a bit obsessive to have the complete Dorati Haydn symphonies recordings!) and what was, for the 1970s, a state of the art stereo system. He’d invite me over to listen and drink more gin than a 16 year old ought to. I was blown away by the Wagner recording; both the amazing performance from an unbeatable cast and orchestra and the extraordinary effects that John Culshaw achieved with his “soundstage” technique. I don’t know if, but for that, I would ever have developed an interest in opera. As it was a year or two later one of my first live operas was The Rhinegold at ENO (in English of course).
So what about this new release? So far only a disc of excerpts (The Golden Ring) has been released with Das Rheingold to come in December and the other operas next year. It’s in hybrid SACD format and it’s a complete remaster from the original tapes sampled at 24bit/192kHz and then processed using the latest technology for removing tape hiss and other unwanted artefacts. It’s also been given a wider frequency and dynamic range than previous CD releases. There is no multi track version just a 2.8GHz/1 bit stereo mix which I think is the right thing to have done. UMG/Decca have the technology to create a surround mix. They have used it on a number of older DVD re-issues but stereo is what Culshaw was engineering for and I’m glad they have stayed with his vision. There is also a 16bit/44.1kHZ CD quality track if you want to play it in the car perhaps.
The result is spectacularly good. There’s a clarity and detail in the orchestral playing that is as good as I have heard, even on SACD. The “soundstage” effects are even more spectacular and are heard to great effect in the Gods entry into Valhalla, in the forging scene and in the final collapse of everything at the end. It’s actually quite startling to listen to. For comparison I played the Gods entry into Valhalla on my 1997 CD version; the second of two previous tart ups for CD. The difference is really noticeable, especially at the point where Thor whumps something with his hammer and the orchestra goes into a bassy fff climax. The old version sounds like a record, the new unlike any recording I’ve heard before. It should probably carry a health warning for headphone users.
There’s a booklet with the physical disk with a lot of useful information on the restoration process as well as synopses of the scenes (all 76 minutes of them) on the disk and some interesting historic photos. There is also a downloadable digital version in MP3 and FLAC but not, of course, SACD format (and there’s no digital booklet). The only merit I can see in that is that it’s cheap and might be worth having if you don’t have either SACD capability or an earlier version of the CDs.
I’m looking forward to getting my paws on the complete operas. This is really good stuff.
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Glad to finally heard a review that matches my perception
I have a high end headphone system and so far I have listened to Das Reingold.
It is mindblowing, incredible, crazy good. It is a masterpiece of remaster.
I cannot recommend it enough.
I have listened to the 24/192 download version
Indeed. I have tried to explaijnto many friends who still have the vinyl or one of the CD releases just how good this is but mostly with limited success.