This is the Ring that John Culshaw had so much fun with in his book, Ring Resounding, about the making of the Solti Ring. And he had a point. Yes, there is barely a third of the tetralogy recorded here (more than `bleeding chunks' but far less than the whole). Yes, we dart between London and Berlin and occasionally Vienna seemingly at will. Yes conductors (who didn't seem to be thought of as very important in those days) can change within scenes. So, on occasion, can singers - Act 2 of Walkure, for instance, has 2 Wotans, 2 Brunnhildes, 2 Sieglindes and Wotan No.2 doubles as Hunding! BUT...
But here is some of the most glorious singing you will hear on any Ring recording. Ever.
These days it seems to be the 50's that are lauded as the Golden Age of Wagner Singing - Hotter, Varnay, Nilsson, Flagstad (still), Windgassen, Vickers et al. But Hotter, magisterial and charismatic god that he could be, was prone to being hooty and woolly and even a bit wobbly, especially on an asthmatic day. Nilsson's awe-inspiring steely brilliance could leave her sounding a little cold and impersonal. At the other extreme, Flagstad's richer tones could make her sound a little maternal for my taste (Brunnhilde may be Siegfried's aunt, but she's not his mother!). Varnay was blisteringly committed in everything she did, but the voice as a voice? No cigar. Windgassen's Siegfried lacked the last ounce or two of vocal heft and he was apt to husband his resources a bit too much, especially in his eponymous opera. And so on.
But go back a generation further and wow! It's in a different class.
Let's start with Friedrich Schorr since he's the first of these greats to appear on these discs. In Wotan's `Abendlich strahlt' from Rheingold he is simply magnificent. This is a baritone bass-baritone as opposed to Hotter's bass bass-baritone (think Norman Bailey vs. John Tomlinson for modern local equivalents - on second thoughts, don't: it's not fair on two excellent Wotans!). Schorr's voice in 1927 was in prime nick (it got a bit strained at the top a decade or so later); focused, controlled, ample and with what I can only describe as a beat to it rather than any suggestion of wobble that gave it colour and character. Then there is the intelligence he brought to the character and the text. This is fully illustrated by taking practically any part of his role from Walkure - from the father issuing orders to his daughter through the crushed husband, the blind frustration of `heilige Schmach', the towering anger of Act 3 right through to what must be the definitive performance of the Farewell - certainly the one I always hear in my mind's ear. The Wanderer in Siegfried is no less wonderfully sung and the character has grown in maturity and resignation as well as gaining a sense of humour in his scenes with Mime and Alberich.
Frida Leider's Brunnhilde strikes a perfect balance between the steeliness of a Nilsson and the mumsiness of a Flagstad. John Steane described her voice as "existing at that rarely achieved point where the heroic has not become inhuman and where the human does not undermine tragic dignity". Precisely. This is amply demonstrated in bar after bar of Walkure from the teenage whoops of her war cry through the inwardness and growing confidence of her plea to her father to the crowning heroic glory of her grand idea for a fire-girt rock and a hero to brave it, singing with reckless abandon and thrilling security at the same time. Sadly she is not with us for Siegfried or Gotterdammerung, though we get her earlier set of the last (butchered) scene of Siegfried with Rudolf Laubenthal as a consolation. I wish there had been room for her nonpareil of an Immolation, even though it wasn't part of the original set.
The last of this triumvirate of unmatchable Wagner singers was, of course, Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried. His voice is simply a phenomenon - tireless, with a distinctive ring throughout its range, towering when loud (forging the sword), capable of real beauty and poetry when soft (the Forest Murmurs) and not as prone to rhythmical sloppiness as he's often made out to be. We have not heard his like before or since and probably never will.
The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Walter Widdop as Siegmund can hold his head high in this esteemed company; Gota Ljunberg is a wonderful Sieglinde, young, sexy, alive to the rising passion of Act 1, the hysteria of Act 2 and the glorious outburst of maternalism in Act 3 alike. I have to say, I've never quite got it with most people's favourite Sieglinde, Lotte Lehmann (the Fidelio Leonora, yes, that's a different matter), so for me Ljungberg is probably the best of them all. Florence Austral is the Brunnhilde of Gotterdammerung - at her best in a Dawn Duet with Widdop as Siegfried, egged on by urgent conducting from Albert Coates (far and away the most exciting conductor on these discs). Her Immolation is excellent, if not enough to erase memories of Leider. Ivar Andresen is the blackest of Hagens (enough to make Frick sound cuddly!), Emmi Leisner an implacable Fricka and Maartje Offers a Waltraute who really draws you in to her narrative.
It was122 sides on its original issue and in sound that is really staggeringly good (as it comes up on these Pearl discs produced by the ever reliable Mark Obert-Thorn), considering it was recorded just a few years after the introduction of electric recording.
If you love Wagner singing of the absolutely highest standards and already have your favourite modern-sound version sorted, don't hesitate: treat yourself to the many, many unmatched performances on these discs, all for less than the price of a pretty dodgy seat at the opera house.