Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen Box set
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German pressings of the immense Sony Classical Masters Catalog in smart, desirable and collectible multi-disc editions - The Sony catalog is replete with legendary artists and many of the greatest recordings of the classical repertoire - Box fronts feature large, prominently displayed photo of the featured artist - Slender, shelf-friendly boxes; CD's housed in space-saving slipsleeves
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Top Customer Reviews
Janowski and the Staatskapelle Dresden sound great. While they may not have the beautiful sound of the Berlin Philharmonic or Vienna, they are conducted with intelligence by Janowski and recorded in marvelous digital sound which allows Wagner's orchestral writing to be clearly heard.
If you haven't bought a Ring Cycle yet, you will be very pleased with this set. (If you own a classic set, buy this anyway just to hear the sound and those three terrific tenors.)
PS There is a deluxe version of this for an extra expenditure. If it isn't available on Amazon.ca, look on Amazon.com. The extra ten or fifteen bucks to get the latest packaging with the individual boxes containing librettos is well worth the money. The English translation is the Stewart Spencer which costs about twenty bucks if you purchase it separately.
In summary, snap this up quickly. Hooray for bicentennial celebrations from the classical music industry. I love it!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
And so it is with its multitudinous recordings. Among the live versions, the earlier ones (Furtwaengler, Krauss, Knappertsbusch) suffer from murky sound, while even those in decent stereo (Keilberth, Boehm, Sawallisch, Barenboim) feature thuds, clunks, and assorted live-performance anomalies that grow less endearing with each listening. As for the studio recordings, they're variously undermined by continuity problems (Solti, Karajan), subpar singing (Swarowsky), or deficiencies in tension and energy (Levine, Haitink).
Which brings us to this Marek Janowski set. I first reviewed it for Amazon in February 2005, and I'm now updating that review. One of the great unheralded achievements of the waning LP era, Janowski's was the first all-digital RING, recorded in just 2½ efficient years during the early 80s. Later the same decade it was the first version to debut on CD, at the top of the 90s a mid-price edition emerged, then a dirt-cheap reissue marked its first appearance in the 21st century ... and finally here it is again, pricewise an even more astonishing bargain. After several return visits down through the years, I'm ready to call it the cycle with the fewest things wrong and the most right.
First off, it's registered in clean, ungussied digital stereo of exceptional radiance and lucidity - massed strings can be a tad opaque, hinting at its pioneer status, otherwise the color and fine detail are ravishing, plus the whole event has the definite feel of being recorded in long takes: it offers the commitment and intensity of a live performance minus the wrong notes and stage noises. Second, it showcases lithe, athletic playing from Dresden's underpublicized but authentically great orchestra - strings turn on a dime, woodwind staccati are needle sharp, brass are lean and subtly integrated. In contrast to their only continental peers in this repertory - the Vienna PO with its creamy sweetness and the Berlin PO with its iron power - the Dresdeners favor sheen, transparency, and fast reflexes, lightning as well as thunder. Yes, they can whip up a glowering storm in the SIEGFRIED Act III prelude, but you'll never hear a Rhine journey with more wit, sparkle, and agility.
Janowski's propulsive conducting is invaluable for two main reasons. 1) Beyond projecting the RING's well-known tempests and tensions, he also puts over its comedy and irony - the teasing mischief of the Rhinemaids, the gallows humor during the valkyrie confab, the sad silliness of the nibelung squawkfest in SIEGFRIED II iii. 2) He's continually alert to Wagner's dramaturgy, to its narrative ebb, flow, and movement toward crisis. Janowski's pacing is ideal at the great turning points - Alberich stealing the gold, Erda's intervention when Wotan won't give up the ring (Solti is oblivious here), the mounting violence in Siegfried's meeting with the Wanderer (here Karajan is gingerly), the tension gathering under Siegfried's narrative in GOETTERDAEMMERUNG III ii as he incriminates himself step by step. This is purposeful, goal-oriented conducting that I suspect even Wagner himself would have admired.
The cast, too, is exemplary. For one thing, it's a true ensemble with the same talent staying on board to the finish: out of 12 recurring roles, 11 are single cast (sole exception: Mime, not fatally disruptive). Plus these singers, with unbeaten consistency, are both listenable and characterful. The set's original manufacturer, Ariola-Eurodisc, was a major player during the decade prior, recording both operatic rarities (Schubert, Orff) and standards (FIDELIO, CARMEN). Eurodisc had the budgets to sign up the biggest names, and here even bit parts can be stunningly cast - Kurt Moll as Hunding, Lucia Popp and Hanna Schwarz as Rhinemaidens, Cheryl Studer and Ruth Falcon as walkueren. A couple of the supporting players are routine - Stryczek's rough-and-ready Donner, Noecker's decently sung but undercharacterized Gunther - otherwise Siegmund Nimsgern is the optimum Alberich, a full-bodied character baritone with a genuine legato and a meaty high G, while Peter Schreier doubles Loge and the SIEGFRIED Mime with imagination, gusto, and (gasp) real singing.
And so it goes: Jessye Norman and Siegfried Jerusalem are a Sieglinde and Siegmund competitive with anybody's, Yvonne Minton a Fricka of icy loveliness, Ortrun Wenkel intense and specific as Erda and Waltraute, Norma Sharp cool and pretty as both Gutrune and the woodbird, while a young Matti Salminen turns in the most baleful Hagen since Frick - and a Fafner so innately cavernous, his dragon scarcely needs any special miking. As for the three leads, our Wotan is Theo Adam, who probably clocked more stage hours in the role than anybody in Wagner history. By the time of the recording he'd logged 22 RING seasons, but his high bass still has plenty to offer - interpretive savvy, trusty top notes, dead-center intonation. WALKUERE III iii finds the old pro in below-form voice, struggling for focus and steadiness; elsewhere, surprisingly, his sound is sometimes firmer than fifteen years earlier under Boehm (compare the "Abendlich strahlt" in RHEINGOLD). Overall he's a rugged, patriarchal Wotan and he catches the curve of the character superbly, politician, rageaholic, and shaman.
As his daughter Bruennhilde, California soprano Jeannine Altmeyer has been shamefully undervalued down through the years. I heard her LA Isolde in the mid 80s, and trust me, this is a big, carrying voice. Stack her against her recent peers: she has a fuller, steadier instrument than Behrens, a lovelier sound than Marton, the upper extension that Dernesch hadn't, and Jones's caterwauling is beneath discussion. No, she hasn't the slash and bite of dominatrix Bruennhildes like Nilsson and Varnay; instead she offers page after page of fresh, supple, centered sound, you pick the note. She's the aural equivalent of the young, willowy Bruennhilde in Arthur Rackham's watercolors, and it's high time we noticed: Altmeyer is the valkyrie easiest on the ears.
Lastly Rene Kollo's contributions are arguably his most valuable on disc. As John Culshaw once wrote, we must think of the younger Siegfried "as a youth instead of an adult," so dark-timbred tenors such as Melchior, Suthaus, and Windgassen can present big credibility problems. Kollo is near ideal: his silver sound is mainstream lyric tenor - even chest tones preserve a basic leanness and lucidity - but its fine-line definition means unexpected carrying power and maneuverability; in short, he's persuasively youthful yet he can cut through heavy orchestration. Some soft passages, though, catch him thinning the support out of the voice (e.g., "Es sangen die Voeglein" in SIEGFRIED I i), but it's still a splendid achievement, vividly phrased, both mercurial and meditative. And he's fine, too, as his elder self in GOETTERDAEMMERUNG, though not quite as indispensable.
All of which, taken together, accounts for this RING's front-to-back superiority - digital stereo of documentary directness and transparency; podium leadership that articulates narrative structure while projecting not only its passion and poignance but (rare indeed) its comedy and irony; and a repertory casting policy that generates both good sound and plausible characterization. Yes, a couple of the bit players are substandard, but the leads are astonishingly persuasive - Adam's leonine Wotan, Altmeyer's mellifluous Bruennhilde, and several who are arguably Best in Stereo: Kollo's Siegfried, Nimsgern's Alberich, Norman's Sieglinde, Schreier's Mime, Salminen's Fafner and Hagen. In short, it's the All-Purpose RING - ideal for the first-time listener who really hopes the epic will make sense, excellent for the score-in-hand professional who wants a clear, dependable reference edition that actually does what his score says. For me it's the version that has stood up best under repeated listening; so treat it as your basic set, then supplement it, if you like, with choice alternatives - Karajan's WALKUERE, say, or Solti's GOETTERDAEMMERUNG, or Krauss's mono edition.
Sony's bare-bones packaging offers cast and track lists but no synopsis or libretto. Not a problem. For under $20 Amazon can sell you WAGNER'S RING OF THE NIBELUNG by Stewart Spencer et al. (ISBN 0500281947), a reader-friendly modern translation complete with beneficial annotations, commentaries, and background material.
The one more thing I wanted to add to the reviews is that this was recorded in East Germany (before the Wall came down) by a western team. The actual digital recording was BEFORE Sony was in the digital business -- ironic since this is a Sony release. The masters were done by Thomas Stockham and Soundstream -- the same outfit that pioneered the Telarc masters of their first digital recordings. The Soundstream process was invented before the Red Book CD Standard was codified. Stockham started his venture (digital recordings) to digitally reclaim Caruso's voice from the original cylinder recordings. The bi-product of those experiments (Stockham was a PhD sound researcher) was his digital recording process which became Soundstream.
The sampling rate was not 41 KHz but rather 54 KHz (I believe). Because of this the higher frequencies had much more overtone "juice" and I have always felt that the Soundstream masters (whether these or the Telarcs) had a sweetness to the orchestral sound that the later Sony Digital recorders did not match. Soundstream masters were the "exception" to the original dry sound of the first-generation CD's.
So another reason I love this RING set is because of the digital sound, itself. The original CD's had one or two tracks per CD, so it was hard to find anything within an act. I assume that this set has tracks like all modern CD's do. I would recommend this set for the music, the performance, AND the technical achievement of the sound -- which, I think, actually outclasses all competition.
This specific studio performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle was the first one to be recorded digitally. Janowski, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the vocal soloists performed all four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung) in a German church (St. Luke's Church, Dresden). When the official Cycle was released by Eurodisc as a box set, critical reaction was lukewarm. It appears that some critics, and of course avid Wagnerian listeners, compared it to the world-famous Solti and Karajan recordings. I think the strict comparisons are unwarranted, since Janowski's recording is also a remarkable achievement. The box set was re-issued by RCA in the early 2000's and it went out of stock several years later. And now, in 2012, the box set has been re-issued a second time by RCA. But this time, it's released at a surprisingly cheap price: under fifty bucks! Since the first re-issue is the one I own, I'm assuming that the newer release not only does NOT include a libretto (as usual), but also does not include liner notes. I guess only track listings and a brief synopsis of each individual opera have been featured. But no matter, it's still the same superb recording that I have come to admire.
Janowski, a Polish conductor, doesn't really bring his own vision to Wagner's "music drama," like many other conductors from the past to the present. And I think this is what makes this Ring so refreshing to hear. Janowski ignores his ego (if he ever had one in the first place) and follows the orchestral score very closely. He's not like Solti with his bombastic drive, Karajan with his lyrical approach, or even Boulez with his emotionless momentum. He is very conscientious with Wagner's original intentions: precise tempi, dynamics, flow of leitmotifs, etc. His conducting is very direct, and some might say that he sacrifices soothing beauty and striking power for overall clarity. Thankfully, the entire Ring Cycle sounds more than just "middle-of-the-road." Tension is there when it's needed, and humor is balanced well during certain scenes. The more lyrical passages are given a Tchaikovsky-like ambiance. I also adore how the conductor knows the correct mood of each scene (fast and exciting in some, slow and poetic in others), unlike Bohm who can be a bit too fast during lyrical moments or Levine who simply plods through several exciting scenes (and I'm NOT saying that Bohm and Levine are bad, because I admire both of their recordings as well).
In the meantime, Janowski's close attention to detail is stunning. Many instrumental sounds that are found nowhere else (or just simply distorted) in other Ring recordings are found here: the oboe in the "Magic Fire Music" for example. Plus, Janowski's choice of clarity gives the music a consistently natural flow. Pacing is near-perfect, and it sounds as if this Ring Cycle does indeed move along naturally with the conductor's effective choice of tempi. And the leitmotifs are handled with care: from Valhalla to the Gibichungs, every musical theme just sounds right. With Janowski's complete faithfulness to the score, it's such a refreshing experience. In the midst of superstar conductors who mold this Cycle any way they wish, Janowski seems to be one of the few conductors who keeps the true spirit of Wagner alive, since he actually understands the overall structure of the music very well. There is no personal vision of the Ring which would distract from Wagner's own. And to that, Janowski's recording of Wagner's Ring is satisfying.
The Staatskapelle Dresden has only half of the force and flair of Solti's Vienna Philharmonic, but it sounds much clearer due to the fantastic digital sound. But it's not just the sound. Dresden's playing is refined and consistent from Rheingold to Gotterdammerung. The Wagner tubas for the Rhine River perform with elegance and polish. The woodwinds imitate the forest birds very well, while the anvils for Nibelheim are heard loud and clear. The dynamic shifts are handled with perfection, and every player follows the conductor without any hitch.
The singers in this specific recording are also excellent. I think this cast sounds quite distinctive with their own unique-sounding voices, and they sound as if they're the actual characters that they sing as. You can easily tell who's singing just by their voices: for once, both Fasolt and Fafner sound different from each other! As for the actual singing, it's exquisite. Theo Adam has sung as Wotan for many years, and his voice may have worn out a little during this recording. It's evident during Die Walkure Act Three Scene Three, as he bids farewell to Brunnhilde before she is confined to a deep sleep; his voice is wobbly on several occasions. But Adam still gives a thoroughly intelligent performance throughout. His articulation, phrasing, and conviction remain unrivalled. His voice may not sound as smooth as James Morris (Levine CD/DVD), but he is still believable with the ruggedness and perplexity of his character.
Jeannine Altmeyer has gained some controversy as Brunnhilde the Valkyrie. Some say that her voice isn't big enough, or that her American accent (which is nowhere to be found) gets in the way. I don't think it's fair to compare her to other sopranos such as Birgit Nilsson and Gwyneth Jones. She gives a remarkable performance despite her light voice, and she is very convincing as one of Wotan's youngest daughters. Rene Kollo performs as Siegfried, and he is in top form here. He captures the character's youthfulness and, in Gotterdammerung, adult personality splendidly. He sounds playful and arrogant when he's in Mime's home, and he sounds willed and well-mannered when he's in the Gibich Hall. He is the best heldentenor since Wolfgang Windgassen (from Krauss to Bohm).
Upon first hearing, you might assume that Siegmund Nimsgern sounds a bit too light for a character such as Alberich. But he nonetheless sings with passion, robustness, and despair. He sounds very humane compared to Gustav Neidlinger (from Krauss to Bohm) and Ekkehard Wlaschiha (Levine, Sawallisch) because of his third-dimensional portrayal of a Nibelung who swears vengeance on those who scorned him for a long while. Meanwhile, the Walsung twins are almost perfect. Siegfried Jerusalem and Jessye Norman sound marvelous as Siegmund and Sieglinde, the latter giving enough warmth and lightness that's required for her character. Jerusalem is an excellent tenor for Siegmund: clear delivery of text and appropriately clear voice.
Some tenors always exaggerate when they perform as Mime. Gerhard Stolze and Erwin Wohlfahrt are prime examples as they become dreadful caricatures (admittedly, Wohlfahrt backs away a little from the over-the-top personality). Peter Schreier is Mime in Janowski's Ring, and he doesn't exaggerate at all. In fact, all he does is sing, and that's just what I like to hear. He gives an intelligent performance, and he doesn't yell or bark his lines. He is less ghoulish and more benevolent, more three-dimensional. He is equal to Heinz Zednik when it comes to humaneness and lyricism. The only minor flaw I can find is the exact moment when he realizes that he cannot answer the Wanderer's third question ("Die Stucken! Das Schwert!"). He could've added a bit more fear in that sequence. But overall, he is an amazing Mime. He is also a great Loge in Rheingold as he captures the cunning trickster's personality at such a high level. Much of his singing involves imagination, peril, vengeance, and deviousness. Zednik and Emile Belcourt depend only on imagination and deviousness, Stolze only vengeance and deviousness, Windgassen and Witte only peril. His odd conversations with Alberich and the gods/goddesses are classic. On a side note, Mime in Rheingold is sung by Christian Vogel, who sounds almost a bit too young but satisfactory nonetheless.
Everyone else does a fine job. Matti Salminen is a warhorse of a bass as he sings powerfully as both Hagen and Fafner. Yvonne Minton has a light yet healthy voice, and she is convincing as Fricka. Ortrun Wenkel performs as both Erda and Waltraute, and she is such a brilliant Alto that she is perfect for both parts. Kurt Moll is superb and almost frightening as Hunding, while Norma Sharp and Hans Gunter Nocker are impressive as the Gibich siblings Gutrune and Gunther (Sharp is also fabulous as the Forest Bird in Siegfried). The Rhinemaidens (Popp/Priew/Schwarz) sound very lovely. The rest of the cast, including the Valkyries and Norns and even the Vassals, are flawless.
This is the first Ring recording that I have ever purchased. Prior to buying it, I had no knowledge of the story of the Ring, but thanks to Janowski's conducting (as well as Stewart Spencer's translation of the libretto), I now understand the grand scale of Wagner's creation. This Ring is perfect for beginners, as it is the least idiosyncratic interpretation due to the maestro's complete faithfulness to the orchestral score. With an intelligent conductor, a first-class orchestra, and an outstanding & very distinctive cast, this is my personal favorite Ring. It will stay with me, I'm sure of it.
NOTE: Since this new release does not include a libretto (just like the first re-release), you can find it here: Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung
Grade: 10 out of 10
Basically put, this by now familiar (if not also, venerable?) set has Staying Power. I first heard it when first released as a nicely boxed Eurodisc set of CDs. I listened for a while, then deleted it. At the time I was just having some difficulty with staying power of my own as a listener. I liked the familiar, famous, vivid Wagner moments for sure. But I found the long narrative stretches taxing. I decided for the time being that since I was not a native German speaker, I probably would always find the Ring a mix of wonderful plus boring.
So let me start right there.
The first truly outstanding draw of this set is the orchestra, hands down. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of Europe's greatest, oldest orchestras, if not a world treasure. It was located in East Germany behind the infamous Wall for so many years that its reputation dulled or dimmed. But, for example, there simply was no musical reason for Dresden to be disrepected. Go back and listen to Kurt Sanderling leading their Brahms symphonies set. That one has had staying power, too.
A close second to the orchestra's abundant excellence is the sound. It is full frequency, widely staged, very nicely balanced with the singers, and just about as tonally rich and exciting sonically as any other recording I could name in the entire stereo era of recording arts. This sound quality matters, because if a listener starts paying attention, you hear and realize quickly how to Wagner the orchestra was one of the cast, if not the most important continuing member possible of the various opera casts that would inevitalbly end up doing his operas.
So sound quality and orchestra playing are two large foundations upon which all Wagner operas must rest for those of us who listen on sound carriers, instead of attending live opera. Make no mistake, this set will help show off your big home rig as much as any other set of recordings, including a high resolution encoding like Super Audio. Strangely enough, Marek Janowski has been contracted by one of the leading SACD labels (Pentatone, the high rez sound team from Universal/Philips in the Netherlands, gone enterpreneurial, off on their own), and his contract now includes nothing less than leading all of the Wagner operas in new super audio studio recordings. So far as the Ring cycle goes, I would suggest Janowski will have a very hard time casting his super audio Ring with anything near to the consistent vocal quality that was used in this set.
The bottom line vocally is pretty much what other reviewers have said. Enough super star voices were brought into the mix to leave a positive, lasting, distinctive musical impression. The three stars of the first act in Walkure, for example, have probably never really been bettered. Who outdoes Jesseye Norman singing Sieglinde? You may like other Siegmunds, indeed; but surely you cannot gainsay Jerusalem in this set? Hunding, sung by Kurt Moll, is just as substantial, gruff, and frightening as any opera manager could desire to employ. If you've latched on to Birgit Nilsson for Bruenhilde, as many listeners in the stereo era will have become convinced and attached, you will at first find Jeannine Altmeyer's soprano voice too light, though heard against any other vocal backdrop besides the completely unique Birgit N., she indeed holds her own. Stop comparing Altmeyer to Nilsson, and you will give yourself a nice chance to appreciate her singing on its own considerable merits. Heard from that other angle, I would join other reviewers in saying: Altmeyer does as much good with her voice, and inhabits the character of Bruenhilde well, all for the musical good.
The remainder of the ring casts are strong, too. Just catch Cheryl Studer glimmering there among the Walkure maidens! Our Wotan is east Germany's leading baritone-bass, Theo Adam. Yes, at times his voice does sound somewhat worn. It might help to recall that Wotan as a god in Wagner's operatic pantheon is a complicated figure, and per his text, Wotan has plenty of passing moments in the Ring cycle operas when he is world weary and despairing of his own omnipotence, bound as he is by his own godly oaths. If Wotan were to sound world weary, the end of Walkure when he is grieving Bruenhilde's disobedience and saying farewell to her, might not be all that surprising.
Finally, in this release occasion, the affordable pricing of the set matters. If you lament your limited budget for whatever reasons, this set is just not going to break your bank, steal from your kids' college savings, or mean you can never again have a pricey night on the town with your favorite date. The quality of the set, however, generally considered, means you will get more than you pay for, guaranteed. What's not to like here?
Now a post note, if readers will allow. I must say that I am not dissing all the fans of the late, great Birgit Nilsson. Yes, she was truly impressive on discs, especially in Solti's Ring set. Once and only once, I got to hear her live. The Met was performing in Dallas, Texas. A music lover gave the music department tickets, so a small group from our department was chosen to attend. One of the three operas for which we got tix was Puccini's Turandot. Sure enough, Nilsson was present, singing her memorable Turandot, partnered by tenor ..., conducted by Mehta. The whole thing was brilliant and wild. The company was performing in a huge, cavern of a building that was built in the WPA era to multiple use specifications. Aside from Met performances, it served as a very large exhibition hall. The hall was so large, in fact, that all the sound generated by all singers (soloists, plus chorus) plus the entire Met orchestra fiddling and blowing away furiously ... well the wall of sound simply rushed by all of us in the audience, then disappeared completely into the remaining expanse of the hall. These were uncanny moments, with all the music rushing past and no return reverberation. Except, that is, when Nilsson and the tenor lead were challenging one another in the Riddle Scene. Then all that singing and playing rushed over us into the hall's emptiness, and only the resounding soprano of Birgit Nilsson was large enough to traverse the hall and return to us. Chills. Musical shivers. All around. Next day we got to hear Sandor Konya singing Lohengrin.