Monday, 16 June 2014

Thirty-fifth Anniversary of the Four-Day Wagner Ring-Fest

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Almost exactly thirty-five years ago I listened to Wagner's opera sequence The Ring.

It was a memorable event, scheduled to come immediately after my medical school examinations but before I got the results. My companions were two music students - and they-block booked one of the sound-proofed studios in the bowels of the music department annexe - and all four volumes of the boxed set of The Ring in the famous 1958-65 version conducted by George Solti and featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

We therefore listened to these LPs on state-of the-art stereo, following the whole thing on scores, and with intense concentration. In the gaps between sections or operas, we continued to socialize, eat meals together, and discuss the operas; or else were reading books about Wagner.

Altogether it was a rather overwhelming experience, and I was dazedly wandering in a Wagnerian world for the next few months - whether walking in the Lake District, sweeping the corridors and cleaning toilets in a psychiatric hospital (as a summer job), or immersing myself in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

However, I have never done the same again - for the very good reason that the last part of Siegfried and the whole of Gotterdammerung were extremely disappointing to me as the supposed culmination of the cycle - being at a lower level musically, dramatically and spiritually than what preceded.

Indeed, my general feeling is that, qua opera, the first is the best - The Rhinegold; which has a visceral mythic power and unity. Some of the music in Valkyrie and Siegfried is more powerfully moving and appealing - but at a cost of some underlying incoherence. So my practice has been to listen to Rhinegold complete from time to time, but only to chunks of the second and third, and never again to the fourth.

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