Saturday 29 February 2020

Solti's Rhinegold: Genius all round

This is the closing section of Das Rheingold: the first (and best) opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle. As a composition and work of literature (Wagner did the libretto as well as music) it is extremely well-structured; and has a mythic power only exceeded by that greatest of all musical compositions: Mozart's Zauberflote.

As a college student, I spent a memorable four consecutive days listening to the Ring in the famous LP boxed-set recording by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic. This is not just a musical classic, but a classic of recording quality - showing that what was achievable in 1964 has never been surpassed; not least because it was analogue, like real life.

The above section is the close of Rheingold, which contains several enthralling passages. The sound of 'Thor's hammer (actually Donner) on anvil at 1:59 begins one such - and the very end of the opera (depicting the gods grandiose procession across the rainbow bridge into Valhalla) is literally hair-raising.

Solti was regarded as one of the truly great conductors, the Vienna Phil of this era was one of the great orchestras - and here Solti demonstrates what great conducting can be, when he plays upon the orchestra as if it was a single many-multi-instrument.

In particular, what Solti gets from the brass section - so large and vital a component of the Wagner effect (for which he invented several additional instuments) - is remarkable. The combination of brightness with internal balance of the brass chords, and they way the volume is shaped, is something quite beyond most conductors and orchestras - a whole extra dimension.


William Wildblood said...

I have amassed more versions of the Ring Cycle than I am prepared to admit. I agree that Solti's is still the best studio version but I prefer the singing and musical intensity of some of the live versions from Bayreuth in the '50s, the Krauss one from 1953 perhaps at the top. I do also very much like the recent DVD version from the Met with Bryn Terfel, done in an old-fashioned style without being stodgy.

I would reverse your assessment of Die Zauberflote and Rheingold. I do think the latter has much deeper mythic power though when I tell you that my favourite bit from Zauberflote is the song of the two armed men that may cause you to doubt my musical sanity.

Regarding which of the four operas is the best I have wavered but incline to Rheingold in the end. It's definitely not Siegfried but the other two have strong claims. Anyway, when it comes down to it this is one of the greatest works of art of the human race. Perhaps it has equals but I couldn't say there was a greater.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I have not compared all that many versions of the Ring - indeed, I have only listed to Gotterdammerung that one time, since I thought it was altogether inferior; as indeed is the last part of Siegfried written after Wagner broke off.

So I don't really rate-highly The Ring as a whole work - since (to my preference) it does not cohere nor end properly, and also because Rheingold works as a complete single opera.

However, I would modify this overall opinion with the point that some specific 'set piece' parts of Valkyrie and Siegfried are better than any specific bits of Rheingold - I mean the well known things like The Ride, or Magic Fire music (a particular favourite).

a_probst said...

It's common for certain passages in the Ring Cycle to be performed as instrumentals, The Ride of the Valkyries being the most common. When I first Heard "Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla" on the radio played thus I had no way of knowing that any of it was to be sung. All I could think was "What possible stagecraft....!" Surely nothing short of cinematic visual effects were needed to come anywhere near what the music conveyed. The singers let the stagecrafters off the hook somewhat.

The only live performance of Das Rheingold I've seen was with the Los Angeles Opera directed by Placido Domingo. It was good, not great. And there were the now-obligatory post-modernist costumes and stage sets. These designers are wasting their time. No matter what they create I see the horned helmets, breast plates, swords, and shields in my mind's eye anyway.

A disappointing absence in the rest of the cycle is Loge as a singing role. His irreverence, in my view, made him something of an audience surrogate.

After seeing Ingmar Bergman's film of Die Zauberflöte I cancelled plans to buy a recording of the opera. This marks the only time I've refrained from obtaining a recording because the music was too effective. I felt as if I had gorged myself on very rich food.