Wagner's `Ring' on CD: rating the four versions released so far

The great advantage of compact discs is the amount of music that can be fitted on each one. This makes the medium especially felicitous for opera, most specifically Richard Wagner's immense ``Der Ring des Nibelungen'' cycle of four works - ``Das Rheingold,'' ``Die Walk"ure,'' ``Siegfried,'' and ``G"otterd"ammerung.'' And yet, with the advent of all-digital technology, the Polygram group of record labels - London, Deutsche Grammophon, and Philips - has transferred its respective extant cycles, recorded in the pre-digital era, to CD rather than undertaking new projects. This makes sense, since the talent involved included conductors like Sir Georg Solti (London), the late Karl B"ohm (Philips), and Herbert von Karajan (DG) and casts featuring Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam, Thomas Stewart, R'egine Crespin, Hans Hotter, Christa Ludwig, etc.

Only RCA/Ariola, by way of its Eurodisc label, has yet chosen to take advantage of digital technology to release a cycle recorded in sequence between 1980 and '83. Deutsche Grammophon (DG), however, recently announced that a new digital cycle involving the Metropolitan Opera and James Levine, will begin with ``Die Walk"ure'' this April. And EMI/Angel will undertake its own digital cycle, with Bernard Haitink conducting, beginning this year. Janowski and the Dresden Staatskapelle

The new Eurodisc release, with Marek Janowski presiding over the Dresden Staatskapelle, has been hailed as the ``Ring'' for the '80s. I find that assessment valid, however, only insofar as it shows how badly standards have slipped since '67 - which is when the extraordinary B"ohm ``Ring'' was taped live by Philips in Bayreuth.

Given the crisis in Wagner singers today - we just don't allow voices time to develop into full-fledged dramatic instruments - it was improbable that Mr. Janowski's cycle would be able to compare with its illustrious predecessors.

That the singing was, for the most part, so poor, and that Janowski's conducting was alarmingly drab and unexciting came as rather awkward surprises. The sound itself is dim: One can hardly believe this is the world-famous Staatskapelle.

Jeanine Altmeyer sang her first Br"unnhilde for these sessions, and has since gone on to perform them on stage. At no time has she ever convinced this listener that hers is a legitimate Br"unnhilde voice, and she sounds especially naive of style on this cycle and enervates the entire cycle artistically.

Theo Adam's Wotan is not what it was for B"ohm recording [discussed below]. And much of the other casting is weak. On the good side, there is Peter Schreier's insinuating Loge (and malevolent Mime) and Ren'e Kollo's animated Siegfried. But their performances are not enough to recommend a cycle that takes up 18 badly divided and banded CDs, as opposed to Philips's 14 and London's and DG's 15. Von Karajan with a stellar cast

Meanwhile, DG's current CD set is Karajan's show all the way. True, Crespin's uncommonly vulnerable, feminine ``Walk"ure'' Br"unnhilde, Thomas Stewart's noble young Wotan (for ``Walk"ure'' and ``Siegfried''), Jon Vickers's forceful Siegmund (slightly throttled by Karajan), and Zoltan Keleman's Alberich are all assets. On the other hand, Gundula Janowitz's edgy, thin-voiced Sieglinde, Helga Dernesch's effortful, squally ``Siegfried'' and G"otterd"ammerung'' Br"unnhilde, and Gerhard Stolze's manic Loge are all liabilites.

What saves each performance is the magic of Karajan - a searching, probing set of performances, never willing to settle for mere tradition, full of magic, insight, and exceptional ear for balances and textures. Thus, if a purely conductorial ``Ring'' is your desire, you'll find Karajan's ideas becoming increasingly powerful each time you put any of the operas on. Solti conducting the Culshaw production

The London set is the legendary soundstage production devised by John Culshaw, which won every conceivable award for engineering, performance, singing, and conducting. Since it was begun when stereo was in its infancy, the novelty of the sonic effects was particularly felt.

Even today, those effects remain some of the most vivid ever put to record. And though I am not all that fond of Solti's driven approach to the music, the black vinyl discs are still bewitching things.

Unfortunately, I find that the transfer is a giant step backward from the LP version, despite a lofty paragraph from Solti adorning each CD boxed set stating that the full impact of the Culshaw concept has finally been brought to the home listener through the magic of CD. Gone is the warmth, the depth of sound, and the sense that these performances are taking place in a specific acoustic.

The orchestra sound lacks ambiance on CD, and the voices have no bloom around them. This is especially evident in the ``Rheingold'' and the ``G"otterd"ammerung'' (the first and third projects in this cycle). On the latter, one is aware of the flaws in the tape - particularly an incipient distortion throughout parts of the second act, which the engineers expected vinyl surface noise to mask considerably, but which is far more clear on CD.

The set has memorable performances, though, particularly Miss Nilsson's rapier-voiced Br"unnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen's grand-scaled Siegfried, bass Hans Hotter's richly portrayed Wotan (especially in ``Siegfried''), Crespin's warm Sieglinde, James King's noble Siegmund, George London's eloquent Wotan, and Kirsten Flagstad's magnificent Fricka in ``Das Rheingold.'' And I could go on. Karl B"ohm's live Bayreuth performances

For these ears, the best stereo ``Ring'' has always been B"ohm's. The Philips transfer to CD is magnificent - cleaning up balances and fully capturing the glories of the Bayreuth acoustic, during an essentially standard mid-'60s performance in the theater Wagner built. Nilsson is in better voice and more communicative form here than on the Solti cycle, as is Mr. Windgassen, the Siegfried. Adam's Wotan is superb, Leonie Rysanek's Sieglinde definitive, and Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich awesome.

There is a lot of stage noise, and there are lapses, particularly Annelies Burmeister's pedestrian Fricka, but they are incidental.

B"ohm's performance - propulsive, impassioned, electrifying, fast but never hurried, willing to sit back and be expansive when needed - is, for my ears, the best Wagner the stereo age has ever known.

At 14 CDs, this cycle is a particular bargain and a ``Ring'' to hold any lover of the music in good stead for some time to come.

Thor Eckert is the Monitor's music critic.

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