First Is Not Always Best | Pushing the Wave

First Is Not Always Best

Culture, 15 October 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Piazza Borromeo Milan Italy
Passing through: Piazza Borromeo, Milan, Italy.
I have talked a few times about how much I travel for work. It’s tiring sometimes, and sometimes I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.

Especially when I am visiting foreign countries and getting to experience, in between the meetings, presentations and reporting, wonderful cultures and cuisines, and seeing magnificent sights.

Some of it is not just because I am worn out and fed up with living out of a suitcase, and because the choosing of a new restaurant for the evening has become something of a chore, but also because I miss home, and my family. So it’s important I can take some things away with me.

As I have implied a few times on here, I have a passion for classical music, alongside many other genres, and I have a large and fairly comprehensive CD collection.

Bringing that with me is a little challenging, and not least because hotel rooms and apartments never have CD players. So I end up relying on streaming services, most recently Apple’s Classical app. As you would expect, it has a large catalogue, covering a wide range of music, albeit one limited to what has been digitised and therefore is still in print, as it were.

The interesting thing I find is I don’t often listen to digital versions of tidbits from my collection when I am far from home. Instead, I use the app to explore all sorts of things I don’t have and probably would never buy, but am nevertheless curious to sample.

For that, I find the app is well done, and I rarely have to go beyond their varied and interesting latest picks, as there is always something there to tickle my fancy, so to speak. Recently, for example, I have sampled composers hitherto unknown to me, including Thomas Larcher, Ola Gjeilo, and the brilliant Dorbinka Takakova.

I have also listened to fantastic violin playing by Nurit Stark, who sheds a new and interesting light on some familiar pieces, and an intriguing version of Estancia, the ballet by Alberto Ginastera. I also delved into the archives and feasted on recordings of Bruckner symphonies, which happily confirmed my current conductor preferences and did not make me want to add to my CD collection back home.

And then I spotted something that intrigued me.
I should say before I carry on that I am something of a Wagner nerd.

Not for the man himself of course, but for his compositions and in particular that summit of Western theatre: The Ring Cycle, or Der Ring des Nibelungen, if you prefer.

I have briefly alluded to this before, but that set of four operas, which are steeped in Germanic folklore and heroic legend, inspires a form of passionate tribalism that can, unchecked, quickly become obsessive and a somewhat tedious.

It must be acknowledged, however, that because it is such a long, complicated and multilayered work, with numerous musical and dramatic threads, any interpretation of it, whether on stage or in the recording studio, will quickly reveal almost as much as the person conducting the operas as it does about the compositions themselves.

As a result, the search for the ‘perfect’ Ring Cycle is both a fruitless task and a highly enjoyable one, as each performance and recording can be utterly different from any other. It doesn’t mean they are all good, of course, but there are many that are, and many of those inspire intense loyalty. Fans of certain recordings in particular will swear their preference is the only one of value and anything else pales in comparison.

There is large faction who believe, for example, the recordings of the Ring Cycle made in the 1950s at Bayreuth, the theatre designed by Wagner specifically for the four operas, are the ultimate, and the rest are mere imitators.

Personally I don’t agree. I find them somewhat slow and ponderous, despite their obvious musical excellence, and they lack much human emotion, preferring to aim straight for stirring grandeur.

All well and good. But the performers sometimes seem too aware of the ‘magic’ of the Ring Cycle and are over-reverent towards the score. Consequently, the performances occasionally slide into quasi-religious ceremonies devoted the veneration not only of Wagner himself but also of the concept of ‘high German art’, and by extension the fabled excellence of German orchestras and singers.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much of value elsewhere in the vast range of Ring Cycle recordings, stretching back into the early 20th century. I was recently swept away by the conducting of Artur Bodanzky in the 1930s on the Wagner At The Met: Legendary Performances From The Metropolitan Opera set.

There is also the extremely powerful set conducted by Marek Janowski for RCA, which left me utterly spellbound in places, and the deeply lyrical version by that modern master of Wagner, Sebastian Weigle, in a recording known as Der Frankfurter Ring. And then there is of course a personal favourite of mine: the Barenboim set live from Bayreuth, recorded in the early 1990s, and which to my mind remains a pinnacle of modern opera performance.

I could go on, but back to my adventures on Apple’s Classical app.
I recently came across something that took me right back in time, both musically and personally, to my heady days at university: The Golden Ring: Great Scenes from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

This is a collection of remastered highlights from the first ever full recording of every note of the Ring Cycle. (It was common practice in times past for conducers to cut parts and even entire scenes from operas when performing them, which now feels like vandalism but reveals something in the way we have shifted our view of creator versus interpreter.)

It is, of course, the version of The Ring Cycle by Sir Georg Solti, with the Vienna Philharmonic and a cast of singers quite rightly viewed in superlative terms. It is seen by the casual classical music public as the greatest recording of The Ring, ever, and tops poll after poll of the best Wagner CDs, time after time.

And yet anyone with a deeper interest in this most fascinating work of art quickly realises that, for all its sheen and reputation, Solti’s recording is, in comparison with many other Ring Cycles, a somewhat empty experience.

As I sat there looking at the fancy new cover to go with the fancy new remastering, I realised, however, that hadn’t listened to one single note of it since I gave away my copy in the late 1990s, when I decided with some bitterness the incredible reputation of the recording was undeserved.

As I gazed at the new cover, I wondered if maybe I was judging it harshly, then and now. Maybe my perception of it has shifted over the intervening two decades. After all, I have changed, a lot. And as I discussed recently, I am capable of changing my mind about classical music recordings, to the extent I now love interpretations I previously detested. Maybe it would be the case here.

So with an open mind and a sense of adventure in my heart, I pressed play.

It should be stated straight away that Solti’s version is, technically, breathtaking in its rich detail and on that level the recording is an extraordinary achievement, especially for the time.

When you think it was recorded between 1958 and 1965, it sounds incredibly clear. I realise it has been remastered with loving care, but you can only go so far with the available raw materials. It is abundantly clear Decca threw the kitchen sink at this performance during the recording sessions to make sure they captured every nuance and shift in musical dynamics, which has reaped dividends as the means of exploiting that richness has improved in recent years.

However, artistically speaking, Solti’s recording is curiously lacking. It is proficient in the extreme, the voices are rich and golden, and the playing by the Vienna Philharmonic is excellence personified. But that is where it ends.

The reading of the score by Solti is, to me, so flat and literal that, after hearing numerous other versions, whether by luminaries or virtual unknowns, it makes me despair. It puts me in mind of a child read a book they know well. All the words come out correctly and are clear but there is no sense of telling a story.

This version of the Ring Cycle is so lacking in any kind of interpretation it makes me wonder if the sole purpose of recording it was to show off the brilliance of the recording engineers at Decca, and anything that got in the way of that was forbidden.

And of course the irony of a flat and emotionally empty performance is when the moments of great drama are reached, the lack of engagement seems all the greater. So, after a couple of tracks, I keep thinking about all those other recordings of the operas I love, and fell to wondering what it would be like if the singers in Solti’s version had been available to them.

Despite all that, I do understand why it gets some of the attention it attracts. The first of anything is always noteworthy and to be remembered if just for that, and for the superlative work of the recording engineers alone it deserves its place in the canon. But I cannot think it justifies being esteemed so highly.

However, no matter what I think, I’m sure its golden reputation isn’t about to change any time soon, especially now it’s been polished and repackaged for a new generation.
I went on a bit there so I’m not going to give you much of an update on my writing, other than to say there will be many exciting updates in the near future. Stay tuned!
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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First Is Not Always Best | Pushing the Wave