The Golden Ring covers the recording of the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung; Das Rheingold had been released in in 1958 and Siegfried in 1962, with the second opera, Die Walküre, to come in 1965. All of them were recorded in Vienna’s Sofiensaal, originally built in 1826 but which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 2001 (it was finally rebuilt and renovated in 2013 and re-opened as an event space). The documentary is a rare behind-the-scenes look at a classical music recording, most notable perhaps for the ability to eavesdrop on conductor Solti and producer John Culshaw as they negotiate the daily difficulties of the project.
It’s a pleasure to watch, especially if, like me, you have the records on hand, and I must admit I’ve got them all now except, ironically, Götterdämmerung. I’ve purchased used versions of all of them from Discogs, and must say been delighted with their condition. They sound great, even now, sixty years after their release, and I’ve gotten near-mint-condition vinyl at bargain-basement prices, far less than I would have paid when I first listened to the Solti Ring in the early 1980s. I can only assume that this is because (1) they were very well taken care of, and (2) there’s little market for them. Capitalism works for me.
Culshaw, who was awarded an OBE in 1976, had very little musical talent of his own and far-from-perfect pitch; the early chapters of the book focus on his own self-education in classical music as he flew wartime missions over the continent. After he wrote an early study of Rachmaninov, he joined Decca, and like most opera memoirs there are delightful stories of Georg Solti, Birgit Nilsson, Herbert von Karajan, and others through the post-war years, not to mention the birth of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the recording of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Unlike many opera memoirs, however, Culshaw focuses on the business and technical end of the classical music industry, describing the debut of the LP and stereo recording techniques with considerable good humor and fascination, providing an entertaining answer to the question, “Just what is it that classical music producers do, anyway?”
Of course, Culshaw may be best known for producing the great Solti Ring cycle in the 1950s and 1960s, the first in stereo and still a landmark in recorded sound. (Culshaw described this experience at length in his memoir Ring Resounding.) When I purchased a starter audiophile setup a few years ago, the first recording I purchased was the first pressing of Das Rheingold. It doesn’t begin to compare with digital remasterings of the recording which rob it of its warmth somehow; the difference is evident from the first bars of the opera, which even at a relatively low volume set my floor vibrating, unlike its digital siblings. The cycle hasn’t been out of print since its release, but it’s only been remastered for CD and streaming.
Until now, that is. As I was preparing this post, I came across news that Decca was remastering the original tapes of the project for vinyl once again. Described as a “high-definition transfer of the original master tapes” in something called Dolby Atmos, the Decca Classics release follows a restoration of these tapes. The vinyl albums are being published piecemeal, the first being Das Rheingold, which was released earlier this month, the others to follow in the new year. At these prices, I’m not sure I’ll be giving up my used copies quite yet, but once I hit the lottery I think I’ll have to get my pre-orders in.