[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 7:06 PM Eastern on 17 Apr 2006. See below.]
Or so it seems not a few folks will be having if my eMail is any measure.
As I've written a great deal on this blog concerning Wagner and his works, it's not in the least odd that I receive eMail requests fairly regularly asking for CD or DVD recommendations for various of Wagner's operas. But this Christmas season the volume of requests for recommendations for CD or DVD sets of Wagner's tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, has been nothing short of astounding. All by itself that's encouraging. Even more encouraging, however, is that the requests have almost invariably been requests for recommendations for a CD or DVD set of the Ring that would be best for a Ring virgin; i.e., someone who's never before had experience of the Ring. As I'm not out on The Street much these days, I don't know whence this heightened Ring-virgin interest in the Ring arises, but as I've said, it's hugely encouraging, and I'm content not to ask too many questions of my correspondents. So without further ado, as the saying goes, herewith for public consumption is my answer to those requests.
First, forget about DVD. Unhappily, there's simply nothing available on DVD worth recommending at the present time. With the single exception of the now ancient Levine / Metropolitan Opera Ring which is seriously wanting musically on several counts, the only DVD sets available of which I've knowledge are all Eurotrash productions of the Ring; ones not fit for anyone, much less Ring virgins. (Among these Eurotrash Ring DVDs is the mother of them all: the Boulez-Chéreau Ring which is not only a horror production-wise, but musically as well, Boulez being, of course, perhaps the most execrable of the famous Wagner conductors working then as today.) The absence of a first-rate Ring (or Rings) on DVD will change in future, I suspect (or, rather, hope), but for now, that's the deal, and it's no deal at all.
That leaves CD sets only, and the choice here is, happily, an easy one: the stereo London / Decca Solti Ring, even after some 40 years, is still the hands-down choice, musically and audio-wise; not only for Ring virgins, but for all except devoted Wagnerians who make a point of collecting various recorded versions of the work for their CD library. The fine some even great readings of the past preserved on record and transferred to CD (Krauss, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Keilberth, Kempe) are all mono recordings, and the audio is simply incompetent to give adequate voice to the Wagnerian orchestra, the most important "voice" in all Wagner's music-dramas. This means that what's missing must be "filled in," so to speak, by the listener, and that's work strictly for Ring veterans, not Ring virgins. Further, the singers on these recordings are invariably miked in an "up-front" manner à la recordings of conventional opera, and there's precious little that could be more wrong or more wrong-sounding than that in Wagner's music-dramas.
Of the other stereo CD sets of which I've knowledge, there are the Karajan, Böhm, Levine, Barenboim, Sawallisch, and Janowski sets. Of these, the latter three simply should never have been released on CD (or recorded in the first place) as none of these conductors are gifted Wagner conductors, and as I've elsewhere asserted on this blog, without a gifted Wagner conductor on the podium nothing can save a performance of a Wagner music-drama from being second-rate at best, and these performances provide abundant testimony for that caveat. As for the Levine Ring CD, like the Levine Ring DVD it's seriously wanting musically, and so can't be recommended. A damn shame, too, as Levine has matured into a Wagner conductor of the very first water; something he wasn't at the time this recording was made. Perhaps in future Levine will attempt it again. If he does, I, for one, will be among the very first in line to purchase that recording.
And that leaves the Karajan and the Böhm Rings, and they're both non-starters: Karajan because of his ludicrous and perverse conceit that Wagner should sound as lyrical as Verdi, and Böhm because, well, he simply doesn't much like Wagnerian Wagner, preferring his Wagner to sound more like Mozart on steroids and speed. Not cool. Not cool at all, especially for Ring virgins.
So there you have it, interested readers. The stereo London / Decca Solti Ring, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Nilsson, Hotter, Windgassen, et al. In the main, and on the whole, it's the right way to go (and the right thing to do).
And a Very Merry Nibelungen Christmas to you and yours!
Update (7:06 PM Eastern on 17 Apr 2006): For a mea culpa update to this post, see here.