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|The Ring Cycle is 'music-drama' as it could be and should be. Laden with drama; teeming with endless melodic richness; oozing with romantic heroism and thunderous power - love, death, desire, justice, sex, fire, gold, lust - all appear here; all drenched in music!|
We begin in the Rhine - "In it!" as Anna Russell reinforces - with three naked Rhinemaidens and music that sounds like the world evolving from primordial matter in the river's depths. We end with the destruction of Valhalla by fire and the Rhine flooding the stage as a theme of redemption sings out. The Ring celebrates the death of the gods, and the birth of our human world.
And a celebration it surely is! The Ring of the Nibelung (as the four music-dramas of the cycle are known in English) is the culmination of the Romantic spirit, and "one of the most ambitious achievements in Western art." I know that's true, because it says so right here on the label. :-) But it is true! No other artistic work of that or any other era approaches it for sheer audacity, or for intellectual bravura. Its scope is vast - musically, dramatically and temporally - and its position in the artistic canon immense.
The Solti recording recommended here is itself historic. Crammed with top performers, and with an imaginative producer in John Culshaw, it was the very first recording to fully utilise the possibilities of the modern recording studio. Coming together on this recording we hear twenty-seven principal roles and forty extras; a chorus of over eighty singers and the voices of a dozen children; a 130-piece orchestra including eighteen tuned anvils, alp-horns, steer-horns and thunder machines; all creating what Culshaw called a "theater of the mind." Cleaned up and remastered as the CD releases are, we can properly luxuriate in the leitmotifs and bathe in the cavernous splendour of the greatest recording of the the second greatest achievement in Western art.*
Now as I'm sure will be pointed out by philistines, Wagner is accused of occasionally being a little long-winded. As Rossini once said, 'Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some dreadful quarter hours.' Indeed, listeners with a three-minute span of attention should look elsewhere for their 'trills' - this work is intended to be taken in over four days! For the neophyte listener then, I would recommend starting with the 2-CD Solti/Culshaw Great Scenes set.
If the 2-CD set grabs you (and if it doesn't you must have a soul of cast-iron) then grab the full Solti/Culshaw set, or explore for yourself the many complete versions of the four music-dramas comprising the cycle.
The liner notes for the recommended set conclude...
...Wagner's cycle is susceptible to all manner of interpretation (and indeed misinterpretation) on virtually any level. Many-layered, subtle, riven with contradiction and shot through with ambiguity, The Ring can mean different things to different people, or different things to the same person, at different times and at the same time. Like any great work of art, it challenges our experience of life and simultaneously adds to it. Those who do not find its fifteen-hour, four-day span merely exhausting will discover its interaction of music and drama to be inexhaustible, of limitless resonance, of spellbinding fascination.
Let me give the last word here to M. Owen Lee, who in his introduction to The Ring, Turning the Sky Around asks:
Is there anything, in all the realm of art, to set beside Der Ring des Nibelungen? This cycle of four immense music dramas, the vastest piece of music ever conceived by the mind of man - what an experience it is first to discover, and then to spend a lifetime exploring, those four parts, tracing their connective links, puzzling out their meanings, and listening through in wonder and awe to their shattering conclusion!
*Second greatest achievement? What was the first you ask? Why, Atlas Shrugged, of course. :-)