It is hard to believe that it’s almost eight years since this complete cycle was recorded. It took a while for the sets to be issued, one part at a time, and I was privileged to review them all. The response was positive, to say the least, and many reviewers heaped superlatives that probably no Ring Cycle had seen since the arrival of Solti’s epoch-making Decca set in the late 1950s and 1960s. There are many quotations from reviews in the 127-page luxurious hardback book, where the two discs are housed, and I find some of my own comments among them.
There was almost complete consensus about the quality of the recording and there is no reason to have second thoughts on that matter. Recorded live there has to be some stage noises and other disturbances, but they are surprisingly few and musically the balance is impeccable: every orchestral strand is caught to perfection and the voices carry magnificently. On these two discs with a total playing time of more than 2½ hours several purely orchestral sections are included, displaying superb playing in all departments. The dynamics are very wide indeed and when listening to most of this set on a portable CD player with headset, this caused me problems. I had to adjust the volume all the time to protect my eardrums. Listening in a fairly large hall and preferably in surround SACD one is in for a sonic experience that is overwhelming. The prelude to Das Rheingold with its crescendo from near inaudibility to ear-shattering fff is fascinating. Asher Fisch has the full measure of the work, even though he is best appreciated in the complete work. Bleeding chunks, as here, also reveal his credentials as a Wagnerian and we have to be grateful to Melba for giving us several long, unbroken scenes instead of chopping up the music in small ‘highlights’. Thus we get the final scene from act I of Die Walküre to the very end of the act. This is possibly the best singing in the whole cycle. Siegmund and Sieglinde can stand comparison with almost any of their counterparts on record. Skelton is youthful, brilliant and sensitive and the late-lamented Deborah Riedel is truly glorious. They are just as good in the second act, where Sieglinde’s solo, beginning Da er sie liebend umfing, is marvellously performed. From the third act we only get the Ride of the Valkyries, brilliant and with tremendous force, and Wotan’s farewell which is strongly and sensitively sung by John Bröcheler. Just listen to Der Augen leuchtendes Paar. He had been heard in top shape in a long excerpt from the finale of Das Rheingold, where not all the Gods were as good. Before that we had a glimpse of John Wegner’s strong and expressive Alberich
Unfortunately there was no room for Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde in the Walküre. In Siegfried she sleeps on her rock most of the time and there is plenty of time for Siegfried to forge his sword in the only scene from the first half of the opera that is included. Gary Rideout, who died in 2007, is a ringing, dramatic hero and he has a good opposite pole in Richard Greager’s oily Mime. Then, at last, Siegfried and Brünnhilde meet in that ecstatic duet Ewig war ich. Lisa Gasteen proves that she is one of the few truly great present-day sopranos in the Flagstad-Nilsson Fach. Rideout tends to be a bit throaty, even guttural at times but he compensates with power and brilliance.
In the opening of Götterdämmerung Gasteen is again outstanding in her Zu neuen Taten. Here she has Timothy Mussard as her partner. His is also a strong voice but the tone is rather wooden - reliable but a bit dull. The crowning glory of any Ring performance is the immolation scene and Lisa Gasteen is truly magnificent. I have heard several Brünnhildes on CD and DVD and Katarina Dalayman both live and on CD (Stockholm and Hallé respectively). The latter is possibly the only one to challenge Lisa Gasteen as the best Brünnhilde since Nilsson
Returning to this cycle confirmed that my own reactions - and those of many others - when the set was new were fully justified. As an introduction to the work, and also to the Wagner year 2013 this twofer should win many new proselytes