On the surface, this Ring cycle recording -- though a bargain price -- might seem like a poor relation to those by Sir Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, and others, or to the live recordings from the 1950s by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Clemens Kraus, and Hans Knappertsbusch. The very names constitute big guns in opera, and their respective casts are not exactly weak either. Complicating matters further is the fact that Marek Janowski's Ring was originally released by Eurodisc/Ariola, a European-based label that, while huge over there, never had the profile or prestige of Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, orEMI; the fact that it's now on RCA/BMG doesn't exactly help, either, as the latter has lost a good deal of its luster as a major label since the 1980s.
But the Janowski Ring also occupies its own place in history -- made over a period of just 29 months between 1980 and 1983, it was the first digitally recorded Ring, and also a true rarity as a Ring cycle recorded in almost perfect cast continuity from start-to-finish. Those technical attributes are fine to cite, of course, but the proof is in the listening, and in that regard the Janowski Ring has proof of its worth all over its 14 CDs. Janowski's conducting is both forceful and precise, keeping the pacing and the dramatic arc advancing in a way that never lags, yet he also leaves room for the work's occasional bits of ironic humor to play out to full effect -- in that regard, he is as profusely aware of the story and dramatic nuances as he is of the musical nuances, and never tries to out-guess or otherwise modify the composer's intent in either department. The cast performs impeccably as well, with Theo Adam an outstanding Wotan and Rene Kolo's lyric tenor ideal as Siegfried. Jeannine Altmeyer's Brunnhilde has proved a tiny bit controversial in the role to some critics, for her supposed lightness, but she is among the most lyrical in the role, an approach and a quality that, if not commonly emphasized, has some validity in the results here. Jessye Norman's Sieglinde is among the finest ever recorded, and Lucia Popp (as a Rhinemaiden) Cheryl Studer (as a Valkyrie) The 14 discs all sound great -- based on the evidence here, Eurodisc got its early digital recordings in the can with a lot more success than RCA did during the early '80s. There was a tendency by most labels to under-record their early digital sides, but this recording shows nothing of that problem; indeed, the textures, ordchestral and vocal, are quite vivid and crisp, and the listening experience is as vivid in its way -- and a lot more sound dramatically -- than the much-vaunted Solti Ring, which was the first such recording ever devised specifically for its ambient sonic/musical environment.
This recording, as the first captured in digital audio, is technically the Solti's effective rival. The Solti Ring's producer and guiding force, John Culshaw, used the best technology at his disposal between the late '50s and the early '60s to create a Ring that was fully the product of the recording studio, utilizing stereo separation and dimensionality and the best editing and multitrack facilities of the era to devise an enveloping sound-picture -- the Janowski Ring, produced by Oskar Waldeck, isn't quite as ambitious as that, but it has its moments of sheer, overwhelming impact in the execution. The digital recording, though relatively primitive at the time, has yielded results nearly as compelling as the Solti: sonically flawless and so quiet and close and crisp that it, too, creates an illusion of envelopment, and is all the more bracing for Janowski's forceful yet finely nuanced conducting.
The other beautiful part of it is the price; this 14-CD release, as part of Sony/BMG's "Complete Collections" box set series, lists for just $80, or under $6 a disc, and that's $100 less than the remastered reduced-price Solti Ring and $150 to $200 less than those from Levine, Karajan, and others. Indeed, it's more in line with what EMI's Furtwängler live 1953 Ring from La Scala costs, but that set, like most historical Rings, has its technical problems (endemic to live recording in the early '50s) that make it more suited to the experienced listener. There is one other rival at this price level with a heavy veneer of historical importance, the 1954 Clemens Krauss live Ring from Bayreuth as issued by the Gala label, but it seems as though the entire run of the latter release on Gala had a manufacturing defect that caused the discs to oxidize after a few years, so that version is out of the running. The Janowski has none of those technical or manufacturing flaws, and offers sound quality as modern as anything on the market, and at the same price -- that all makes it not only a fully competitive choice for a Ring cycle among experienced listeners, but also the ideal "starter" version for those people just discovering the work and the music and unsure of the kind of financial commitment they want to make to owning it. On the downside, there is no libretto, just a booklet with some notes and a summary of each opera and the individual acts, but obtaining a proper full libretto today is not difficult or expensive.