Stuff of legend … Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde in Vienna in 1975. Photo: My Memoirs in Pictures by Birgit Nilsson
Review of the week
Virtue and genius are, at best, loosely aligned, but there have been few nastier characters among the great composers than Richard Wagner.
Self-obsessed to the point of narcissism and megalomania, viciously anti-Semitic - ''I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it,'' he wrote - disloyal, ungrateful, a ruthless exploiter, a philanderer, polemical, pugnacious, a habitual liar, financially dishonest.
Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti.
Often artists' works can be separated from their personal lives, but Wagner's anti-Semitism finds frequent expression in his operas.
Even so, his Ring cycle of four operas - which will be staged in Melbourne next year, the bicentenary of his birth - is one of the towering achievements of the human imagination.
It broke new ground in all sorts of ways, but especially in its use of special themes - leitmotivs that Wagner used as building blocks, blending and developing them brilliantly in a continuous flow of music. They represent characters, places (for example, Valhalla), emotions (the renunciation of love), objects (the Rhinegold or the sword Nothung) and more.
In 1958, conductor Georg Solti and producer John Culshaw embarked on what proved one of the great musical collaborations, the first published recording of the Ring, from 1958 to 1965. Anointed by the BBC as the greatest recording of all time, it is being reissued in a remastered luxury edition to mark the centenary of Solti's birth in 1912.
The most lavish CD presentation I have seen, it comes in four parts in a magnificent black-and-gold set designed to look impressive on the coffee table and, more importantly, sound splendid on the hi-fi.
The first book contains the 14 CDs of the four operas, plus the two-CD guide by Deryck Cooke to the dozens of themes, with musical examples - an enormous help to the newcomer. The second book contains all the words, with Culshaw's introductions; the third, Culshaw's marvellous extended essay on the Ring and the recording of it; and the fourth contains a facsimile of one of Solti's scores, with markings explained. There is also a DVD of Humphrey Burton's famous documentary on recording the Ring, a Blu-ray of the whole Ring, another CD of Wagner recordings, a 40-page facsimile of reviews and advertisements from Gramophone magazine and art prints.
Culshaw, like Wagner, embarked on a new way of seeing opera, inspired by the new technology of stereo, with its sense of movement.
Using 78s, the four operas would have taken 220 sides. The protagonists, cigarettes in hand, are touchingly impressed by stereo LPs, given how many times the technology has changed since then. What of the music? No qualms there at all. This Ring remains, by consensus, the one essential version, whichever others you also acquire. Some consider it a little ''theatrical'', with Culshaw's emphasis on special effects and Solti's natural tendency to the dramatic over the lyrical, but in its modern remastering it blazes forth gloriously. In any undertaking as massive as the Ring, there will be a touch of unevenness, but few cycles have assembled such a marvellous group of singers at or near their peak.
The great bass-baritone Hans Hotter might have passed his, but remains the Wotan by which others are judged. Birgit Nilsson as Brunnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Regine Crespin as Sieglinde, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich and Gottlob Frick as Hunding and Hagen are legendary.
Great Wagnerians abound, Kirsten Flagstad, Gerhard Stolze, James King, Christa Ludwig and George London among them. The young Joan Sutherland is the woodbird in Siegfried. The Vienna Philharmonic is superb.
In all, this is a brilliant testament to a variety of incomparable artists, none more so than the composer himself. Rhine gold indeed.
VIENNA PHILHARMONIC, GEORG SOLTI
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen