My Christmas Retreat – The Golden Ring

I’ve decided to start a new winter tradition, and rather than indulge in the manic festivities and consumer-driven pile-up that takes place at this time of year around Leicester, I’ve decided, instead to go on a retreat and spend the longest winter evenings working through Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s masterpiece of ‘total theatre’, love, gods, betrayal and redemption. It would be nice to do this by attending a performance of the complete Ring Cycle, but alas trips to Bayreuth are beyond my means for the time being. So, instead, I’ve invested in a complete set of the Decca Der Ring Des Nibelungen recordings, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and performed by the Wiener Philharmonike. These recordings are proclaimed by many as the finest music recording of the Twentieth Century, so I’m expecting a lot.

My plan is to work through one disk each evening and to read the libretti as I’m listening. I’ve started by watching the accompanying DVD of the Golden Ring, a BBC documentary by Humphrey Burton from 1965 that presents a fascinating account of the last ten days of the recording sessions for Götterdämmerung in 1964. Under the guidance of Decca recording producer John Culshaw, who pioneered the introduction and development of the emerging technology of stereo audio reproduction. The documentary is fascinating in the way that it gives equal respect to the recording engineers as well as the internationally acclaimed singers and musicians. The thrilling footage of the performances in the studio are equally matched by the idiosyncrasies of the engineers behind the mixing desk – sandals with socks and all.

What is immediately striking from the documentary is the complete dedication and focus that is literally poured into the recordings by everyone involved. Solti isn’t playing with a new technology here. He’s mastering it and building performances that are primarily designed to be heard on disk, rather than simply capturing a performance taking place in a concert hall. Each three hour rehearsal and recording session produces a fifteen minute segment of the complete opera. There are twenty-five recording sessions in all, none of which feels stuffy or snobby. The orchestra smoke and drink coffee in the intervals, and there’s a respect for the intentions of the composer that is generated in Solti’s physical immersion in the music, counterpointed by Culshaw’s urbanity as the recording team capture it all.

My second evening has been taken-up with listening and reading about Wagner’s use of leitmotif, which is a musical motif “defined as a ‘short musical idea … melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three’, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: ‘the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.'” My only prior experience with this style of musical structuring has been through the soundtracks that John Williams scored for Star Wars, but Wagner’s use of leitmotif goes way beyond compare. Wagner is a master craftsman, a genius tinged with a hint of madness. How Wagner constructed, apportioned and maintained the consistency of fifteen hours of this opera is astounding. No wonder it represents a lifetimes work. To be guided through its constituent components and to get to listen to the interleaving and overlapping themes and motifs will be something of a treat.

The next part of my journey is to start to make some sense of the story and the protagonists and characters that populate it. It sounds like a bonkers bit of storytelling, but if I can sit through The Hobbit, I’m sure I can listen to Der Ring Des Nibelungen and make sense of it – giants, dwarves, river maidens and all! I just hope that my neighbours don’t mind the noise so much, as I’m likely to be pushing the volume a lot.

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