John Culshaw (right) with Georg Solti (Decca)John Culshaw (right) with Georg Solti (Decca)

If anyone had asked me when I joined Decca in 1946 whether I thought that someday I might be involved with the first complete Ring recording, the answer would have been ‘No’. In those days of oven-baked waxes and 78 rpm records, a complete Ring was unthinkable; and even with the advent of LP and stereo, it remained unthinkable to every company except Decca. Now that it is finished, let credit be given where it is most deserved. Artists, orchestra, technicians and administrators all contributed in their different ways to making the recorded Ring; but their work could not even have started if two men had not had the courage and imagination to take the huge financial risk involved. Decca made the Ring because its Chairman, Sir Edward Lewis, and Mr Maurice Rosengarten, the Director who has been responsible for the classical programme since its inception, approved a budget which gave the rest of us the artistic and technical licence to do the thing properly. Big ideas are fine, as Wagner knew, but they remain in a vacuum until money can give them a tangible, practical public form – which Wagner also knew. Sentimental hindsight suggests that the success Decca has had with the Ring was pre-ordained, but it was nothing of the sort. The night before we started Rheingold in 1958 I had dinner with Georg Solti in the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, and as we were leaving we bumped into a very distinguished colleague from the competition, who asked us what we were about to record. We told him, for it was scarcely a secret in Vienna. ‘Very interesting,’ he said, ‘very nice. Of course, you won’t sell any...’ He was not alone in thinking that, but he was wrong.

An article is not enough to pay tribute to those who did have the courage to make the Decca Ring possible, but it is the place to bring forward a few people who have kept well in the background during the past eight years. At the risk of incurring their wrath I propose to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the limelight. Over the years a very special sort of team-work came into being, and I like to think that its unity set an example and developed an atmosphere in which creative work could flourish.

The technical leader of the team was Gordon Parry, without whose energy, inspiration and dazzling combination of engineering and muscial knowledge, the Decca Ring would have been a shadow of what it is. It was he who sold me on the idea of putting up Rheingold to our Directors in 1957; it was he who devised the bulk of the many technical innovations we have used along the way; and it was his idea that the story of how we recorded Götterdämmerung would make a fine television film, which eventually it did in Humphrey Burton’s production for the BBC of The Golden Ring. He and his colleague Jimmy Brown have become experts in all sorts of special Wagnerian requirements, from the anvils in Rheingold to the magical transformation of a tenor into a baritone at the end of Götterdämmerung, Act One. Once you become a recording producer you quickly learn that you are only as good as your engineers enable you to be, for without their co-operation and understanding there is little you can do. My book-in-preparation on recording the Ring will be dedicated to the two people who, in my opinion, contributed the most to what happened in the Sofiensaal over those eight years – Georg Solti and Gordon Parry.

We were lucky in other ways, too. In Jack Law we had a brilliant tape editor, who demonstrated time and time again that you can make the impossible possible if you try hard enough and have a good ear. Beyond him range all the other technicians who patiently steered the venture through the dubbing rooms and through the complicated business of processing. Vast though it may be, the Ring after all represents only a tiny proportion of Decca’s classical activity over the past eight years, and it is remarkable that it has been given such care and attention by all concerned with the production of the actual records. But none of this would have meant anything had we not been able to assemble the right artists and the right orchestra in the right place at the right time.

That is the heart of the matter. Given the money, anyone can record the Ring and do it badly. The basic strength of the Decca Ring is in its casting, which is why it has taken so many years to record. We did not compromise; if we could not have the artists we wanted, we were prepared to wait; we did not build it round a single star, and let the rest go hang. As time passed, the artists realized that to appear in the Decca Ring was much more than just another engagement in a recording studio, and the atmosphere of sheer professionalism and dramatic concentration which then came into being has no precedent in my experience.

At the helm was Georg Solti, whose energy, devotion, musicianship and dramatic sense kept up the intensity from first to last. We knew, when we met for each successive venture, that however neat and assured the schedule might look, we were inevitably in for one Viennese crisis after another, plus a running battle with the clock. Solti’s flexibility, which derives from years of experience in the theatre and which is not the same thing as compromise, saved us from disaster time and time again. Neither Siegfried nor Walkure would have finished at all had it not been for his determination not to accept defeat. Naturally, we have had our disagreements, and it seems to have astonished a lot of people who saw The Golden Ring that a recording producer would actually dare to argue with a distinguished conductor. But that is precisely what a producer is paid to do, in addition to creating an atmosphere in which all the artists can give their best. It is because Solti is not arrogant and vain, and because of his utter devotion to the music, that he is willing to take comment and criticism from our side of the fence, just as we listen very seriously when he finds something wrong with the sound we are producing. You cannot begin to record the Ring without accepting as a basis the simple fact that the music is far greater than any of the personalities involved in its performance, whatever medium you are working in.

We have not been short of personalities, however. We have had the great professionals, and as always it has been a joy to work with them. Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen, Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Gustav Neidlinger, Gottlob Frick… these are some of the people who, along with Solti, have given substance and a life-time’s experience to the Decca Ring. Yet there was never a trace of arrogance. I remember a worried Hans Hotter discussing with all of us the right inflexion for his phrase ‘Geh’ hin, Knecht ! Kniee vor Fricka!’ at the end of Walküre, Act Two. He must have sung it hundreds of times on the stage, but he was still ready to re-think and re-interpret : in other words, he was thinking about Wotan, not about Hotter.

It has been an immensely gratifying experience to work with a cast whose love for the music was evident from first to last. We have been able to invite distinguished singers to appear in small parts for the joy of the thing. Kirsten Flagstad set the example by singing, unforgettably, the Rheingold Fricka; Joan Sutherland interrupted a busy season to come to Vienna for the tiny part of the Woodbird in Siegfried; Anita Vaalki, a distinguished Brünnhilde herself, sang our third Norn; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau showed just what can be made of Gunther if you can add intelligence to a voice; Helen Watts sang the first notes of Götterdämmerung and startled the Vienna Philharmonic, accustomed to hearing any old voice as the first Norn; and Gwynneth Jones, on the threshold of the chance which was to make her a star, still appeared to sing the small part of Wellgunde.

The informal atmosphere of team-work which we sought to create among ourselves may have helped to bring such artists together; certainly the apartment we inhabit in Vienna was an open house over the years. We had a galaxy of very distinguished visitors: sometimes there was Max Lorenz sitting in a Sofiensaal box, and often there was Ljuba Welitsch, for whom we bring kippers to Vienna. And we had a lot of jokes, because they are necessary to break the tension. Those who saw the television film will know that we produced Grane, Brünnhilde’s horse, alive and kicking, at the appropriate moment in the Immolation scene. This was not ‘staged’ for television – we had planned it long before the television crew arrived, for it has become a sort of tradition to surprise Birgit Nilsson with something new in each opera she records. When at last we had finished Siegfried we sent Gustav Neidlinger, who lives near Stuttgart, the following cable: ‘Return immediately to remake your part: studio cat ate the tape’. Unfortunately, Gustav took it quite seriously and rang up at seven the next morning to say he would be coming on the first plane. And once there was a completely unintentional joke when, having put Kurt Böhm in a very small and resonant room and told him to roar like the Siegfried Fafner so that we could test the sound, we promptly forgot him. He was found some 15 minutes later, still roaring at the top of his voice, by a bewildered Sofiensaal porter.

We lost some friends along the way. It was Kirsten Flagstad’s fervant wish to be involved with our Ring, but fate allowed her the Rheingold Fricka and no more. (She was working on the Walküre Fricka and the Götterdämmerung Waltraute at the time of her death.) In the long sad years of her final illness she kept up a correspondence with me which gave all of us in Vienna a unique and priviledged sort of confidence, for we were all terribly fond of her; we knew her as ‘Mum’. After the first rough playback of the complete Siegfried in 1962 I rang Georg Solti in London to tell him how pleased we were with it, and could not understand why he seemed so quiet. Then he said : ‘I suppose you haven’t seen the papers. Kirsten died last night’.

Years before the death of Flagstad, the mantle of Brünnhilde had passed to Birgit Nilsson. She has not been content merely to indulge the power and brilliance of her great voice, but has constantly re-thought and re-worked the part with remarkable intelligence and sensitivity. The most moving moment in The Golden Ring was the shot of Nilsson as she sang the closing lines of the Immolation scene; for somehow, in the cold light of the studio, without props or costume, she became Brünnhilde. At that moment those of us who had been sitting, sightless, in the control room over the years knew that the methods through which we had sought to re-create the Ring in terms of sound alone had worked.

The great moments have been unforgettable, and yet when I play the records again they still seem as fresh and valid as they did in the moment of performance. I think of Flagstad’s ‘Wo weilst du, Wotan?’ towards the end of Rheingold, of Neidlinger’s venom in the curse scene, of Crespin’s intensity in Sieglinde’s hallucination scene in Walküre, Act Two, of Hotter’s majesty and tenderness in the farewell… but the list is too long to continue, and anyway the Ring is much more than a series of great moments. I confess that when I play the recording I find I have forgotten the studio and all the distractions which enveloped us at the time; instead, I am listening to Wagner’s characters in Wagner’s drama, which is as it should be.

One clear and lasting memory remains, and that is of the Vienna Philharmonic. If ever an orchestra was made to measure for the music of Wagner, this is it. I think we have done justice to the Vienna Philharmonic in the Decca Ring because we have tried to record the warmth and solidarity of tone which is the orchestra’s most remarkable characteristic: but there is more to it than that. There is a secret sort of unanimity which can suddenly transform this rather argumentative army of over a hundred men into a single musical instrument; and when that happens a sound comes forth which could not possibly be bettered this side of heaven.

Those of us who have worked on the Ring are often asked, now that it is finished, whether we would like to start all over again. We would not, for one very good reason: the finest artists of our generation so far as Wagner is concerned have worked together to make this first recorded Ring; the best technicians and the best equipment have been at their disposal; and the management, not without understandable anxiety from time to time, has given all of us the freedom and authority to do our best. The first recorded Ring may not be the last in record history, but we like to think it has set a standard for the years to come.

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