Ring up the bill for Keilberth
Testament, after their wildly successful release of the 1955 Keilberth Ring, which was seriatim, beginning with Siegfried, passing through Walküre and Rheingold, and ending with Götterdämmerung, is now releasing a complete all-in-one box of that Ring. This might be a great opportunity for people curious about the Keilberth set, if they haven't sampled it by now, to take the plunge. It also provides considerable savings over the four separate releases, which I bought separately, I might add with a note of bitterness, a fact which I shall demonstrate below.
Amazon has it priced at $165.97 (a discount from the list price of $206.98). If you order it from Testament's own website, you can get it for £98.91, which is equivalent to roughly (depending on how hard the dollar is getting shellacked on a given day) $194.35. Amazon currently lists the four records separately at, for Das Rheingold, $27.97; for Die Walküre, $59.97; for Siegfried, $59.97; and for Götterdämmerung, $91.98. This comes to a grand total, if you bought the four together right now, $239.89 plus shipping and handling which, naturally varies. If you did the same thing at Testament's own website, you could get it for £153.86, or roughly $302.32. That's a lot of numbers, but - hey - I'm a math minor (pure math, though, so financial stuff boggles my mind at times, too).
I have two comments. First, Decca made a serious tactical error licensing this set to Testament. Don't get me wrong, I really like Testament, which has - consistently - some of the most interesting, engaging, and high-quality historical recording releases on the market. The Keilberth Ring is, obviously, the flagship release, but they have others (Claudio Arrau's Beethoven concertos with Otto Klemperer, Flagstad's premiere of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder with Furtwängler, and some interesting - if not great - Mahler recordings of Barbirolli with the Berliner Philharmoniker come immediately to mind) of similar quality for various reasons. It is probably a fact that Testament has one of the best Ring cycles on the market in their catalog at the moment. Still, it sat in Decca's vaults for fifty-one years, and that company showed no real interest in releasing it. Culshaw had it shelved back in 1955 so he could do his cycle with Solti, and - for better or worse, more of the former than the latter, though - Solti's cycle is still the benchmark. I have argued before, and I still believe that Solti's cycle wouldn't have happened at all if Keilberth's had been available.
Decca could have had it both ways, though. They could have let Solti seize the market, as he did, and - in the last decade or so - brought out the Keilberth set. Critics, both professional writers and serious listeners, for whom I have a lot of respect, have praised the earlier cycle to high Heaven. It seems that, fifty-some years after he led the performances and now forty years after his death, Keilberth has entered the special Walhall for Wagner conductors. In other words, Decca could have had two landmark Ring cycles in its lineup. Solti's set is great indeed, but Keilberth's set captures Bayreuth in the Golden Age in great sound. I might have a slight preference for Hans Knappertsbusch's 1956 Ring (on Orfeo), but the sound is mono - and, at that, not as good as Keilberth's, speaking relatively.
This misadventure on Decca's part (i.e., coming off as a company dominated by internal politics and slightly slow-witted in missing this particular boat, plus missing the credit and the profit) shows me, at the very least, that the real innovation and important recordings in the classical record industry usually happens at the smaller labels. Deutsche Grammophon has yet to have a consistently good Ring. Von Karajan is, in places, too weird, and has only Rheingold as what I would call a successful record. Philips has Böhm and Boulez, but neither set is to everyone's taste - the latter, twenty-three years after the fact, still being pretty contentious. Telarc (now Warner Classics and even more-now Rhino) had Barenboim, but that set never really achieved the same currency and circulation as Decca's Solti box. Maybe that's it, Decca already has a great Ring, but the new gold standard for live sets and the most innovative studio recording - perhaps of all to-date - is a hard-to-beat combination.
My other comment is this: Why not drop the complete Ring and the four separate installments at the same time? Save some of us some money, while offering a choice of purchases, that is. It's pretty simple: I, and a lot of others, I suspect, would have bought the complete Keilberth Ring at the outset, instead of fooling around for two years - more or less - collecting each record as it dropped (I'll admit, it took me darned near a year to get Götterdämmerung, though I had what I will call a substantial and complete long-term audition). A boutique label like Testament likely has similar concerns to the major companies, and would prefer to sell four pretty consarned expensive records, as opposed to one moderately expensive one. Let's be realistic, though, most serious music listeners will only have one Ring in their collection (likely either Solti or Böhm). Most listeners with a more-serious interest in Wagner will only have three or four (expanding to Levine, Barenboim, Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Krauss and the like). Wagnerian fanatics might have ten or twelve copies (some maybe more), but we're not talking about a big audience here. That is to say, Testament's choice is directed at a small segment of the serious music listener community, and likely has more latitude than - say - Deutsche Grammophon with yet-another-Beethoven 9th recording to consider how to price the product intelligently.
What do I know, though? As I like to say.