If Decca had issued this 1955 Bayreuth performance of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" in 1956 instead of shelving it until Testament issued it in 2007, what would have happened? As the first complete "Ring" cycle, it would no doubt have been greeted with cheers from the composer's many fans, and as a real, if cramped, stereo recording in the early years of stereo, it would likely have been embraced by the burgeoning fans of the incipient technology. But what then? Would a generation of music lovers have embraced Wagner's 14-hour masterpiece on the basis of this performance and this recording? Would studio recordings of the work by other conductors have followed? Would live performances by Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler have been released?
Probably not. There are great moments in these performances of "Das Rheingold," "Die Walküre," "Siegfried," and "Götterdämmerung" led by Joseph Keilberth, one per opera and always right at the end. The entry of the gods in the "Walhalla" is majestic, the "Magic Fire" music is scorching, the duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde is searing, and the apocalypse at the close of "Götterdämmerung" is all-consuming. But through too much of the rest of the operas, Keilberth merely seems to be beating time with the stage action. The rich web of Wagner's thematic counterpoint and the irresistible surge of his harmonic waves are pretty much missing, replaced by reliable but uninspired music making from the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.
There are, admittedly, many fine vocal performances here. Both Astrid Varnay's passionate Brünnhilde and Hans Hotter's tragic Wotan are superb realizations. Wolfgang Windgassen's "Siegfried" is less compelling, but his voice is at its freshest and that helps a lot. But fine as these performances are, they were to a greater or lesser extent typical of Bayreuth in the '50s, a true silver age for Wagner singing, and performances of this quality can also be heard in many other productions from those years. Had this "Ring" been released at the time, these performances would probably have been outstanding souvenirs of that period much prized by vocal enthusiasts.
But the Keilberth "Ring" would not have changed the world, and the most important result of it not being released at the time is that Decca instead recorded and released Georg Solti's "Ring." Recorded in resplendent studio stereo with a strong cast and the hyperkinetic Hungarian on the podium, the Solti "Ring" did change the world. Not only did it make the conductor's reputation, it turned on a generation of classical music fans for whom listening straight through the Solti "Ring" became a rite of passage and a badge of honor. While any Wagner fan will surely welcome the release of the Keilberth "Ring," few will wish it had been released instead of the Solti.