Herbert von Karajan was one of the most highly regarded Wagner conductors of his age, celebrated for a lyrical, fiery and contrapuntally clear approach to the music which owed more to the example of conductors such as Toscanini and Clemens Krauss than it did to the old “German” school of Wagner conducting. Karajan once remarked: “When we did the Ring people said it was ‘chamber music’, but I would deny that. It was the full Wagner orchestra, with full sonority but played with real subtlety and the full range of dynamics.”
Karajan conducted four complete Ring cycles during his career: in Aachen in 1937, at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival, in Vienna in 1959, and at his own newly founded Salzburg Easter Festival between 1967 and 1970. In 1963 stage designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen had told him: “Salzburg has a great Wagner theatre the Grosses Festspielhaus. It is too big for Mozart but for Wagner it would be wonderful.” The orchestra engaged by Karajan was the Berliner Philharmoniker, the ensemble he considered best suited to the realisation of his musical vision.
In 1973 he revived Das Rheingold with a view to filming the complete Salzburg Ring. The American lyric baritone Thomas Stewart sang Wotan, Brigitte Fassbaender joined the cast as Fricka, and Gerhard Stolze, Loge in the original 1968 production, reverted to Mime. The new Loge was Peter Schreier, a singer rarely heard in Wagner. The Hungarian baritone Zoltán Kelemen continued as Alberich.
Though the sound-track was laid down in 1973, filming was not completed until 1978 by which time it was clear that a complete cinema version of the Salzburg Ring was unaffordable. Many Karajan Wagner productions exist on record, and in lavishly illustrated volumes of stage designs, but this Salzburg Das Rheingold is all that remains on film.