> WAGNER Seigfried Bodanzky 2207/9 [CF] [RF]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Richard WAGNER
Siegfried

Sung in German
First performance August 1876, Bayreuth, Germany
Siegfried - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Wotan - Friedrich Schorr (bass-baritone)
Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Mime - Karl Laufkoetter (tenor)
Eduard - Habisch Alberich (bass-baritone)
Erda - Kerstin Thorborg (contralto)
Fafner - Emanuel List (bass)
Woodbird - Stella Andreyeva (soprano)
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Artur Bodanzky (conductor)
Recorded live on 30 January 1937
GUILD HISTORICAL 2207/9 [190min]
Guild


Guild Music has an association with Immortal Performances which has an archive of first-generation historic broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s. This initial release (the others are a complete 1943 Figaro, excerpts from a 1928 Boris Godunov with Chaliapin, and all of Act 2 of Parsifal from 1938) sets a standard hard to beat. All the discs are transfers from the original transcription discs' master tapes. Transcripts of the complete Toscanini broadcasts from the same period are also planned. So too is a complete and mouth-wateringly cast Ring, of which this Siegfried forms a segment.

Frankly it is hard to believe that the cast of this Siegfried could be bettered, Melchior being probably the finest Siegfried ever, while Schorr and Flagstad were among the greatest exponents of their respective roles of Wotan and Brünnhilde. Bodanzky would not be an interpreter of my first choice, and especially as only three years later Erich Leinsdorf arrived at the Met to give Wagner operas uncut for the first time (about fifty pages of vocal score are omitted here, and they are detailed in the booklet). Sound quality sometimes becomes poor such as at Schorr’s first entry as the Wanderer where there’s a fair deal of "purring" for a minute or two, but Guild are very upfront about the problems of ‘sporadic ticks, grit and occasional swishes, as well as one or another short-lived groove defect’ which are inevitably the consequence of the ravages of time and storage, while it should be remembered that posterity was on no-one’s mind 55 years ago. Mercifully the persistent hacking coughs which, on that cold January night, seemed to have plagued the audience during the opening orchestral prelude disappear by the time the action gets underway, and this is apparently ‘one of the better sounding broadcast recordings by NBC’ (18 preserved from 1937 alone). It’s more than worthwhile putting up with the technical weaknesses, for this surely was a golden age for Wagnerian singers, and we have to wait until the 1950s before such heights were reached once again.

Schorr’s dramatic authority is soon revealed, so too the true stature of his noble voice for he had a magnificent sense of phrasing and tonal colour. During the course of this segment of the cycle Wotan, the Wanderer, is agonizingly gradually worn down by not only events but also the burden of guilt he must carry after his dishonesty in stealing the Ring, which he neither forged nor owned. It’s not all wearisome however; there are even moments of light humour when he mocks Alberich, and at such points this opera can be seen as a movement, the Scherzo at that, in a four-movement symphonic cycle (Siegfried too has some lighter moments when he is trying out his reed and, once he has dispatched Mime, when he cavorts around with the Woodbird). Schorr was unsurpassed in his day and his career at the Met lasted twenty years. This is an admirable testimony to an immortal voice.

Laufkoetter’s neurotic Mime is characteristically wheedling, pathetic and even at times sympathetic, but always crafty and deadly dangerous until his abrupt demise at Siegfried’s contemptuous hands during the second act. It will be interesting to hear how the character has developed out of Das Rheingold when, in due course, that set will be released. Habich as Alberich sustains the venomous fury which is born of his rejection by the Rhine Maidens and the theft of the Ring by Wotan, both incidents occurring in Das Rheingold and which set off the unstoppable and fateful train of events of the tetralogy. It’s a snarlingly evil characterisation to send shivers down your spine. Melchior’s youthful enthusiasm produces glorious singing in Act One, hauntingly ruminative when thinking of the mother he never knew as he tries to communicate with the Woodbird in Act Two, and ardently erotic in his third act encounter with Brünnhilde whose somnolent body he greets with the memorable words ‘Das its kein Mann’. We are a few years away from the notorious incident when Melchior taught a young and apparently impudent Leinsdorf a lesson by sustaining his crowning top A for what seems an eternity while the bemused Leinsdorf could do nothing more than hold the orchestral strings’ tremolando until the tenor was ready to move off the pause he had decided to insert, but apart from trying to keep Bodanzky on the move during the whole of this forging scene, the relationship between stage and pit seems to have been a happy one on this occasion. His fight with Fafner (an initially somnolent then threatening Emanuel List) is vividly thrilling followed by the bright if distant singing of Stella Andreva as the Woodbird. As Erda the great Thorborg brings a monumental sense of poise and drama to the Earthgoddess as she rises statuesquely from her subterranean slumbers to begin her long conversation with Wotan, once her husband, foretelling the inevitable doom which awaits the gods. That leaves the other Nordic female member of the cast, the legendary Flagstad, who awakens from her 20 year sleep with all the naturalness of an everyday experience, quiet, light-toned, almost virginal, but then as the act progresses her ecstasy builds with consummate ease, her top Cs full of glancing light, emphasising the role’s youth until the brilliant top Bs of the final duet to introduce a sexual as well as musical climax into the drama.

John Steane once wrote, ‘to learn how Wagner could be sung, the public in general had to wait for the great days of Melchior, Schorr and Flagstad’. Well, here is the chance to experience such an occasion - seize it.

Christopher Fifield

Robert Farr has also listened to this disc

Guild Music's "Immortal Performances", a series of operas and orchestral works derived from broadcasts, was launched in January 2002. The sources come via the Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society and Richard Canniel who have had access to NBC (American) broadcast transcriptions, and preservations made for singers, from the 1930s and 1940s. These first generation tapes, originally made in the late 1940s, have been subject to restorative techniques aimed specifically at preserving the overtones of the voice and instruments, as well as the original acoustic; no electronic reverberation has been added. Where, as was often the case with NBC, more than one performance of an opera was broadcast in a season, the choice has been made on the basis of the best sounding performance available. On these facts it is claimed that this series represents "The Finest in Broadcast Recordings". Many will also be heartened to see the name of Keith Hardwick as "Series Consultant'. Certainly the NBC opera broadcasts from the Met. which continue to this day, have casts and conductors which read like a roll-call of the greatest, just as they often still do. If the series aims are realised by the discs issued, it will be a veritable treasure-trove of pleasure for collectors. It should, perhaps, be pointed more clearly that an unusual degree of artistic licence has been used in these transfers to CD in that where masters were found to be in poor condition, insertions have been made from other performances -, usually, but not always, involving the same cast and conductor. While the reasons are laudable, some purists may find this unacceptable. It will be incumbent on reviewers to point out these insertions when present.

Wagner staging at the Met in the 1930s and 1940s was a golden age, not known before, or equalled since. More by circumstances than design many of these performances were broadcast by NBC in their Saturday afternoon series and some were preserved. Influenced by circumstances in Germany the greatest Wagner singers had migrated to the Met where memorable performances were the order of the day. They were often conducted by Bodansky, who was chief Wagner conductor from 1915 until his death in 1939. He infuriated Wagnerian purists by his performance cuts (48 pages here); a truly complete performance of a Wagner opera did not occur until he was succeeded by Erich Leinsdorf in 1940. Bodansky's conducting is flowing, dramatic and well phrased and paced; not for nothing was he Mahler's assistant in Vienna (1902-1904). Only Furtwängler's fans will dispute his strengths.

Despite the fact that the recording favours the orchestra, it is the singing that will draw purchasers. Above all the name of Melchior, here as the eponymous hero. No tenor since has brought such vocal riches to the heldentenor fach. As the young hero his even toned voice gleams right to the top of the range without strain (CD 1 tr .17 the Forging scene). In his confrontation with Mime the tone is darker; but always the words are clear. The greatest joy for Wagnerians is the fact that Melchior's superb singing is matched elsewhere in this wonderful cast. First among these is the Wotan, as Wanderer, of Schorr, with his strong, expressive voice, long breathed phrases and refulgent tone, you can sense every mood. The same can be said of the Erda of Kerstin Thorborg whom Ernest Newman considered the greatest Wagnerian mezzo he had seen or heard! With Schorr and Thorborg the Act 3 musings of Wotan and Erda (CD 3 tr .4) draw the ear. Act 3 also brings that great Wagnerian Kirsten Flagstad as Brunnhilde. In her awakening, she is quite light toned, rising to the finest high C. As the Act progresses, whilst holding a firm legato, she enriches her tone to convey the emotions Brunnhilde feels on seeing and embracing Siegfried. The Mime and Alberich contribute fully to the quality of this performance.

All in all, a formidable performance and welcome addition to the catalogue in this presentation. Will every Wagnerian rush out and buy? Certainly those used to the sonic limitations of recordings of live performances from this period should be tempted. Others, for whom the sonic qualities of Solti's Ring are paramount had best beware. Although, for its time, the orchestra is well caught, the singers, particularly when they move away from the front stage microphone, are less so. There are noises and coughs at the start of the Act 1 prelude, but these do not greatly intrude greatly elsewhere.

The discs are well laid out with one Act on each disc. A spoken commentary introduces and concludes each Act; applause is kept to the end of acts. The booklet includes biographical appreciations of the leading singers, a track listing and synopsis; regrettably the latter does not include track numbers.

Robert J Farr

See letter recieved from Richard Caniell regarding the Guild Historical Series


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