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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Ring Cycle

Siegfried - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Wotan - Friedrich Schorr (bass-baritone)
Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Mime - Karl Laufkötter (tenor)
Alberich- Eduard Habisch (bass-baritone)
Erda - Kerstin Thorborg (contralto)
Fafner - Emanuel List (bass)
Woodbird - Stella Andreyeva (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Artur Bodanzky
Recorded live on 30 January 1937
NAXOS 8.110211/13 [3 CDs: 203.47]
Das Rheingold
Loge- Rene Maison (tenor)
Wotan - Friedrich Schorr (baritone)
Fricka - Karin Branzell (contralto)
Alberich - Eduard Habich (baritone)
Mime - Karl Laufkötter (tenor).
Erda – Doris Doe (mezzo soprano)
Fasolt - Norman Cordon (bass)
Fafner - Emanuel List (bass)
Donner - Julius Huehn (bass)
Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Artur Bodanzky
Recorded live on 3 April 1937
NAXOS 8.110047/48 [2 CDs: 141.03]
Die Walküre
Sieglinde - Astrid Varnay (soprano)
Brünnhilde - Helen Traubel (soprano)
Fricka - Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo)
Siegmund - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Wotan - Friedrich Schorr (baritone)
Hunding - Alexander Kipnis (bass)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Eric Leinsdorf
Recorded live on 6 December 1941
NAXOS 8.110058/60 [3 CDs: 175.38]
Siegfried - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Brünnhilde – Marjorie Lawrence (soprano)
Hagen – Ludwig Hofmann (bass)
Alberich – Edouard Habich (bass-baritone)
Gunther - Friedrich Schorr (baritone)
Gurtune, Norn – Dorothee Manski (soprano)
Waltraute – Katheryn Meisle (mezzo soprano)
Woglinde – Edithea Fleischer (soprano)
Wellgunde, Norn – Irra Petina (mezzo soprano)
Flosshilde, Norn – Doris Doe (contralto)
Vassals – Max Altglass (tenor), Arnold Gabor (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Artur Bodanzky
Recorded 11 January 1936
NAXOS 8.110228/30 [3 CDs: 221.50]
NAXOS 8.501106 [11CDs]

Presented in a card slipcase Naxos has now collated their individual Met Ring broadcasts into a cycle of sorts. Recorded between 1936 and 1941 with the greater part conducted with animation by Bodanzky – but with his usual cuts and conflations – we have a number of interesting choices. The sound can be intermittently problematic; it’s at its best in Die Walküre and Siegfried; in Rheingold we have however the compensatory names of List and Schorr, in Götterdämmerung Melchior is joined by Marjorie Lawrence, whose aesthetic is quite dissimilar from that of Flagstad or Traubel. The Ring was not performed as a broadcast cycle at the Met until after the War, which accounts for the seeming piecemeal collection gathered together. In truth some of the greatest Wagnerian voices of the century make their unmistakeable presence felt and if the conducting is not quite commensurately elevated – both Bodanzky, then reaching the end of his life and Leinsdorf, early in his career, were inclined to be speed merchants – it is nevertheless invigoratingly engaged and frequently a lot more than that.

Siegfried dates from the broadcast of 30 January 1937. The cast is stellar and the sound in this inscription is perfectly reasonable given the obvious limitations to be expected of a broadcast of this vintage. Merely citing the names Melchior, Schorr, Thorborg, Flagstad and List is enough to induce colossal expectation in Wagnerian hearts and in the main it is one that is triumphantly met. It is here too that Bodanzky is at his peak as a Wagnerian conductor of sure instinct, coalescing the score into an organic entity, encouraging magnificently powerful basses and flaring brass. Melchior is at his operatic height; the voice still youthful and free, easily produced and thrilling. His characterisation of the role is spellbindingly intense but also psychologically acute – one feels him grow in depth and passion. And yet in the Forest Murmurs we find him capable equally of inward reflection, of transfusing his tone with pliancy and inwardness of expression. His Brünnhilde is Flagstad and for one who had only recently started singing the role (November 1935 in San Francisco) her impersonation is of stunning eloquence no less remarkable than her technical accomplishment. It was a role that featured less in her Wagnerian armoury than the other Brünnhildes – only thirty performances in total, the majority of them with the Met. Her sun-awakening scene is gloriously lit but it is noticeable how she reserves the full weight of her burnished tone – and its commensurate power – for the final scene, when its deployment is of optimum theatrical consequence. Schorr’s Wotan is in even better voice than in the Rheingold of a few months later – and also part of this Naxos Cycle. In fact he’s in resplendent vocal form; the command is full, the compass broad, the range unsullied by any apparent imperfection – it’s a moot point whether his meeting with Thorborg’s Erda is even more stunning than his scenes with Melchior. Both have a blazing intensity. Even in this exalted company Thorborg’s clarity is remarkable and in Laufkötter we have a Mime of practised accomplishment and one who superbly avoids commonplace insinuation and caricature Naxos’ sound quality is excellent; it differs from Guild’s inscription somewhat in some details – Guild’s copy, from the NBC transcriptions includes the tumultuous applause that drowns the radio announcer at the conclusion of the work.

Recorded a couple of months later than Siegfried, Das Rheingold once again finds house conductor Bodanzky on animated form. His fleet footed drive and panache can best be appreciated from the clarity of the passages for harp and horns (listen to Der Welte Erbe Gewänn’ ich zu eigen durch ich?) or the way in which the strings dig in behind the Fricka of Karin Branzell and Schorr’s Wotan in Nur Wonne schafft dir. The singers are on sublime form. The scalding iron curdle of Branzell’s Fricka and the colour and plangency of her tonal reserves (sample Jezt fand ich’s) and Schorr’s nobility, his firmly focused tone and increasing urgency and authority. Then there is Rene Maison’s superb Loge, one of the under acknowledged highlights of the Met broadcast survivals. His elegant legato is a lesson in voice production, beauty of tone, depth of characterisation and sheer subtlety. Immer is Undank Loges lohn! From Scene II is one of the greatest moments from among many as is his glittering shaft of vocalism toward the end of the second scene, and the thin, sneering elegance in his dealings with Alberich in Scene III (Risen-Warum winde sich ringelnd!). His is an unmissable assumption of the role. The Mime of Karl Laufkötter avoids gross caricature and performs with excellence whilst Eduard Habich’s Alberich. Whilst not especially beautiful of voice – and there’s a little strain as there occasionally is with Schorr at the top of their compass – he is nevertheless truly inside the role and enormously characterful. His snarled curse – a curdling venomous moment – is spine tingling. As the work draws to a close Branzell and Schorr, if anything, deepen in their responses and vocalism; her melting entreaties and his musing depth as his voice lightens on the Rainbow Bridge are cherishable, imperishable moments. The sound is rather gritty with the inevitable imperfections of surface noise, fortissimi overload and some grit in the grooves. An alternative incarnation of this performance does however exist from Guild and one can note some differences. Guild utilise an alternative set of acetates and have interpolated a few words lost where Bodanzky imposed his customary Two Act structure. Guild has also performed some reconstructive surgery to the Rainbow Bridge scene, patching so as to ensure an uninterrupted scene, whereas Naxos faithfully preserves the slight breaks. Crucially Guild has excised Doris Doe’s Erda – on the grounds that she is considered "disappointing" - and has instead substituted a commercial Victor disc sung by Thorborg. For some this may tip the balance Naxos’ way.

The 6 December 1941 performance of Die Walküre saw some fascinating, if fortuitous, casting; the debut in the role of Brünnhilde of Helen Traubel; also Kipnis’s first Met appearance as Hunding and, somewhat dramatically, the last minute substitution of the ill Lotte Lehmann by the young Astrid Varnay. She had in fact never sung on stage before and this was apparently her world debut. Familiar from earlier instalments are Schorr and Kipnis and as Siegmund, inevitably, Melchior. Kersten Thorborg was Fricka and hers is a name that should never be overlooked, even in this company, when it comes to the giant success of these Met Ring cycles. This was Schorr’s last Wagner broadcast; he was only fifty-three but time and over use of the voice had led to serious decline in its evenness and production. His Wotan is no longer the long breathed and noble assumption of several years earlier. It’s true that even in 1937 there were signs of strain in his upper tessitura, audible sounds of fallibility, but these were generally subsumed into the powerful generality of his leonine stage presence and the cumulative power of his magnetic performances. Here the fissures are wider and less easy to overlook. Melchior though is unchangeably magnificent. The voice’s beauty and power are intact, the colour and subtlety of phrasing – in the Invitation to Valhalla scene or Winterstürne – still supreme examples of his art. Varnay, at twenty-three, was fortunate to have studied the role even if she’d never sung it on stage; she sings with vivid characterisation, real élan and understanding. One wouldn’t necessarily expect her vocal command to be absolute at this stage in her career and it’s not quite; unlike Schorr who struggles at the top, with Varnay there are a few unfocused moments in her lower register – but they’re few and far between. Helen Traubel had turned down a Met debut as early as 1926 but did appear eleven years later; it was after Flagstad’s departure from the Met in 1941 that Traubel took on the heavy Wagnerian roles. She has always seemed to me far freer and more powerfully expressive when caught on the wing; sometimes on disc there was a degree of stentorian immobility that limited admiration. Here however the sensitivity and the soaring flexibility of the voice are admirably intact – sample for example the scene when she interjects with Wotan for protection. The reservation with this broadcast survival is the sometimes problematic sound – much less impressive than Siegfried – and also, one feels, the conducting. For all the intensity and powerful delineation, for all that the First Act, in particular, generates considerable theatrical heat there is still something marginally inflexible about Leinsdorf’s pressured and fast conducting.

Finally there is Götterdämmerung, another performance which is somewhat compromised by aural imperfection (principally some acetate wear and also a degree of fluctuation on the originals which has been well dealt with here by Ward Marston). This is the earliest of this Met cycle with commensurately the poorest sound but persevere because there are noble compensations. Chief amongst them is, needless to say, Melchior. He is in commanding voice with a brooding, gleaming and sonorous baritonal extension. His range is exceptional, his high C of cavalier brilliance, and the impersonation one of all encompassing variety and breadth. All the more valuable therefore is the fact that this seems to be his only surviving Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde is Marjorie Lawrence and her famous splash in this role was to appear astride her horse Grane as she rides into immolation – a feat Wagner had sanctioned but no one before Lawrence had had the nerve to do. (And a feat to which the director and conductor both objected). Lawrence, then in her mid twenties possessed a lustrous and youthful sheen to her voice. The voice is strong but not overpowering; the compass is even but distinctly stronger in the middle and upper registers. Hers is an unusually mature understanding of the role, plaint and affectionate where necessary, rising to a peak of complex sensitivity for the Immolation scene. This Bodanzky takes at a pretty fearsome lick, exercising some tempo retardation later on – but his characteristic vitesse might be unwelcomingly bracing to some. Schorr’s Gunther is still magnetic to hear; when he and Melchior join vocal forces in the blood-brother duet the results are as thrilling as one would anticipate. German bass Ludwig Hofmann made his met debut in 1932 in this role and he proves a suitably cavernous Hagen, powerful without barking and no guttural impediments. Eduard Habich was fifty-six in 1937 but his insinuating Alberich is still impressive and he abjures easy characterisation. But the principal glory belongs to Melchior, Lawrence his worthy Brünnhilde.

Imperfections exist here alongside some imperishable singing; cuts, harsh sound, some resolutely dramatic conducting. But the gains are lasting ones and this miscellaneous Ring stands as eloquent tribute to the standards of Wagner singing routinely encountered in the opera houses of North and South America during a golden age of vocalism and musicianship.

Jonathan Woolf



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