Die Walkure moves from the industriousness
of Rheingold to realms of domestic
drama, between siblings/lovers, husbands
and wives and, devastatingly, between
father and half errant daughter. Already
we feel ripples from Alberich’s curse
spreading and gathering force towards
the overwhelming finale of Götterdämmerung.
This wonderful Walküre
is also ‘domestic’ in a different
sense. The booklet emphasises that the
recordings are not broadcasts or illegal
recordings from the audience but in-house
recordings from the Royal Opera House
Stockholm. Valter Valentin, a member
of the Royal Opera, made the recordings
from a first tier box with the possible
help of his son, a Swedish Radio recording
technician. These treasures were held
in the national archives until Caprice/Royal
Swedish Opera released them in a series,
of which this Walküre is
the fifth volume, for opera lovers world-wide
There are no weak links
in the cast. Indeed this is overall
the kind of heroic Wagner singing which
I largely missed when reviewing
the recent Naxos Rheingold .
Set Svanholm is a known quantity and
here confirms himself as one of the
finest Siegmunds. His voice is tinged
with a sunny timbre although he can
harden heroically when required. Svanholm’s
opening lines in Act 2 scene 5 are liquid
and floating with tenderness and love
for Sieglinde. Within moments the voice
leaps forward with added metal, ringing
out for "Nortung zahlihm den Zoll".
Svanholm’s whole performance is an intelligent
dramatic traversal of Siegmund’s story.
He is untiring and has all the vocal
goods to deliver one of the finest performances
I have heard.
The other familiar
Wagnerian is of course Birgit Nilsson,
here towards the beginning of one of
the greatest opera careers on record.
Her voice is highly focused, beaming
out with steel-clad power. You can almost
see some notes blast from the stage
into the auditorium. Here Nilsson’s
shining metal certainly becomes the
imperious goddess, at first detached
from the human world. Then the Act II
Annunciation is injected with feeling
at the start so her final rally to Siegmund
has comparative stature. Her Act 3 pleas
to Wotan are also impressively acted.
For all that I am niggled by a coldness
in Nilsson’s shining tone. The metal
does not warm with all the colours I
love in my favourite Brünnhildes
including Martha Mödl (live 1953
with Furtwängler) and Gertrude
Grob-Prandl (live, Geneva 1951).
On to the discoveries.
Anna-Greta Söderholm is a passionate
Sieglinde, with more colours than Nilsson,
especially through a deeper chest tone.
There is real warmth and feeling here
and the text is clearly projected. Söderholm
also opens out thrillingly when needed
and, yes, does cry out for that Big
Act 1 ‘Excalibur Moment’. Both she and
Kerstin Meyer’s Fricka are steady but
with an attractive vocal vibrancy. In
both cases I felt a connection with
the characters portrayed. Meyer evokes
a tangible melancholy behind her initial
remonstrations with Wotan: a marital
argument borne also through sadness
and loneliness. Sven Nilsson, a distant
relative of Birgit, has the requisite
dark depth and width of voice, contrasting
well with and threatening to overwhelm
the incestuous twins. Sigurd Björling’s
Wotan can also be heard in an Act 3
Walküre captured live by EMI at
the 1951 Bayreuth Festival. Björling
is a steady, oaken Wotan, well acted
to portray both father and commander.
Björling can colour his voice from
the impressive ringing threats against
Brünnhilde ending Act 2 to sorrow
in the Farewell. There is occasional
strain in his top notes, but nothing
bothersome. Björling and all these
Stockholm Royal Opera-based singers
should be better known, fully justifying
this special archive release.
I would like to hear
more archive recordings conducted by
Sixten Ehrling. Many must exist as Ehrling
had a long career and died only recently,
in 2005. The booklet notes Ehrling’s
"rather unyielding tempi and few
portamenti" and that he demanded
high levels of technical accuracy from
his orchestra. It’s true that the orchestra
does not always ‘sing’, noticeably in
the second half of Act 1, but I was
never aware of barlines and he clearly
knows how to develop long phrases. There
is also great passion, noticeably at
the close of Act 2 and the deeply poetic
Farewell with its subtly shifting tempi.
The critic Michael Tanner says the orchestral
crescendo in the Farewell after Wotan
sings "der freier als ich, der
Gott!" is an "acid test of
conducting if there ever was one".
Here Wagner’s great orchestral arch
is both grand and gentle, graduated
through soaring violin phrasing and
anchored through forceful bass and exciting
timps, causing some distortion in the
recording. The rubato toward the peak
is not as physically exciting as Furtwängler
(live 1937) but Ehrling’s subsequent
descent holds a steady pulse, with floated
line and the required repose.
The recording quality
is variable. The opening Prelude starts
clearly enough with richness in the
bass. This basic fullness and presence
usually remains throughout the opera.
However the recording almost collapses
with distortion in some triple fortes,
such as the weight of timps in the Prelude’s
culminating crack of thunder. Sonic
wobbles in the Act 2 Prelude seemingly
threaten to derail the CD from my player
altogether. Parts of Act 3 are patched
from a broadcast. Does this explain
the massive dropout right after Brünnhilde’s
last lines? Woodwind are too far forward
but this brings revelations, such as
the marked lightening of orchestral
colour before the incestuous twins praise
Spring and their newfound love in Act
1. In-your-face piccolos are annoying
in the Magic Fire music and tubas
are also more present than I enjoy.
Yet simple miking brings
revelations and not all climaxes are
badly compromised. Ehrling certainly
does not conduct a quasi-Bellini approach
to Wagner and the tape machine usually
copes to capture this. Try Act 2 scene
5. I’ve never heard the timps slam with
such decisive power as Sieglinde fears
Hunding’s approach. The escalating thunderous
black cacophony from brass and timps
at the close is devastatingly full-throated.
Neither pretty nor polite, but wonderfully
Valentin’s tape machine
recorded a much stronger orchestral
profile, as I personally prefer, than
Bayreuth broadcasts from the same era.
However I wish Wotan was more forward
to bring greater authority in his Farewell.
The upstage warring Hunding and Siegmund
almost disappear at the end of Act 2,
as you might guess. Creaks, stage noises
and audience bronchial afflictions are
occasional and never hinder enjoyment.
I would not recommend
this Walküre as a general purchase
because of the archive sound. If it
was better recorded it would go near
top of the pile for the splendid singing
and insightful conducting. A treasure
trove of discoveries for Wagnerians.
Testament will release their 1955 live
stereo Bayreuth Walküre
this May and it will be interesting
to compare with this set.
Unlike Testament this
Walküre fits onto 3 mid-priced
CDs. Caprice includes a 20 page English-only
booklet containing information about
the recordings and history of the music-drama
at Royal Swedish Opera. There is no
libretto or synopsis but interesting
biographies of the singers and photographs,
including a photograph of Nilsson’s
youthful Brünnhilde pleading at
Wotan’s feet which I wish I could reproduce
with this review. Both gods wear capes,
Viking-style breast plates and Wotan
even has a helmet with impressive wings.
Many modern directors would consider
such costuming a terrible anachronism
but I found it deeply moving.