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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre - music drama in three acts (1870)
Astrid Varnay (soprano) … Brünnhilde
Ramón Vinay (tenor) … Siegmund
Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano) … Sieglinde
Josef Greindl (bass) … Hunding
Hans Hotter (bass-baritone) … Wotan
Georgine von Milinkovic (mezzo) … Fricka,
Maria Graf (mezzo) ... Rossweisse
Hilde Scheppan (soprano) … Helmwige
Gerda Lammers (soprano) … Ortlinde
Hertha Wilfert (soprano) … Gerhilde
Elisabeth Scheppan (soprano) … Waltraute
Jean Watson (mezzo) … Siegrune
Georgine von Milinkovic (mezzo) … Grimgerde
Maria von Ilosvay (contralto) … Schwertleite
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
rec. live, Festival House, Bayreuth, 18 November 1955
TESTAMENT SBT4 1391 [4 CDs: 63:41 + 60:50 + 25:48 + 67:25]

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Testament began its live 1955 Bayreuth Ring cycle with Siegfried in February 2006 and this Walküre is the second instalment. Rheingold is the next projected release before they leap-frog forward to Götterdämmerung. Chronologically this is a mess. Keilberth’s Ring would be better released complete.

Already there are glowing reviews for this 'new' Walküre. However, Wagnerians know Ring recordings are made of so many component parts that it is unusual to get everything in place. And so it is here. I'm afraid I need to point out some misgivings about this otherwise magnificent set.

Sound issues include flattened dynamics and shifts in perspective. I also wonder about Brünnhilde's last verses - Varnay sounds too far back. The microphones should have followed closer for these crucial lines. However, it is important to remember the historical context: these are fifty-plus year old recordings. Industry insiders at the time questioned the wisdom of Decca recording their studio Rheingold in stereo in 1957. Therefore for Kenneth Wilkinson and his team to tape these performances live two years earlier in hi-fi stereo was frankly courageous and far-sighted.

Otherwise the sound is theatrical and extraordinarily vivid. You will hear singers move about the stage, the bloom of the Festival House acoustic and deep richness in the engineering, preferable to the Wagner-lite Böhm Ring recorded in the same venue twelve years later. Witness the stirring basses and cellos in the opening storm, the clarity of woodwinds throughout and, most impressively, these recordings correct the over-emphasis on voices that undermines contemporaneous radio broadcast recordings from Bayreuth.

The glories of Wagner's orchestration are also revealed through Keilberth's sensitive ear. This conductor knows how to layer orchestral textures and reveal the narrative. For example, the pacing of Act I is well nigh perfect from the battering opening storm, the accumulating radiance of the 'Spring song' to passionate acceleration in the coda. The final scenes of Act II, my favourite in Walküre, benefit from a thrilling upward sweep in the Annunciation of Death and biting attack as Hunding is felled.

On to the singers. A swish from the wind machine and Ramón Vinay's truly great Siegmund enters. His opening lines are poetry itself, telling of a proud and powerful character nevertheless in despair and weary. Vinay has a glorious tenor with a warm and generous metallic tone. And his large heldentenor is also surprisingly sensitive. Just listen to his powerful rings of "Walse" followed by the most gently moulded phrasing as Siegmund discovers Nothung. Here he is supported by special conducting from Keilberth. Listen as the shimmering violins give way to gently pulsing strings and flowing horns, then thrillingly deepening basses (track 8 03:30 onwards). The bar-lines simply melt away as lines liquefy and sing. It’s absolutely beautiful and I had to push rewind and listen to these minutes again!

But what should be one of the great Walküre Act Ones is undermined by Brouwenstijn's quick vibrato. This Sieglinde is too fluttery and the result is an edge of the wrong kind. Her colouring and acting are excellent, it's just that I needed to keep listening around her tremulousness. Walhall are about to release a complete broadcast of this production with the same cast except Martha Mödl as Sieglinde. I have not heard this yet but strongly suspect Mödl is preferable.

Astrid Varnay begins Act II with superlative battle cries. On paper she’d give way to Nilsson in Brünnhilde’s tomboyish opening but power, accuracy and quicksilver whoops are all in place. Later in the Annunciation of Death Varnay’s fruitiness is more apparent as she digs towards mezzo registers, reminding listeners that Varnay’s tone is an acquired taste. You will need to accept that Varnay swells into many notes.

There is no mistaking Brünnhilde’s father. Hans Hotter is an exemplary Wotan from cold command to the sorrow of a loving father. Hotter eats this formidable role. A tiny example: listen to the switch from shuddering inner resignation at the end of his exchange with Fricka to contrasting black-voiced command as Brünnhilde enters. The sheer depth to Hotter’s voice is like looking down into a deep well. The generosity of tone and absolute authority are unmatched from any Wotan I’ve heard.

A special mention for Georgine von Milinkovic’s Fricka. There is a lovely aerated quality that both softens and enriches her metallic tone and von Milinkovic’s diction is totally clear. Fricka’s opening lines are floated within long phrasing, gaining urgency as her confrontation with Wotan cumulates. You can hear why Wotan both loves and heeds this Fricka.

In an interesting exercise I compared Keilberth’s Walküre with two others recorded by Decca, focusing on the final scenes. Varnay and Hotter give a masterclass in vocal acting for Keilberth. They launch into their final confrontation with a drive and vivid desperation not matched by Nilsson and Hotter under Solti. The conundrum facing Wagner’s characters and the way they think and sing their way through it leaps from the speakers. Nilsson is warmer than I expected but I still find her tone too penetrating at forte. Some unsteadiness had crept into Hotter’s voice by 1965 and he was not as engaged in the studio as on the Bayreuth stage, yet his Wotan remained formidable.

Conducting is a decisive factor. I wearied of Solti’s constant upbeat attacks and loud orchestral accompaniment. The exaggerated slowing of pulse after Wotan sings “Und das ich ihm in Sruchen schlug!” and the near rasp of the triumphal brass after that verse are typical examples of undue expressive underlining.

Solti’s ascent to the orchestral crescendo as Wotan kisses away Brünnhilde’s godhead begins well enough but the overblown agogic rubato before the brass blare out a particularly strident chord at the peak is simply impossible. Surprisingly, Keilberth is disappointing here too. His phrasing is too short-winded to invoke the nobility of Wagner’s amazing sonic arch, especially in the over-quick descent. Although from there Keilberth returns to form, again showing a keen ear for floating phrases and layering textures.

At this point neither conductor is in Furtwängler’s league. With the 1954 Vienna Philharmonic Furtwängler invokes a deep Wagnerian swell, building a blazing line to a peak where brass, timps and strings sing out with overwhelming generosity. Notice how his descent holds the pulse, like a hang-glider who has run up a hill and then soared off the apex. Live in 1937 London Furtwängler is even more incredible, stretching the rubato almost to breaking point in a performance that is so powerful it should not be heard too often.

Decca’s 1990s Ring was sunk by poor reviews and abysmal sales before it reached the third instalment This is a pity as the Walküre boasts spectacular engineering and miraculous playing from the Cleveland Orchestra. Robert Hale is an expressive and intelligent Wotan, lacking Hotter’s authority. Gabrielle Schnaut made for controversial casting as Brünnhilde. Her tone is not always ingratiating but Schnaut’s singing is not as squally and unsteady as some reviews suggest. Schnaut certainly has the requisite heft and I believe in her youthful, petulant Walküre goddess, whilst not wanting to hear how she might later tackle the noble Götterdämmerung Immolation! And Dohnanyi is surprisingly fine although I am occasionally bothered by a sense that the score is more in his head than his heart. Dohnanyi’s opening Act 3 Ride begins swiftly, crackling with a Mendelssohn-like airiness, then deepening power as the Walküre sisters unite in their battle-cry over thundering timps. Dohnanyi’s brass outclass their Bayreuth counterparts in the Ride for precision and tonal lustre. Dohnanyi’s pacing and attention to detail is frankly more interesting than that of Keilberth, whose Ride seems less ‘alert’. In the final scenes Dohnanyi holds a clear, intelligent course with his transparent and beautifully integrated ‘Cleveland sound’, typified by integrated swelling brass and soaring corporate violins as Brünnhilde’s godhead is kissed away. Decca should re-release Dohnanyi’s underrated Walküre as a super-budget Trio. It would make a useful modern supplement to the more vivid Testament recording which for its principal singers and theatrical revelations now becomes my favourite stereo Walküre.

Testament are not the first record company to spread Die Walküre over four CDs when it could fit onto three. Aside from that, those who question the cost of Keilberth’s Ring should remember that, unlike cheap pirate issues of broadcast Rings from this era, Testament are paying royalties. The booklet contains a libretto in tiny typeface and reiterates the history of the 1955 Ring recording discussed in the earlier Siegfried set. There is some extra discussion principally centred on Hans Hotter’s contribution.

Please do not pay the £50 for the Testament Walküre advertised in various high street and some online shops. One of the major British supermarkets is selling it online for £30, UK post free.

David Harbin


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