The Bayreuth heldentenor
Walter Kirschhoff was wedded to Wagner singing – “the only reason
for becoming a singer” as he put it. He studied in Milan and
Berlin and made his debut in 1906 at the age of twenty-seven
in Faust at the Hofoper. Though he flirted with roles
outside the central German repertoire he was determined to utilise
every technical advantage to attain his Wagnerian ambitions.
By 1911 he was a leading Berlin Wagnerian and in the same year
the call came from Bayreuth. One can date his years of celebrity
from this time, and though the war interrupted his progress
he resumed his career without any diminution of technique or
any loss of prestige. In the early 1920s he embarked on his
international career and from 1926-31 he sang at the Met in
Wagner performances alongside Melchior and Laubenthal. His prominent
career trailed off after 1933 by which time he was in his mid
fifties. He was in any case a Freemason and thus “politically
unreliable” to the Nazis. Kirschhoff died in Wiesbaden in 1951.
With one exception
this is, justly, an Wagner disc. All the sides were recorded
between 1914 and 1932. The majority are 1914-15 Grammophons
(twelve of seventeen) but there are also four 1929 Pathé sides
and three 1932 Parlophones. Kirchhoff has divided critical posterity.
Some tend to find him plummy, others rather bleaty. Listening
without prejudice one hears in the 1915 Lohengrin Nun sei
bedankt a singer of considerable gifts. The copy used is
a little rough but fortunately the voice is very forward; we
can hear a finely modulated voice, subtly coloured, that darkens
and hardens dramatically to inflect the text and one that brings
reserves of characterisation to bear. He employs mezza voce
with adroit musicality. It’s singing of a thoroughly masculine
and convincing kind. The imploring tone he employs for Mein
lieber Schwan is not only apt but also finely controlled.
In Mastersingers we find him ardent and very plausibly youthful
with just a touch of nasality in his tone.
What he possesses
is real variety in attack and in tonal resources. His tone broadens,
expands and contracts in response to the dictates of theatrical
realism – one can sense that this is a stage animal and that
his technical resources are harnessed for optimum expressive
projection and effect. It’s true that one may find some of his
singing occasionally disappointing; though he’s a stylist of
skill he can sometimes come across as a touch leaden. But in
the main he impresses by virtue of his powers of characterisation.
The transfers are
pretty good; a few rough starts soon settle down. The biographical
notes, to which I’m indebted, are succinct and helpful.