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CD: Buywell

La Nilsson
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle [4:50]
Die Walküre: Der Männer Sippe saβ hier im Saal [4:27]
Du bist der Lenz [2:15]
Lohengrin: Einsam in trüben Tagen [5:46]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Oberon: Ozean! Du ungeheuer! [9:19]
Der Freischütz: Leise, leise [8:52]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio: Abscheulicher! [7:19]
Ah, perfido! [13:36]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Edward Downes
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, May-June 1963
Adolphe Charles ADAM (1803-1856)
O Holy Night [4:26]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Ave Maria (arr. from Bach) [2:48]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Panis angelicus [4:06]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863)
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht [4:02]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Åke Levén (organ)
rec. Stockholm, August 1963
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0901 [72:21]
Experience Classicsonline

It seems almost unbelievable that it was so long ago. It was on 5 September 1964 that I bought the LP containing the first seven titles on this disc. Less than a month earlier I had acquired my first stereo gramophone and this was my third stereo recording. It goes without saying that I can’t be fully objective when assessing a recording that I have known for so long. I think I know every inflection, every turn of phrase and the tingle factor is further enhanced by the fact that the arias are here presented in the same order as on the original LP. Why it has never before been released on CD I can’t understand. Practically everything else Birgit Nilsson did has been available in various concoctions. The concert aria, Ah, perfido!, which was recorded a few weeks after the opera excerpts, was issued on a 45 rpm record. Somewhere in the early eighties it was included in a 2-LP set together with the German arias and some Verdi arias from another recital of about the same vintage.
By 1963 Nilsson was no newcomer on the international scene. She had made her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1946, singing Agathe in Der Freischütz, so there is special importance in having the aria Leise, leise included here. She was soon discovered by the international stages and sang at Glyndebourne as early as 1951. From there it was but a small step to Bayreuth and then the ball was rolling. Readers who want an in-depth portrait of her may find a few things of interest in my obituary from January 2006.
In many ways Birgit Nilsson was at the height of her powers in the early-to-mid-1960s. She was deeply experienced, having by then settled for the roles she knew suited her best. Only Electra and Die Frau ohne Schatten were later added. At 45 her voice was still in perfect shape and listening to her in stereo for the first time back in 1964 was like sitting in the midst of a tornado, effortlessly riding a Covent Garden Orchestra at full blast. Just listen to the power, the brilliance, the glorious tone and those gleaming high notes, absolutely straight. More than one commentator has likened those notes to a laser-beam. All of this was quite bewildering. I felt the same thrill when I returned to the recordings I knew so well. But as a reviewer I felt I had to go deeper. Overwhelming sounds and technical accomplishment is impressive enough but is there anything else to her singing?
A pernickety critic could probably claim that the readings are not always so deep-probing. Maybe her friend and only serious competitor Astrid Varnay – they were almost exactly the same age – could invest the words with more meaning, could colour the tone more individually. Maybe Hildegard Behrens of a later generation was more psychologically credible. Neither of them had the same vocal security. Was Nilsson too cold? That is a criticism that has been directed towards her, especially in Italian repertoire. However, listen to Elsa’s dream from Lohengrin, or Agathe’s Leise, leise: how she scales down her voice, lightens the tone to almost maidenly dimensions. There is a frailty and vulnerability there that verges on the heavenly sounds of a Victoria de los Angeles. She lacks the creamy tones and the soft inwardness of a Régine Crespin – she sings several of the same Wagnerian excerpts on an HMV LP from about the same time. On the other hand neither de los Angeles nor Crespin could have greeted the hall at Wartburg with Nilsson’s jubilant glory. Nor could they have overpowered the ocean in the Oberon aria. It is true that her phrasing can be a bit unwieldy in fast passages. She was no coloratura and her two recordings of Donna Anna’s part in Don Giovanni are not free from awkward moments.
Despite my own reservations I still feel that this is a recital that should be heard by every lover of great singing. Turbo-qualities there are aplenty but there is great sensitivity as well.
The four sacred songs that round off the disc were recorded at the Gustav Vasa Church at Odenplan in Stockholm on 3 August 1963. They were issued on an EP, aimed at the domestic Swedish market, and O holy night and Silent night are sung in Swedish. Some years ago these songs were issued on a Swedish Society CD in harness with the contents from an LP recorded in 1977 (see review). I found it a disappointing issue with partly rather painful singing. The redeeming factor was these four songs. Apart from an impossibly slow Silent Night (I renamed it Eternal Night) they are valuable documents of Nilsson in repertoire she isn’t exactly associated with – at least not internationally.
Decca’s recordings are as good as I remembered them – and sounding much better on today’s equipment than on my rather cheap turntable in the 1960s. There is an informative and entertainingly written essay on Birgit by Raymond Tuttle.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Simon Thompson


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