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Richard WAGNER
Die Walkure

Astrid Varnay (Soprano), Helen Traubel (Soprano), Kerstin Thorborg (Mezzo), Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Friedrich Schorr (Baritone), Alexander Kipnis (Bass)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Conducted by Eric Leinsdorf
Broadcast performance from 6th December 1941
Restoration by K&A Productions Ltd.
Naxos Historical 8.110058-60 (175.38)
 £13.50  Amazon UK  £12.99

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So Dickens might have begun this review had he taken a different turn and become a music critic. Which is my way of saying that when we listen to a release like this we are not just listening to the music, we are going back to the period in which it was performed, the precise moment, and gaining something from that: a sense of place, tradition and history.

Making music is a public act not to be separated from the time it takes place, and this is New York in the early days of World War II with one of the world's great opera houses presenting a masterwork of the Wagner repertoire with a cast "to die for". Here is almost the crème de la crème of pre-war Wagner singing that could trace its musical ancestry back to a previous era. Only Kirsten Flagstad was missing from the original line-up to make the cast legendary. Even so these are magic names: Traubel, Thorborg, Melchior, Schorr, Kipnis and…. Well, there's a last-minute drama even here. The audience that Saturday afternoon was expecting to hear the legendary Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde but she became ill a few hours before and there was only one replacement available: a 23-year-old who had never before appeared onstage and had only been studying singing four years. So this is also the classic backstage story straight out of Broadway legend. It is for these and other extra-musical reasons that tolerance can and must be afforded when questions of sound and performance are raised as in no way can a release like this compete with the pristine sound and execution of modern versions. But those don't have the special charge recordings like this carry, the best of times they represent. The worst of times too which also become part of the lustre a set like this gives off, pinning it in history like a butterfly in a specimen case. Look at the date of this broadcast. Hours after curtain down over the fire enveloping Brunnhilde in New York, hundreds of Japanese aircraft left carriers in the Pacific to envelope Pearl Harbour in a fire more deadly than anything Loge could conjure, bringing America into the war and the world to a new phase in which the values these singers brought would be no more. This recording is therefore an echo from a lost world as the best of times and the worst of times meet in a night at the opera.

The name of that 23-year-old debutante was Astrid Varnay, so this was a professional debut before a radio audience of millions launching a career that would last forty years. In Act I, as she tells Siegmund of the day a stranger left a sword in the tree, there is no sign of nerves or inexperience. Indeed the way she darkens her tone to convey the dread of this memory is impressive. Throughout the first Act she is a fine foil to her more experienced Siegmund. Later years would, of course, bring her the kind of stagecraft he had in spades but there is virtue in the innocence her youth brings to the portrayal of the innocent wife of a brutal husband. Later, in Act II, for the scene where she imagines Hunding's hounds tearing Siegmund to pieces, Varnay lets rip, clearly warmed to the chance she has been given. An impression which again pays dividends in her Act III plea to Brunnhilde that she be allowed to die. Here Helen Traubel's Brunnhilde completes a memorable scene with her delivery of the sword fragments into Sieglinde's hands. Traubel had made her own Met debut in 1926 and had by now taken over most of Kirsten Flagstad's roles in New York which accounts for her presence in the cast. That day in 1941 she was in top form portraying Brunnhilde as a feisty "Tom Boy" whose first "Hojotohos" earn a round of applause as she exits. However she can be suitably reflective also, especially later in Act II when she bemoans what Wotan has ordered her to do in the coming fight, disregarding her own feelings, and this signals a very rounded portrayal. Then in the Todesverkundigung she is moving when firstly telling Siegmund he must die but then that he will live through her disobedience to Wotan. However it's in her great Act III scene with Wotan, when she finally faces her father after disobeying him, that Traubel crowns a classic interpretation with lines that will melt your heart, especially when she asks what is so terrible about doing what your heart tells you. It's just a pity she is not matched in Schorr with a Wotan to equal her, in this performance at least.

Friedrich Schorr was one of the great Wagnerians and in his heyday, taking into account different tastes and styles, he must have been formidable. This is a man who made his professional debut in 1912 but by 1941, though retaining enormous presence and a depth of experience in his familiarity with the role, his voice was past its best. His command of the notes, especially the upper registers, has become approximate and there are some moments of strain, though less so in the lyrical passages, such as parts of the early first Act II scene with Brunnhilde. Good and bad can be heard in his Act II exchange with Brunnhilde when he orders her to favour Hunding and then when he reveals the kernel of the Ring story in one of the greatest scenes in the whole cycle. Here there is shame, pain and the horns of dilemma in Schorr's delivery for all my disquiet about his voice as, beneath the wear, you can indeed glimpse the great artist he was. However in the great scene at the end of Act II, when Hunding has triumphed with Wotan's help and Wotan contemptuously kills him, Schorr is stiff and correct. This might be partly due to a less demonstrative acting style but after you have become familiar with, for example, Hans Hotter, who makes so much more of this supreme moment, you cannot but be dissatisfied. I ought also to say Schorr is hindered just after this moment by being in a "blind spot" on the stage where the microphones only just catch him for his explosion of anger with "Doch Brunnhilde…". A pity since this is a crucial moment. He also stands in the same place again at the very end of Act III for his last words to the sleeping Brunnhilde. Though these are the only real examples of truly bad microphone placing in the whole recording. Most of the time Schorr seems to make up for any shortcomings by breeze and bluster but I wouldn't want my opinion of him to dissuade you from buying this set. In Act III he can rise to the occasion and the embers of past fires can burst into life. At the point Wotan kisses Brunnhilde's "godhead" and removes her power - in fact where Wagner unleashes all the emotional power at his disposal - Schorr becomes inspired. Even following this with grave dignity in the subsequent farewell after the Fire Music that in this performance you can hear mixed with the wind machine. The god is brought to humanity indeed. Though Schorr's principal scenes are with Traubel there is the crucial Act II dialogue with Fricka, played in this performance by Kerstin Thorborg. She sees Fricka as a formidable battleaxe and the whole exchange between her and Schorr becomes utterly compelling through her presence and penetrating singing. Her insistence Hunding triumphs over Siegmund would be hard to resist for even a god like Wotan.

Hunding himself is a thankless role for any singer, even for one as great as Alexander Kipnis at the height of his powers. No one likes Hunding in spite of the fact that he ought to be a character you have some sympathy for. He has done nothing wrong. He is the wronged husband about to see his wife impregnated by her twin brother. Even when he realises the stranger he has welcomed into his home is his blood enemy he observes the tradition of hospitality and leaves killing him until the morning. What could be fairer than that? None of this will wash with the audience, though. Poor old Hunding is doomed to be the villain for all time and Kipnis is commanding with his resonant voice distinguishing Act I greatly. His pure anger when he realises Siegmund is his blood enemy is chilling, for example. Excellent though he always is, Kipnis never dominates Act I unduly. How could he with Melchior as Siegmund? Rather he compliments his equally great colleague perfectly - the Pacino and de Niro of pre-war Wagner.

Though I admire Traubel in this performance there is no question in my mind that it's Lauritz Melchior's Siegmund that is the jewel in the crown. His is a very distinctive voice but also one capable of immense range. Tough and muscular when he tries to leave in Act I, involving and touching in the narration that follows where he reveals his life story, his security and experience are always riveting. Then in the passage where the sword is revealed we hear him able to change the timbre of his voice at will, especially impressive in reflection. Though as many have mentioned his propensity to elongate his "Walse!" is a mannerism that can be bothersome. Prior to the battle at the end of Act II Melchior vividly conveys his sense of a tragic destiny, his palpable dread and fear, and note Wagner's recall of the Spring music from Act I to underpin the loss and regret to come. But the centrepiece of Act I is the wonderful hymn to Spring "Wintersturme, wichen dem Wonnenmond" which finds Melchior inspired with lieder-like delicacy and acute awareness of words, allied to his hallmark strength and depth of utterance. Note too his faultless diction, matching that of his colleagues: something that seemed to be taken for granted in those days.

This latter passage is one of the few where there is some distortion to the sound and a greater degree of surface noise from the discs used to record the performance. I wonder if this is because this highlight of the performance has been the one to be taken down from the archive shelf and played more often than the others have. In spite of this it is worth pointing out that the majority of the surfaces used for this CD transfer are remarkably quiet. There is an amount of background swish all through waxing and waning, but as this is constant most of the time you should adjust. There are a few clicks and spits also but, on the whole, this is a successful transfer. The general sound picture is on the boxy side lacking in some atmosphere, but there is still body to the sound and a good degree of separation between voices and orchestra. No artificial reverberation seems to have been added. Collectors of historic recordings need have no fear and others might even give it a try. Naxos provides no libretto but instead one of Keith Anderson's excellent detailed synopses, indexed to entry points on the discs that you will find easy to follow if you don't know the opera.

Which brings me finally to the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf. He was 29 years old in 1941 and had taken over German repertoire at The Met from Bodansky. If you believe the conductor is the senior partner in a Wagner performance it has to be said Leinsdorf is the weak link. His conducting is certainly efficient but it's rather uninspired with speeds almost uniformly quick. Maybe his propensity for fast tempi is a case of an admiration for Toscanini getting the better of him. The Prelude to Act I is stiff and metrical, so too the Ride of the Valkyries. The close of Act I tests Melchior to the limit even though you have the impression he could cope with anything. Certainly the charge of energy that propels this rush to the end of the Act is very exciting. Though on repeated hearings something more thoughtful is surely needed and this is the overall impression I am left with at the end of the opera. Also that this is a young man's performance. Later in his distinguished career Leinsdorf would learn to pace things far better, as we know from a stereo recording of this opera he made for RCA in the 1960s in London, but here he is a man in a hurry. That isn't to say he cannot relax at all in 1941. There is some good woodwind painting of Siegmund's plight in Act I, for example, and the strings are rich in the passage where Sieglinde fetches him water. However for most of the time Leinsdorf seems intent on a "no-frills" delivery of an accompaniment to his singers with not much thought to the shaping of the ebb and flow of the drama. There are passages where this has its dividends, of course. The fight between Hunding and Siegfried in Act II is exciting but downsides include a too stiff preparation for the Todesverkundigung in Act II, even though the brass players are good, and passages in Wotan's Act II Narration where you need the orchestra to act like a third character. The orchestra does seem up to Leinsdorf's fierce tempi, though, and play with real commitment as the evening wears on. The recorded does not flatter them in any way and some imagination is needed to fill out what is lost. But it's an exercise worth attempting. How they might have sounded under Knappertsbusch or Furtwängler we will never know.

Let's just be grateful that the technology existed in 1941 to provide us with an experience not to be missed. The best of times and the worst of times live again.

Tony Duggan

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