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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (end of Act 1, Act 2) (1874) [101.37] (1); (Immolation Scene) (1874) [19.08] (2)
Die Walküre (excerpts) (1854-1856) [7.33] (3)
Siegfried (excerpts) (1856 – 1874) [12.55] (4)
Brünnhilde - Frida Leider (soprano)
Siegfried – Lauritz Melchior (tenor) (1)
Siegfried – Rudolf Laubenthal (tenor) (4)
Gunther - Herbert Janssen (baritone) (1)
Waltraute - Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo) (1)
Hagen – Ludwig Weber/Emanuel List (bass) (1)
Alberich – Eduard Habich (bass) (1)
Gutrune – Maria Nezadal(soprano) (1)
Gutrune – Elfriede Maherr-Wagner (soprano) (2)
Wotan – Friedrich Schorr (bass) (3)
Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Sir Thomas Beecham (1)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Leo Blech (2,3,4)
rec. Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 14, 29 May 1936, (1); Berlin, 1928 (2); Berlin, 1927 (3, 4). ADD
GUILD GHCD 2311/12 [67.26 + 73.47]

I have long known about the live recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from Covent Garden in 1936 conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Tantalising fragments from Act 2 appeared on LP during the early 1970s but this 2 CD set from Guild is the first time I have come across an attempt to assemble all the surviving recordings.

What we have here is a recording of the end of Act 1 (Hagen’s monologue to close) and the entire Act 2 from Beecham’s performance; though the transfer engineers have had to patch in bits of other performances by the same singers as the final disc covering the end of Act 1 and the opening of Act 2 have not survived adequately.

The Brünnhilde here is Frida Leider, one of the great Brünnhildes of the inter-war period. Guild have included Leider’s 1928 Berlin account of the Immolation scene which provides a satisfying conclusion to the Götterdämmerung excerpts.

Sir Thomas Beecham is not currently best known for his Wagner conducting partly because Wagner featured less in his post-war discography. But during the inter-war years he conducted significant Wagner operas both at Covent Garden and with his own opera company. The recording of Tristan und Isolde, recorded live at Covent Garden in 1937, has existed on the fringes of the catalogue for some time though its influence is somewhat compromised by EMI’s efforts at issuing the set when they mixed up Beecham and Fritz Reiner discs and ended up producing a set which was a collage of the work of both conductors. Götterdämmerung was recorded live at Covent Garden in 1936 on two different dates with different casts, so that we hear two Hagens.

Beecham’s Wagner is notable for its fleetness and flexibility, and it is good to have a record of his Götterdämmerung no matter how fragmentary. The transfer quality varies from poor to surprisingly good. These discs are never going to be ideal performances but with patience they open up a magical window onto the past. Here we can eavesdrop on a performance which took place at Covent Garden nearly seventy years ago. The cast is a fine one; besides Leider, Lauritz Melchior is an incomparable Siegfried, Emmanuel List and Ludwig Weber share Hagen and Kerstin Thorborg is a passionate Waltraute.

Though Leider is associated with the role of Brünnhilde in the inter-war years, she was in fact not much older than Kirsten Flagstad, a singer with whom she has some vocal qualities in common. Leider presents a focused, flexible vocal line which only seems to lack Flagstad’s gleaming power. But at such a distant remove from the performance it is now difficult to really asses the size of Leider’s voice, at least on the basis of these records. What is undoubtedly true is that her Brünnhilde is beautifully shapely and passionate. She has a wonderful sense of line and presents Brünnhilde as shapely, womanly and feminine; still powerful and implacable but not quite the warrior maiden. It must be admitted that the orchestra does tend to dominate her voice and this is, in fact, a very orchestra-led recording. There is also a certain snatched quality to some of her high notes, but her legato is lovely.

Melchior’s Siegfried is open and noble and he makes a fine pairing with Leider. He does not seem to have been in the best of voices and his upper register sounds a little effortful. But Melchior, even when not at his best, is still considerable. List and Weber are both powerful as Hagen and Herbert Janssen’s Gunther is suitably vile.

Whilst Beecham’s Götterdämmerung is not really shaped into paragraphs it is undoubtedly superbly dramatic and propelled along with a wonderful impetus. The conclusion to Act 2 is glorious.

The Berlin Immolation scene sees Leider projecting Brünnhilde with a slightly lighter voice but the balance with the orchestra is better than in the Covent Garden recording. This means that her top gleams properly and she rightly dominates.

Guild have also included further excerpts from Die Walküre and Siegfried which Leider recorded in Berlin in 1927, enabling us to start to put together a more balance view of her Brünnhilde.

These discs are the fascinating torso of a performance, recorded at a time when live recording of complete operas at Covent Garden was still in its infancy, but they remain essential listening.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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