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Birgit Nilsson - Swedish Radio Concerts
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) Tosca: Vissi d’arte; Turandot: In questa reggia;
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 – 1826) Oberon: Ozean, du Ungeheuer;
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) Fidelio: Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin;
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Aida: O patria mia; La forza del destino: Pace, pace, mio Dio;
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883) Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ ich wieder;
Rolf LIEBERMANN (1910 – 1999) Penelope: Penelope’s aria;
Franz BERWALD (1796 – 1868) Estrella de Soria: Estrella’s aria
Birgit Nilsson (soprano), Swedish Radio Orchestra/Nils Grevillius (1, 4, 6), Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Nils Grevillius (2, 3, 5, 7), Royal Orchestra, Stockholm/Sixten Ehrling (8), Stockholm Radio Orchestra/Sten Frykberg (9)
rec. Circus, Stockholm, January 15, 1961 (1, 4, 6), Concert Hall, Stockholm, August 18-19, 1961 (2, 3, 5), March 5, 1959 (7), Royal Academy of Music, Stockholm, April 18, 1955 (8), April 13, 1947 (9)
BLUEBELL ABCD 055 [65:28]

 

 

Different listeners react differently to certain singers and instrumentalists. The arguably greatest sopranos during the second half of the last century, Callas and Nilsson, have each had their admirers and detractors. “Callas”, the latter stated, “sacrificed beauty for dramatic truth; Nilsson was technically perfect but lacked warmth”. There may be some truth in both these views but a majority of lovers of great operatic singing could overlook these deficiencies – if that’s what they are – and enjoy other qualities. In the case of Birgit Nilsson there’s the power, the steadiness, the ringing top notes. They are all present in abundance in these live recordings from her relative youth – and there is more than passing evidence that she possessed other qualities as well.

This compilation of Swedish Radio recordings from, mainly, the early 1960s, was originally issued in 1993. The recent departure of Birgit Nilsson has made it appropriate to assess it again. Sonically there is little to grumble about; it is in mono of course but Swedish Radio produced good recordings in those days and nobody need hesitate on that account. It can’t compete with studio efforts from the big companies from the same time but there is no lack of presence, the orchestras are well in the picture and Birgit Nilsson’s magnificent voice rings out undistorted and with all her power in full evidence. The conductor on most of the tracks is Nils Grevillius, who directed the Royal Opera for more than three decades and was adored by the orchestra. He is well-known to many collectors of opera arias, not least from his many recordings with Jussi Björling from the early 1930s to the late 1950s.

The repertoire is mainly standard fare that Birgit Nilsson often sang in concert. Several of the operas represented also belonged to her stage repertoire. The last two numbers are, however, rarities that are very good to have – especially with Nilsson singing.

“She lacked warmth?” Listen to the first track, Vissi d’arte from Tosca, one of her favourite roles, besides the Wagner and Strauss diet. There is certainly no lack of feeling. A light flutter in her otherwise rock-steady voice tells us that emotions are near the surface. Tosca is an actress and she can control her voice in most situations, but here, in her private prayer, the feelings, the despair boils over. There are no histrionics but that tremble in her voice tells it all. Still she is so much in control that she shades her voice imaginatively and sings long unbroken lines. The top note is glorious and might have shattered Scarpia’s wine glass. From there she shades down to a pianissimo of superhuman beauty – in one long phrase. Lack of warmth? No way! Callas was for many the dream Tosca, but Nilsson, with quite another approach, was just as moving.

The princess of ice, Turandot, was another of Nilsson’s great impersonations; she was actually the reigning Turandot for many years. Ice cold? No, listen here – again that little flutter: behind her icy appearance there is a woman of flesh and blood. But then she hurls those cascades of stainless steel up above the roaring orchestra. No one, in my experience, has ever sung this music with such assurance.

Both in this and the following aria from Oberon one notices the relative ease with which she sings the lowest notes in the contralto range. We recall that at the beginning of her career she was actually regarded by some as a mezzo. What is also noticeable throughout the disc is her sensitive phrasing. The clarion top notes become so much more impressive when set in contrast to some softer singing. The Fidelio aria, a difficult piece like the one from Oberon, also requires coloratura. Neither Beethoven nor Weber was always very considerate to their prima donnas. Coloratura was never Nilsson’s strongest suit but she never once smudges the phrases as some singers with big voices can do. There is a fine French horn solo before the aria proper and then Nilsson sings the first phrases Komm, Hoffnung with consummate beauty.

She recorded most of these arias commercially, first for EMI in the late 1950s and then again for Decca in the early 1960s. Several of them are also in complete recordings. Interpretatively there is not much difference between them. She found her concept and kept within that frame, but it is always sheer joy to hear that glorious voice and the intelligent use she makes of it. Just listen to the pianissimo end of the Nile aria from Aida (track 5) and likewise the start of the following Pace, pace, mio Dio from La forza del destino, a role she never essayed on stage although she frequently performed this aria in concert. Here she scales down again to match the harp accompaniment. She may not have had the ability to colour the voice to suit different characters the way Callas could but over but time again one registers her willingness to adjust dynamics to the requirements of the music. Listen at 4:25 how she swells the voice to a perfect fortissimo and then scales down again. Her repeated calls of Maledizione! in full flight are hair-raising.

Elisabeth’s Greeting Song from Tannhäuser was a special favourite, although she rarely felt quite comfortable with the role on stage – not until she got the opportunity to sing both Elisabeth and Venus in the same performance. But this aria was a recurring number at her recitals and she recorded it several times, first as early as 1955 on an HMV collection of arias sung by leading soloists at the Stockholm Opera, conducted by Sixten Ehrling. My LP copy is worn out and I would love to see it reissued on CD. Bertil Hagman, a close friend of Birgit’s for many years, reminds us in the booklet notes that when she was invited to take part in the inauguration of the Sydney Opera in 1973 she was asked by conductor Charles Mackerras what she would like to sing. Remembering that the house had cost seventeen times more than the originally projected sum, Birgit Nilsson suggested this particular aria Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ ich wieder (Dear hall, I greet thee again). Sir Charles burst into laughter and so did the audience at the concert.

A real rarity is Penelope’s aria from Rolf Liebermann’s opera Penelope, based on the Odyssey. It was premiered at Salzburg in 1954 and was staged in Stockholm the following year with Birgit Nilsson in the title role. It only ran for six performances – probably regarded as too modernistic for the traditionally-minded audience to digest. The aria is fascinating: tremendously difficult and high-lying, but Birgit sings it with magnificent intensity and her scream at 5:31 is really spine-chilling. The opera is today largely forgotten, but this aria at least was written with fine understanding of the human voice and with long melodic phrases. Cantabile indeed. The orchestra is very active behind the soloist. Maybe times have changed so much that it could be staged again today, half a century later. It is sung in Swedish but honestly, I could distinguish very little of the text.

The last number, an appendix if you like, is another rarity, Estrella’s aria from Berwald’s Estrella de Soria. The opera was first performed in 1862 but disappeared after only five performances, supposed to lack drama. In 1946 it was revived at the Stockholm Opera – not with Birgit Nilsson; this was before her debut – but the year after she was asked to record it, and this was her very first gramophone record. In her memoirs she remembers that she was seriously ill with scarlet fever and dragged herself to the recording session, but the result was excellent. Recorded only half a year after her debut she already displays all the characteristics that we know from her mature production. It is a slightly more lyrical voice we hear but the steel is there – no wonder since she was already 29. The aria itself is well worth hearing and I know only one further recording of it, where Lena Nordin sings it on a Caprice disc with highlights from the opera. There are some pops and clicks audible from the old shellac but the sound is quite good. The record was issued by Radiotjänst, which was the name of Swedish Radio in those days.

Collectors of Birgit Nilsson recordings, who don’t already own this disc, sorely need it. However I would advise all lovers of great singing to acquire it, irrespective of how many Nilsson studio recordings they may already have. There are not many discs around with soprano singing that challenges this and none that surpasses it!

Göran Forsling

 

 

 



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