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Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson
Arias & Scenes from Der fliegende Holländer and Die Walküre + Schubert lieder
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Der fliegende Holländer: Wie aus der Ferne (Love Duet, act II) [15:06];
Die Walküre: Complete Final Scene [37:24];
Der fliegende Holländer: Die Frist ist um (The Dutchman’s Monologue, act I) [7:33]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Selected Lieder: An die Musik, D. 547 [2:37]; Meeresstille, D. 216 [1:56]; Am Bach im Frühling, D. 882 [3:26]; Im Frühling, D. 547 [4:02]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano); Hans Hotter (bass)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig (Wagner)
rec. London, May 1957.
Gerald Moore (piano) (Schubert)
rec. London, 1949.
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Bruno Walter (Die Frist ist um)
rec. 1936

Let me start by sorting out the provenance of some of this material. The inlay states that the Wagner duets, which occupy the larger part of the space, were recorded in 1955. Consequently they would be out of copyright but my memory told me that they were later than that.
The original LP (Columbia 33CX 1542/SAX 2296) was reissued in the late 1960s on Regal SREG 2068, which is the version I own. There the publishing year is given as 1958. Checking the Birgit Nilsson discography, published as an appendix to her memoirs La Nilsson, issued in Swedish 1995, John Hunt gives the recording date as May 1957. The inlay states cryptically “Issued from the original sources”, which should presumably mean that there is a licence agreement with EMI, but since this material was issued by Testament not so long ago I am a bit sceptical. Moreover the sound is mono. The sound quality is good, considering the age. It’s a bit boxy but well defined and the dynamic scope is wide enough to give the climaxes impact. It is possible to detect a constant rumble and I don’t know if it has to do with the acoustics of the hall, is inherent in the original tapes or a result of turntable noise. In softer passages it can be rather irritating.
The Philharmonia of 1957 was a great orchestra and the experienced Leopold Ludwig was a surefooted Wagnerian. But it is the singing that counts and this is frankly some of the best Wagner singing ever set down on record. It had been quite some time since I last listened to these recordings and it was with the anticipation of something extraordinary that I put the CD in the player. I was not let down.
Hotter was nearing fifty when the recordings were made. The unsteadiness that became more pronounced in the 1960s can be detected here too, but to much lesser extent. It is more than compensated for by the wonderful singing. The opening of the Holländer duet is magical, Hotter fining down his big voice to lieder half-voice. His way with the text is hard to beat. Every word is invested with meaning and the sheer power of the singing is overwhelming. Birgit Nilsson is sensitive to the text and finds plenty of nuances, her voice taking on a girlish timbre. At the climaxes the famous laser-beam shines forth in its full glory.
The long final scene from Die Walküre is probably unsurpassed. Full marks, incidentally, to Archipel for the generous cue points – no less than eleven in this excerpt, which makes it possible to pick favourite entrances. For me that has to be Der diese Liebe mir in’s Herz gelegt (track 4) where Birgit Nilsson starts pianissimo and then expands seamlessly to a gleaming fortissimo in one long unbroken phrase. This is indeed one of the finest moments in all Wagner. Likewise So tatest du, was so gern (track 5) where Hotter sounds uncannily like Fischer-Dieskau, had he ever sung the part. As a matter of fact he recorded the final monologue for EMI in 1977. Good as that recording is, F-D is unable to muster anything near the intensity, power, identification and great warmth delivered by Hotter. I know no better version, certainly not Hotter’s own complete recording with Solti from 1965. By then his voice had deteriorated markedly. It is still a wonderful interpretation, but here, eight years earlier he has the same insight and the voice is in so much better shape. It is a shame that the planned Columbia Ring, which was the reason for Birgit Nilsson to sign an exclusive contract in 1957, never came to be. I presume Hotter was the obvious choice for Wotan even then. Just as I write this, listening to the recording over headphones, Hotter sings Der Augen leuchtendes Paar and I can’t help my eyes filling with tears, so full of feeling is his singing.
The “fillers” – the four Schubert songs recorded in 1949 – are on the same exalted level and will probably never be surpassed. Others, notably Fischer-Dieskau, have made Schubert interpretations of the same quality but none better, and the voice eight years younger is an even more flexible and pliant instrument than in the Wagner scenes. There is some background noise but nothing that detracts much from the musical experience.
Bonus Tracks are obviously “in” at the moment and here we get the very young Hotter, not yet thirty, showing great maturity and insight. The sound is surprisingly good, but there is a great deal of noise from an obviously worn shellac. The orchestra sounds good although there is some distortion, and Hotter’s voice rings out impressively.
The “documentation” is limited to a simple track list.
I am still wondering a little about the copyright situation, but that is of course not my problem. I have not heard the Testament issue, which might be preferable on technical grounds, but I derived much pleasure from this issue and, as I have already stressed, better Wagner (and Schubert) singing is hard to imagine.
Göran Forsling





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