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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre – Act III (1870)
Astrid Varnay (soprano) … Brünnhilde
Leonie Rysanek (soprano) … Sieglinde
Sigurd Björling (bass-baritone) … Wotan
Maria Graf (mezzo) ... Rossweisse
Hilde Scheppan (soprano) … Helmwige
Eleanor Lausch (soprano) … Ortlinde
Brunnhild Friedland (soprano) … Gerhilde
Elfriede Wild (soprano) … Waltraute
Hertha Topper (mezzo) … Siegrüne
Ira Malaniuk (mezzo) … Grimgerde
Ruth Siewert (contralto) … Schwertleite
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live, Festivalhouse, Bayreuth, 1951. ADD


I’m tired of Wagnerians looking to the past for great singing. As critic Hugh Canning noted following the poorly-cast 2007 Bayreuth Ring, every generation seems to hark back to a supposed golden age “only to be accused of cleaving to ancient, dust-gathering recordings and dyed-in-the-wool nostalgia” (Cycle of Despair, Sunday Times, 12 August 2007). Canning then discusses the glories of 1950s Bayreuth, notably captured on the live 1955 Keilberth Ring (Testament).

History certainly gave us the exceptional Melchiors and Flagstads. However on the basis of this 1951 Act III Walküre, the first complete Ring act recorded live in Wagner’s own Festival House, I am not convinced that today’s overall standards have fallen so drastically.

Leonie Rysanek’s gripping Sieglinde is certainly the stuff of legend. Sieglinde’s whole being seems to pour through Rysanek’s chesty soprano culminating in the most ecstatic cries “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!”.

Richard Osborne’s booklet essay notes that Sigurd Björling’s fine authoritative Wotan is marred by “occasional declamatory manner”. Legato should certainly not be top of Björling’s CV but the voice is solid and Björling does reveal Wotan’s dramatic journey from fury to resignation.

Hugh Canning specifically praises the Varnay-Windgassen-Hotter triptych in 1950 Ring performances. In 1951 Varnay fully connects with Brünnhilde’s predicament but her fruity tone is an acquired taste. Moreover Varnay’s mannerism of sliding into notes is frustrating, particularly as the results are impressive when she does choose to nail top-notes forte and cleanly.

Karajan’s energetic, passionate and poetic conducting really justifies this Act III Walküre’s inclusion as an EMI Classics ‘Great Recording of the Century’. The opening Ride blends airiness with power, mercifully avoiding Soltian bombast. Strings and brass seethe and stamp accompanying Wotan’s entrance. The great orchestral arch as Wotan kisses away Brünnhilde’s godhead almost rivals Furtwängler (1954 Naxos) for elastic tension through rubati as the violins hold the line and emerge shining from the crescendo’s apex. Karajan knows Wagner’s culmination points and his sense of structure is unerring.

The sound here includes shifts of perspective and understandable compression but there’s nothing annoying. The EMI microphones certainly capture a pleasing halo of resonance about the voices and there is a better sense of the Festival House stage acoustic than the contemporaneous Decca Götterdämmerung (Testament) where the microphones where closer. Where the Decca 1951 Götterdämmerung and 1955 Ring microphone placement really score is in bringing forward the colours of Wagner’s orchestration. That said, EMI’s engineers certainly caught the brass and timpani better than, say, the radio broadcast tapes of the famous 1953 Krauss Ring. And blame for the distant woodwind can partly be levelled at Karajan.

Our generation has assembled Walküre casts equal to or greater than this. For example Christine Brewer, Janice Watson and James Morris sang with Donald Runnicles conducting at a 2000 Proms concert. Or who can forget Meier, Terfel and Gasteen at the 2005 Proms? Going back further in living memory there was the powerful English National Opera team of Norman Bailey and Margaret Curphey with one of the greatest Brünnhildes of all: Rita Hunter.

Furthermore there is a better cast 1951 Walküre which is not from Bayreuth. Not far away in Geneva we have an impressive live concert performance under Robert Denzler (Walhall). The broadcast sound is mostly satisfactory and Denzler is not as consistently inspired as Karajan. But Helene Werth’s pure and passionate Sieglinde is a lyrical foil to Rysanek, revealing a beguiling youthfulness and vulnerability. Ludwig Hofmann’s Wotan shows some strain in Wagner’s higher writing but his rich resonant bass will make your spine tingle. It feels churlish to mention Georgine von Milinkovic’s tight vibrato because her Brünnhilde mixes bright metal, power, melting freshness and radiance. Take a teleological approach and sample Milinkovic’s final lines first: she soars upward and outward thrillingly extending the notes as Brünnhilde makes one last great stand; truly a goddess who cannot bear to let go. This is recorded history’s often overlooked ‘B’ cast and you should make their acquaintance.

EMI’s booklet includes a libretto with English and French translations, a background essay by Richard Osborne, cast photos and a reproduction of the dull original album cover.

David Harbin 

see also Review by Göran Forsling




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