third act of Die Walküre was recorded during the first
Bayreuth Festival after the war, now under the leadership of
Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner. It was a year that also produced
the legendary Parsifal recording under Knappertsbusch,
a likewise legendary Meistersinger under Karajan and
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Furtwängler – the latter being
the opening performance of the festival.
the Ring all that was issued at the time was this third
act. It is interesting for several reasons, one being the opportunity
to hear more than a glimpse of the fairly young Karajan almost
two decades before he recorded the complete Ring under
studio conditions for DG. By then he had mellowed and presented
ultra-refined playing by the Berlin Philharmonic. Compared to
Solti’s spectacular Decca cycle – the two super-maestros overlapped
more or less with Die Walküre, Karajan tended to pale.
This was also down to his choice of soloists, who, in line with
the elderly Karajan’s approach, were excellent but generally
a size smaller than Solti’s supercharged giants. Thus Solti’s
Sieglinde, Régine Crespin, appeared as Brünnhilde, while Gundula
Janowitz who was at that stage still very much a Mozartean,
sang Sieglinde. Thomas Stewart, however deep-probing and articulate
was undoubtedly a size smaller than the magisterial but somewhat
shaky Hans Hotter for Solti. All that said, in 1951 he had
at his disposal three singers who were, or were to become, legends
in their respective roles.
this stage Karajan was also a more thrilling, more spontaneous
conductor, less polished perhaps but more exuberant. The
Ride of the Walküre, for instance, has a vitality that is
absolutely stirring. Through the rest of the act he in turn
urges on and holds back his singers to capture the ebb and flow
of the music and the drama. Sometimes he is almost too eager.
The opening words of Wotan’s final monologue, Leb’ wohl,
du kühnes, herrliches Kind! are almost drenched by the orchestra,
but that is a small price to pay for the intensity of the performance.
The concluding Magic Fire Music is played with immense
power and beauty.
sonic quality is hardly competitive, not even with the Keilberth
Ring, recorded just five years later and recently issued
on Testament in excellent stereo. For its age it isn’t bad,
however, and in spite of the limitations of dynamics, frequency
range and mono recording it gives a good aural picture of what
was happening on the Bayreuth stage – and in the pit. There
are some stage noises, but far less than on many later live
recordings. There are odd patches of coughing from the audience,
but in the main they are very well behaved.
eight Walküres are a fine breed with an especially impressive
Gerhilde in the otherwise completely unknown Brünnhild Friedland
– a fitting name for a Wagner soprano! In general I am none
too fond of this first scene. In some performances with an insensitive
conductor the end result can be more squealing than singing.
This octet is in the main palatable.
is, however, for the three main soloists that one wants this
recording. Leonie Rysanek, only 24 at the time, was a sensation
and continued to be in the top flight for several decades. In
act 3 she has little to sing, but what she has is gloriously
done. Track 3 on this disc opens with her Nicht sehre dich
Sorge um mich and her final outburst, at the end of the
track, O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!, is something
for the desert island. She sang the role three years later in
Furtwängler’s complete studio recording but then she was in
uncharacteristically occluded voice during much of the first
act, where of course most of her role is located. She was much
better on Böhm’s Bayreuth recording for Philips from the mid-1960s.
Here though, with the freshness of youth, she makes a very believable
Varnay had, since her sensational Met debut ten years earlier,
become the supreme Hochdramatische soprano, by the side
of Flagstad who was nearing the end of her luminous career.
This was before Birgit Nilsson hit the international scene.
Still only 33 there is no denying that her diet of heavy roles
had already started to take its toll. War es so schmählich
(tr. 6) is a bit gushy and not absolutely steady. She can be
shrill and over-vibrant at times but her involvement and expressiveness
is never in question. O sag, Vater! sieh mir ins Auge
(also tr. 6) is inward and beautiful and then expands magnificently.
During the early 1950s she recorded several scenes from Wagner
operas for DG, in several cases partnered by Wolfgang Windgassen.
I collected these on LPs and they still have an honoured place
– though severely worn by now – in my collection. Here, spurred
by the live occasion, she is even more engaging.
the best reason, though, for acquiring this disc is Sigurd Björling.
He was Swedish, born in 1907 and not related to Jussi Björling.
He had a long career at the Stockholm Opera in a wide variety
of roles for more than thirty years, making his debut in 1936,
mainly as a Wagner specialist, an international one. His was
a true baritone with ringing top and superb articulation of
the text. Both vocally and scenically he had tremendous authority.
I was lucky to hear him in Stockholm more than twenty years
after this recording, when he guest appeared as Wotan and Der
Wanderer. By then he was 65 and his delivery was rather laboured.
That said, the authority, the power and the declamation were
unimpaired. In the sparse, minimalist staging by Folke Abenius
and Jan Brazda his was a towering, formidable ruler of Walhalla.
Most Wotans are bass-baritones or even pure basses, which vouches
for weight and gravity. Often this also means that the uppermost
register poses problems and can result in barking. Björling’s
brilliant top allows him to sing Du meines Herzens heiligster
Stolz! (tr. 9 – just a few bars into the Leb’ wohl
monologue) with a freedom and natural flow to cap any other
performance I can remember. He also has nuances aplenty at his
disposal. He sings Der Augen leuchtendes Paar (tr. 10)
with subdued warmth and almost a tear in the voice. At the same
time there is no lack of depth and he characterises all Wotan’s
mixed feelings. He is formidable in his anger in scene 2: Wo
ist Brünnhild’, wo die Verbrecherin? (tr. 4) and one can
see his distorted face when he snarls: wie ihren Wert von
sich sie warf! He may be over-emphatic in his evocation
of Loge (tr. 11) but he is certainly magnificent in his final
words: Wer mein Speeres Spitze fürchtet, durchschreite das
Feuer nie! That Sigurd Björling isn’t better known today
is, no doubt, due to the lack of recorded evidence of his greatness.
He made recordings in Sweden during the 78 rpm era but this
is, I believe, his only commercial international recording.
always with GROC issues there are lavish documentation, photographs
and full texts and translations in English, German and French.
Of historical Wagner recordings the first act of Die Walküre,
with Bruno Walter, Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior, is a
classic. This conclusion of the same opera should have the same
status. Not to be missed!
EMI Great Recordings of the Century page