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La Nilsson
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle [4:50]
Die Walküre: Der Männer Sippe saβ hier im Saal [4:27]
Du bist der Lenz [2:15]
Lohengrin: Einsam in trüben Tagen [5:46]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Oberon: Ozean! Du ungeheuer! [9:19]
Der Freischütz: Leise, leise [8:52]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio: Abscheulicher! [7:19]
Ah, perfido! [13:36]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Edward Downes
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, May-June 1963
Adolphe Charles ADAM (1803-1856)
O Holy Night [4:26]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Ave Maria (arr. from Bach) [2:48]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Panis angelicus [4:06]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787-1863)
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht [4:02]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Åke Levén (organ)
rec. Stockholm, August 1963
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0901 [72:21]
Experience Classicsonline

Nearly all the items on this compilation have been released before in various incarnations - except Ah, perfido! which here receives its first issue on CD - but this is the first time they have been joined together as one recital.  It’s very satisfying and showcases Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) in her strongest repertoire with some things you would expect, and a fair few that you wouldn’t.
 
This is Nilsson’s home territory, the German Romantics, but unusually most of the heroines represented in the arias are innocent girls, no warrior maidens or ice princesses.  Her Elisabeth in Dich, teure Halle is commanding and imperious, not young and naïve, while Nilsson makes a somewhat detached – some might say matronly – Sieglinde.  Elsa’s vision from Lohengrin is suitably other-worldly, though you get the impression she is about to eat her accusers alive!  So there’s little in the way of characterisation in these Wagner numbers, but as a sheer display of great singing it’s all pretty marvellous, and I’d have jumped at the chance to hear her live in any of these roles.  Ozean begins imperiously and rises to a mighty climax, while Agathe’s aria transports us into her own passion and anticipation: the conclusion to Leise, leise is truly ecstatic.  Nilsson gives a truly dramatic Abscheulicher, which then melts into a Komm Hoffnung of grand conviction, and she inhabits both the drama and tenderness of Ah, perfido! very convincingly.  Downes and the orchestra serve this music beautifully, with well-judged pacing and playing, but they know they’re not the stars and retreat so as to let Nilsson take centre-stage.  She is also supported by Decca’s characteristically excellent sound of the 1960s: over many years engineer Kenneth Wilkinson built up a close working relationship with Nilsson, not least in the Solti Ring, and she clearly saw him as a trusted colleague.
 
After the arias the sacred songs are rather less convincing.  Nilsson had an edge of steel to her voice which made her Isolde and Turandot so thrilling but really doesn’t work for O Holy Night.  Still, this is a highly recommendable compilation for anyone who wants a sampler of the great soprano’s work, especially at bargain price.  The booklet note contains some entertaining information about Nilsson’s life but very little about the music and no texts or translations.
 
By the way, La Nilsson is also the title of Birgit Nilsson’s autobiography: Sweden (1995) and Germany (1997). Northeastern University Press published the English language version in 2007 (ISBN-13: 978-1555536701).
 
Simon Thompson 


 


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