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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876)
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) - Siegfried; Han Hotter (baritone) - Gunther; Josef Greindl (bass) - Hagen; Gustav Neidlinger (bass) - Alberich; Martha Mödl (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano) - Gutrune; Maria von Ilosvay (mezzo) - Waltraute, 1. Norn; Georgine von Milinkovič (contralto) - 2. Norn; Astrid Varnay (mezzo) - 3. Norn; Jutta Vulpius (soprano) - Woglinde; Elisabeth Schärtel (mezzo) - Wellgunde; Maria Graf (contralto) - Flosshilde
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Joseph Keilberth
rec. live, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Germany, 14 August 1955
TESTAMENT SBT41433 [4 CDs: 60:24 + 56:45 + 66:25 + 78:24]

 

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Selected comparisons:

Götterdämmerung

Böhm/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 1967 (Philips 4460572)
Keilberth/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 28 July 1955 (Testament SBT41393)
Knappertsbusch/Bayreuth FO , rec. live 1951 (Testament SBT4175)
Barenboim/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 1992 (Teldec 4509941942)

Immolation scene
Flagstad/Furtwängler/PO, rec. live 1950 (Testament SBT1410)
Traubel/Toscanini/NBCSO, rec. live 1940 (Guild Historical GHCD2242-43)

Final scenes
Goodall/Sadler’s Wells, rec. studio 1972 (Chandos CHAN6593)

As Martha Mödl’s Third Norn in 1951 sings ‘the last day of the eternal gods will dawn once for all’ she digs deep within her being and prefigures all the majesty, the drama and cosmic power of Götterdämmerung.  The effect is so gripping that I almost regretted that Mödl was not the Brünnhilde.

Well the Walhalla gods have smiled.  Wagnerians will know of the live Keilberth Bayreuth Götterdämmerung recorded by Decca on Thursday 28 July 1955 and finally issued by Testament in 2006.  This is the alternate Decca recording of the ‘second cycle’ recorded on Sunday 14 August 1955, also in stereo.  The cast is again drawn from Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner’s carefully trained stable of singers. Now Martha Mödl leads as Brünnhilde and we also hear Hans Hotter’s Hagen. Astrid Varnay is Third Norn.

There will no doubt be discussions about whether Varnay or Mödl’s Brünnhilde is superior.  Many will argue, with good reason, that with so many riches on offer such rankings are superfluous.  Anyway, Mödl is the key reason for investing in this set and I would argue that her Brünnhilde is well worth the expense.  Varnay is remembered as one of the greatest Wagnerian singers. However, for all her dramatic insights, steadiness and generosity with legato I am bothered by her fruity tone and constant swelling into notes.  Her seeming unwillingness or inability to hit so many notes squarely in the opening duet is particularly irritating.

Mödl will also not be to all tastes.  As so often with this singer vocal production can sound like an effort is being made, especially where she overuses the chest voice or needs to negotiate top notes.  Her final “Heil” in the duet has little of Varnay’s shine or stamina and is also an example of Mödl’s occasionally tenuous intonation.  Mödl is also prone to scooping, although this is never bothersome to the extent we hear under Varnay.

The key reason why Mödl remains one of the great Brünnhildes is her ability to evoke Brünnhilde’s torment and explore the ex-goddess’s new-found humanity.  As Peter Conrad argued in A Song of Love and Death, Wagner wanted to move beyond the Italian model but packed into Götterdämmerung numerous Italian opera staples.  Few Brünnhildes can encompass the ensuing emotions so successfully as love triangles, betrayal, revenge and tangled subplots build with miraculous cumulative force.

This dramatic intensity is borne out through clear diction, innate dramatic intelligence and Mödl’s rich mezzo-gone-up lower register. This becomes the basis for an extraordinary range of colours.  Brünnhilde’s very opening lines establish the basic mellowness of the voice.  The youthful bright tones of a Hunter or Nilsson may be missing but dramatic tragedy is instantly established. Such acting is especially moving as Brünnhilde digs down to the depths of her soul moving from incomprehension to fury at Siegfried’s betrayal in Act II and when she rejects Waltraute’s demands.

The Immolation is grandly conceived, moving and disturbing.  Mödl begins shakily as she overextends (for breath?) the pause before “des hehresten”. Several later top notes are somewhat negotiated rather than rung out.  Look to Hunter, Flagstad and Traubel for sovereign line and lift here.  The whole central section has extraordinary inwardness as Mödl pays tribute to the passing of the gods.  Here she scales right down almost to a hush at “daβ wissend würde ein Weib!”, later intertwining with the basses and horns for “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!””.  Finally, as with her Third Norn, Mödl pushes out the drama, firing the lines from deep within her being as Brünnhilde summons Loge to Walhalla.  Keilberth is especially impressive here too as the brass dig in and the strings emulate rising flames combining a clear singing line with strong rhythmic attack. Finally Brünnhilde makes one last great heroic stand and Keilberth broadens the tempo most naturally providing an altar on which Mödl pours out the most noble and affecting singing. More than any other performance the listener is profoundly aware that Brünnhilde is a person making a great sacrifice and about to die.

Hotter’s Gunther is impressive yet he sounds too authoritative and one voice size too big to completely fit such a flawed character.  This Gunther certainly does not sound a sibling match for Gré Brouwenstijn’s Gutrune.  Her basic tone is radiant and lyrical but the inherent tremulousness which undermined her Sieglinde in the first cycle Walkure is here an asset, figuring Gutrune’s neurosis and weakness.  As the object of Gutrune’s machinations Windgassen’s Siegfried again lays claim to be one of the finest on record.  From the opening sunny, youthful tone to his faltering final lines he is fully the faithful unfaithful hero.

The Bayreuth orchestra plays well for Keilberth but the upper brass can tend towards a squall with the trumpets in particular sounding too tight.  They are no match for their Bayreuth successors under Barenboim but Keilberth’s conducting which develops a clearer line throughout is definitely preferable.  Everything feels in place and alive under Keilberth’s well sung approach.  And unlike Böhm, who can lean forward too hard, Keilberth always allows the music to sing naturally.  Keilberth’s Immolation was impressive but not devastating on Thursday 28 July 1955.  By Sunday 14 August there is an extra fission which does suggest a world’s end.

Decca’s stereo sound is amazing for its day, especially when compared with the distant orchestral images in the 1953 Krauss Ring and, worse, 1956 Knappertsbusch Ring.  There are, as in the first Decca 1955 cycle, compression and shifts in perspective which, for example, undermine the line Keilberth builds in the opening of the Funeral March.  Shifts in perspective are also perceptible when the acoustic takes on an added bloom.  Who cares about distant audience coughs, backstage chatter as Siegfried journeys down the Rheine and tape hum at the start of the Funeral March?  For me anyway, such things add atmosphere to this important archive recording.

Testament’s presentation in this £43 set falls below the high standards in its series of Bayreuth releases and will disappoint collectors.  There is no cued synopsis, no separate artist biographies and only five photographs.  Two of these photographs are also reproduced in the Varnay set.  At least Testament ditched the cardboard sleeves in place of a protective jewel box, albeit one that seems more reluctant to release CDs 2 and 3 than Brünnhilde is to return the Ring to Waltraute.  Mike Ashman’s essay is illuminating, especially where he recounts how Mödl felt she was unlucky in love as she did not approach life with the same intensity she lived on stage.  Ashman does discuss Mödl, Hotter and Keilberth. The libretto can be downloaded from Testament’s website but the quality is nothing special and I lost patience cutting out the pages from the printed sheets.

Let’s conclude with a small story which says much.  EMI wished to release the RAI Italian broadcast tapes of Furtwängler’s live 1953 Ring in which Mödl was also Brünnhilde. They set about making proper payments and obtaining agreements from the performers involved.  Mödl, ever the generous artist, was enthusiastic for the Ring to be published and apparently offered to transfer her rights for payment to any colleagues who had since fallen on hard times.

David Harbin

 

 


 


 




 


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