Böhm/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 1967 (Philips 4460572)
Keilberth/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 28 July 1955 (Testament
Knappertsbusch/Bayreuth FO , rec. live 1951 (Testament SBT4175)
Barenboim/Bayreuth FO, rec. live 1992 (Teldec 4509941942)
Flagstad/Furtwängler/PO, rec. live 1950 (Testament SBT1410)
Traubel/Toscanini/NBCSO, rec. live 1940 (Guild Historical
Goodall/Sadler’s Wells, rec. studio 1972 (Chandos CHAN6593)
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.