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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Sydney Opera House Gala Opening Concert
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Prelude [10:02]
Tannhäuser (1845): Dich, teure Halle [3:31]
Tristan und Isolde (1859): Prelude [11:24]; Liebestod [7:13]
Götterdämmerung (1874): Siegfried's Journey to the Rhine [12:55]; Siegfried's Funeral March [9:41]; Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene [18:51]
with bonus DVD [approx. 47 min.]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) [image]
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, 29 September 1973
ABC CLASSICS 476 6440 [74:15]
Experience Classicsonline

This CD and DVD set is one of the “Australian Masters” series issued by ABC Classics and commemorates one of the most important cultural events in Australian history. On the evening of 29 September 1973 the brand new Sydney Opera House opened the doors of its Concert Hall to the public for the first time. The all-Wagner concert was conducted by the home-coming Sir Charles Mackerras in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. The world’s greatest Wagnerian soprano, Birgit Nilsson was engaged to sing her most famous roles of Elisabeth, Isolde and Brünnhilde. By any definition, this was a great occasion.

The question is, is it worth buying this more as a souvenir or purely for its artistic merits? There are a few caveats; the curse of the consumptive audience-member strikes, as always, at the quietest moments, particularly during the lovely passage which bridges the Journey to the Rhine and Siegfried’s Funeral Music and there are, as is so often the case in live recording, a few bloopers from the horns to endure. Nor am I sure, despite, the encomiums I have read elsewhere, that Birgit Nilsson is in her very best voice: the top notes are sometimes a little more tentative and curtailed than I have heard elsewhere, and I cannot agree with the verdict from “Gramophone” that she “is in some ways even finer than in the complete recordings on which she appears”. A comparison with the Solti “Ring” reveals her to be in even more refulgent voice in 1964, but Nilsson’s second-best is still miles better than anyone else’s top form. The transmission was made before colour TV was introduced in Australia, in 1975, so it is in grainy black and white. ABC was at that time too short-sighted to broadcast the whole concert on television; thus we have a visual record of only the second half of the concert., being the “Götterdämmerung” excerpts, although as the camera-work is less than inspired, perhaps this is no great loss. We never see a close-up of Nilsson singing and there isn’t much variety of shot; the camera plays mostly on Mackerras or the top of Miss Nilsson’s head, and in the conclusion of the Immolation scene we are treated to a lengthy and irritating superimposition of the conductor over the orchestra. In truth, the supplementary DVD has little more than curiosity value and I would concentrate upon the CD content. 

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays at its considerable peak and Mackerras seems very much at home in Wagner, even if that music has not played a major part in his career. The “Meistersinger” overture is very attractively played but hasn’t the swagger and élan of, say, Stokowski in his famous 1972 live London performance and the hackers get going early on. The “Tristan” goes very well; the coughers take a break, the cellos sing out the “Sehnsucht” theme melodiously and Mackerras is wholly in control of the pacing. He builds those mounting waves of sound carefully and eases authoritatively into a lovely “Liebestod”, culminating in a ravishing ppp on “höchste Lust” from Nilsson - although she is not quite as steady as in the live 1966 Böhm recording. The showpieces from “Götterdämmerung” are superb; grand, spacious accounts which breathe and shimmer - although some might prefer more thrust at the start of the Immolation scene which verges on the stodgy, but it soon picks up. Nilsson here refutes the accusation that she sometimes skates over the words and inflects the text sensitively as well as unleashing that laser voice.

The sound is good; natural but slightly opaque, conveying the spacious ambience of the new hall and there is sometimes in evidence a background noise which might be the air-conditioning. The enthusiastic applause, judiciously edited, indicates how much the audience appreciated the concert. I do not necessarily think that anyone who already has Nilsson in other recordings need rush out to acquire this set. Unless you have a sentimental attachment to these discs as mementos of an historic event, the performances by Mackerras, good as they are, are not essentially self-recommending when there are so many other fine Wagner compilations on the market. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable souvenir of a special evening.

Ralph Moore 

 


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