seems almost unbelievable that it was so long ago. It was
on 5 September 1964 that I bought the LP containing the
first seven titles on this disc. Less than a month earlier
I had acquired my first stereo gramophone and this was
my third stereo recording. It goes without saying that
I can’t be fully objective when assessing a recording that
I have known for so long. I think I know every inflection,
every turn of phrase and the tingle factor is further enhanced
by the fact that the arias are here presented in the same
order as on the original LP. Why it has never before been
released on CD I can’t understand. Practically everything
else Birgit Nilsson did has been available in various concoctions.
The concert aria, Ah, perfido!
, which was recorded
a few weeks after the opera excerpts, was issued on a 45
rpm record. Somewhere in the early eighties it was included
in a 2-LP set together with the German arias and some Verdi
arias from another recital of about the same vintage.
1963 Nilsson was no newcomer on the international scene.
She had made her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1946,
singing Agathe in Der Freischütz
, so there is special
importance in having the aria Leise, leise
here. She was soon discovered by the international stages
and sang at Glyndebourne as early as 1951. From there it
was but a small step to Bayreuth and then the ball was
rolling. Readers who want an in-depth portrait of her may
find a few things of interest in my obituary
many ways Birgit Nilsson was at the height of her powers
in the early-to-mid-1960s. She was deeply experienced,
having by then settled for the roles she knew suited her
best. Only Electra
and Die Frau ohne Schatten
later added. At 45 her voice was still in perfect shape
and listening to her in stereo for the first time back
in 1964 was like sitting in the midst of a tornado, effortlessly
riding a Covent Garden Orchestra at full blast. Just listen
to the power, the brilliance, the glorious tone and those
gleaming high notes, absolutely straight. More than one
commentator has likened those notes to a laser-beam. All
of this was quite bewildering. I felt the same thrill when
I returned to the recordings I knew so well. But as a reviewer
I felt I had to go deeper. Overwhelming sounds and technical
accomplishment is impressive enough but is there anything
else to her singing?
pernickety critic could probably claim that the readings
are not always so deep-probing. Maybe her friend and only
serious competitor Astrid Varnay – they were almost exactly
the same age – could invest the words with more meaning,
could colour the tone more individually. Maybe Hildegard
Behrens of a later generation was more psychologically
credible. Neither of them had the same vocal security.
Was Nilsson too cold? That is a criticism that has been
directed towards her, especially in Italian repertoire.
However, listen to Elsa’s dream from Lohengrin
or Agathe’s Leise, leise
: how she scales down her
voice, lightens the tone to almost maidenly dimensions.
There is a frailty and vulnerability there that verges
on the heavenly sounds of a Victoria de los Angeles. She
lacks the creamy tones and the soft inwardness of a Régine
Crespin – she sings several of the same Wagnerian excerpts
on an HMV LP from about the same time. On the other hand
neither de los Angeles nor Crespin could have greeted the
hall at Wartburg with Nilsson’s jubilant glory. Nor could
they have overpowered the ocean in the Oberon
It is true that her phrasing can be a bit unwieldy in fast
passages. She was no coloratura and her two recordings
of Donna Anna’s part in Don Giovanni
are not free
from awkward moments.
my own reservations I still feel that this is a recital
that should be heard by every lover of great singing. Turbo-qualities
there are aplenty but there is great sensitivity as well.
four sacred songs that round off the disc were recorded
at the Gustav Vasa Church at Odenplan in Stockholm on 3
August 1963. They were issued on an EP, aimed at the domestic
Swedish market, and O holy night
and Silent night
sung in Swedish. Some years ago these songs were issued
on a Swedish Society CD in harness with the contents from
an LP recorded in 1977 (see review
I found it a disappointing issue with partly rather painful
singing. The redeeming factor was these four songs. Apart
from an impossibly slow Silent Night
it Eternal Night
) they are valuable documents of
Nilsson in repertoire she isn’t exactly associated with – at
least not internationally.
recordings are as good as I remembered them – and sounding
much better on today’s equipment than on my rather cheap
turntable in the 1960s. There is an informative and entertainingly
written essay on Birgit by Raymond Tuttle.
see also review by Simon Thompson