Kirsten Flagstad - The Supreme Wagnerian Soprano
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano), various orchestras, conductors and pianists
rec. 1923–1952
Full tracklist at end of review
EMI CLASSICS ICON SERIES 50999 4 55346 2 1 [5 CDs: 77:31 + 78:31 + 77:11 + 66:22 + 78:20]
"No one within living memory surpassed her in sheer beauty and consistency of line and tone." (New Grove); "The greatest soprano of this century” (Rudolf Bing). These are only two random commentaries on the greatness of Kirsten Flagstad. The recordings on this issue only serve to endorse these verdicts.
Born in Hamar on Lake Mjösa in Norway she very early learnt to play the piano from her pianist mother. After further studies in Oslo she made her stage debut at the age of eighteen. The next twenty years she spent in Norway and Sweden, appearing in operettas and various operas. It was not until 1935, after appearances at Bayreuth, that she was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera, where she over-night became a superstar. She made song recordings as early as 1914 and then in 1923 and 1929; some of these can be heard on the present issue. Unfortunately no recordings of operatic arias exist until 1935, after her great break-through. But we have to be grateful that anything at all from her formative years has been preserved. On the two last tracks on CD 2 we encounter a 28-year-old Flagstad and we immediately recognize her voice, in spite of the primitive acoustic recording. The tone is lighter and more silvery, and the sides set down in January 1929 display the same characteristics: a more youthful voice but the power is undoubtedly there and we should be aware of the fact that she had already been singing Aida and Tosca and that her first Wagner role, Elsa in Lohengrin, was in the pipeline within months. These are fascinating issues and one can wonder why nobody was imaginative enough to record her in at least a couple of arias. It would have been great to hear her as Tosca and Aida for instance and maybe even more thrilling lyrical roles like Marguerite.
On CD 2 and CD 3 there are also a handful of songs recorded in 1936 and 1937 with her regular accompanist for many years Edwin McArthur but the rest of the material is from the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she was already well past fifty. But her voice was still in mint condition and her insight even greater than a decade earlier. CD 1 with songs and arias from Baroque and early Classicism may not be, stylistically, what we expect today but there is no mistaking the nobility of the readings. I was deeply moved by the first five standard arias and among the Canzone scordate I was particularly impressed by the songs of C.P.E. Bach.
Grieg was a favourite for Kirsten Flagstad and I have known the recordings on CD 2 these many years. I had intended just to sample some of them but was so captivated that I listened through all eighteen. Few singers have got to the core of this music as Flagstad did. Of the other Norwegian songs Alf Hurum’s Blonde naetter was new to me – and a very pleasant acquaintance at that.
On CD 3 we get some well known Lieder and some very attractive Norwegian songs. Schubert’s Die Allmacht gets a monumental reading, while Frühlingsglaube is marred by heavy rubato and lacks freshness. Wanderers Nachtlied is more majestic than truly inward. Beethoven’s Die Ehre Gottes is glorious, though uncommonly restrained. The two Strauss songs – of which Cäcilie shows Flagstad at her very best as a song interpreter – are a reminder that the composer had heard her in Bayreuth in 1933, where he offered her the soprano part in Beethoven’s symphony No. 9, and much later invited her to premiere his Vier letzte Lieder. Alas Strauss didn’t live long enough to hear them.
Frank Bridge’s Love went a-riding is lively and dramatic. A gem! Arne Dørumsgaard, who is probably better known as an arranger of older music, was also a composer in his own right and the seven songs here are vital and grateful for a dramatic singer. Hjuring-lokk is a riveting piece and so is the concluding Alle mann hadde fota.
And so we reach what most readers are waiting for: Flagstad as the supreme Wagner soprano. No one will be disappointed. The Wesendonck-Lieder from 1948 with piano accompaniment (by the ever-sensitive Gerald Moore) are wonderful readings, inward and full of feeling. She recorded them again a decade later for Decca with Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, but good as they are this version with piano is even better. Few singers have equalled Flagstad here. The Tannhäuser aria is also desert island stuff with luminous tone and exquisite phrasing.
The remaining space on CD 3 and three tracks on CD 4 find her in harness with her favourite tenor Set Svanholm. He was a brilliant singer, not as sonorous as Melchior but definitely the most dramatic and accurate of his generation. These recordings should be in every decent Wagner collection and it is a pity there was no room for the love duet from Tristan und Isolde with the two Scandinavians. The last track on CD 4 is the even more unforgettable Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung with Furtwängler and it is unsurpassed!
On CD 5 we are offered five substantial chunks from the complete Tristan und Isolde, again with Furtwängler at the helm. This is by many regarded as the best ever recording of the work – and who am I to deny that verdict? Maybe there have been greater Brangänes – Christa Ludwig on Karl Böhm’s Bayreuth set from the mid-1960s – but Blanche Thebom, Swedish-born like Svanholm, is more than acceptable. There have also been more charismatic Tristans than Suthaus, but he too is well in the picture and, contrary to many exponents of the role, he sings it, never resorting to shouting. The complete recording, available on several labels, is always preferable but those who feel life is satisfactory with only highlights will feel more than content with these 78 minutes.
Flagstad lovers who lack some or most of these recordings need no encouragement to buy this set; those unfamiliar with “The Voice of the Century” should without delay place their orders. To get a fuller picture of Flagstad they will also need her mid-1930s American recordings for RCA Victor, including Grieg’s Haugtussa and a number of arias by Beethoven, Weber and Wagner. They are available on Naxos 8.110725. For the very late Flagstad her Decca recordings, now available at super-budget price on Australian Eloquence, will give an even fuller picture. Especially the Wagner recordings and the songs by Grieg and Sibelius are essential. Such a collection will give pleasure for uncountable hours to come. But start with this EMI box. “The Voice of the Century”, indeed!
Göran Forsling
The Voice of the Century!

Full Tracklist:-
Kirsten Flagstad - The Supreme Wagnerian Soprano
CD 1 [77:31]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
1. Fronde tenere … Ombra mai fu (Serse) [4:31]
2. I know that my redeemer liveth (Messiah) [7:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)
3. Erbarme dich, mein Gott (St Matthew Passion) [8:51]
Henry PURCELL (1659 – 1695)
4. Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth (Dido and Aeneas) [4:51]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714 – 1787)
5. Che faro (Orfeo ed Euridice) [4:19]
Songs from the anthology Canzone scordate (Arr Arne Dørumsgaard)
Johannes CRÜGER (1598 – 1662)
6. Auf, auf, mein Herz mir Freude [1:49]
Georg BÖHM (1661 – 1733)
7. Geh ein, mein Leib, in deine Kammer [3:25]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 – 1788)
8. Die Güte Gottes [2:01]
9. Busslied (An dir allein) [4:29]
10. Passionslied [3:16]
11. Preis sei dem Gotte [1:39]
Johann Sebastian BACH
12. Vergiss mein nicht [4:17]
13. O finstre Nacht [4:02]
14. Liebster Herr Jesu [3:23]
15. Komm, süsser Tod [4:19]
16. Dir, dir, Jehova [1:46]
Wolfgang FRANCK (1641 – 1700)
17. Wie seh’ ich dich, mein Jesu, bluten [3:08]
18. Sei nur still [1:51]
19. Auf, auf! zu Gottes Lob! [1:16]
Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605 – 1674)
20. Soccorretemi, ch’io moro [2:05]
Johann LÖHNER (1645 – 1705)
21. O Ewigkeit [4:08]
CD 2 [78:31]
Norwegian Songs
Edvard GRIEG (1843 – 1907)
1. En drøm Op 48 No. 6 [2:26]
2. Tak for dit Råd, Op. 21 No. 4 [1:09]
3. Våren, Op. 33 No. 2 [6:23]
4. Fra Monte Pincio, Op. 39 No. 1 [5:59]
5. Guten, Op. 33 No. 1 [2:59]
6. Eros, Op. 70 No. 1 [3:13]
7. Ved Rundarne, Op. 33 No. 9 [3:22]
8. Ein Traum, Op. 48 No. 6 [2:22]
9. En svane, Op. 25 No. 2 [3:27]
10. Den Saerde, Op. 33 No. 3 [4:10]
11. Med en vandlilje, Op. 25 No. 4 [2:31]
12. Prinsessen (1871) [3:10]
13. Langs ei Å Op. 33 No. 5 [2:14]
14. Mens jeg venter, Op. 60 No. 3 [2:46]
15. Med en Primula veris, Op. 25 No. 4 [2:14]
16. Og jeg vil ha mig en Hjertenskjaer, Op. 60 No. 5 [1:26]
17. Modersorg, Op. 15 No. 4 [3:21]
18. Solveigs sang (Peer Gynt) [3:16]
Alf HURUM (1882 – 1972)
19. Blonde naetter, Op. 13 No. 1 [3:48]
Sigurd LIE (1871 – 1904)
20. Lykken mellom to mennesker [2:50]
Ole BULL (1810 – 1880)
21. Saeterjentens Søndag [3:15]
Edvard GRIEG
22. Millom Rosor, Op. 39 No. 4 {2:10]
Agathe BACKER-GRØNDAHL (1847 – 1907)
24. Mot kveld, Op. 42 No. 7 [2:25]
Christian SINDING (1856 – 1941)
25. Majnat, Op. 22 No. 3 [3:07]
CD 3 [77:11]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
1. Die Allmacht, D852 [4:56]
2. Frühlingsglaube, D686 [3:35]
3. Wanderers Nachtlied II, D768 [2:35]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
4. Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Op. 48 No. 4 [3:04]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
5. Seitdem dein Aug’, Op. 17 No. 1 [2:13]
6. Cäcilie, Op. 27 No. 2 [1:49]
Frank BRIDGE (1879 – 1941)
7. Love went a-riding [1:37]
Arne DØRUMSGAARD (1921 – 2006)
8. Gudrin stod ved stoveglas, Op. 11 No. 2 [2:14]
9. Natt, Op. 4 No. 1 [2:09]
10. Regn, Op. 6 No. 2 [1:16]
11. Hjuring-lokk, Op. 8 No. 5 [1:43]
12. Spinnvettir, Op. 10 No. 1 [2:02]
13. Baan sull, Op. 11 NO. 1 [1:51]
14. Alle mann hadde fota, Op. 21 No. 2 [1:21]
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
15. Der Engel [3:48]
16. Stehe still! [3:59]
17. Im Treibhaus [4:41]
18. Schmerzen [2:43]
19. Träume [4:34]
20. Allmächt’ge Jungfrau (Tannhäuser) [6:04]
21. Siegmund! Sieh auf mich! (Die Walküre) [18:04]
(Tr. 21 with Set Svanholm)
CD 4 [66:22]
1. Heil dir, Sonne! (Siegfried) [32:10]
2. Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde [12:18]
3. Helle Wehr! Heilige Waffe! [2:41]
(tr. 1 – 3 with Set Svanholm)
4. Starke Scheite [19:02]
CD 5 [78:20]
Tristan und Isolde
1. Doch nun von Tristan [11:59]
2. Hörst du sie noch? [13:20]
3. Isolde! Tristan! Geliebter! [19:49]
4. O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe [25:49]
5. Mild und Leise [7:13]
(Tr. 1 – 4 with Blanche Thebom, tr. 3, 4 with Ludwig Suthaus)
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano), various orchestras, conductors and pianists
rec. 1923 – 1952
EMI CLASSICS ICON SERIES 50999 4 55346 2 1 [5 CDs: 77:31 + 78:31 + 77:11 + 66:22 + 78:20]