Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Die Walküre - Acts I and III
CD 1
Act I [63:05]
Set Svanholm (tenor) - Siegmund; Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - Sieglinde; Arnold van Mill (bass) - Hunding; Wiener Philharmoniker/Hans Knappertsbusch
CD 2
Act III [71:08]
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Otto Edelmann (bass) - Wotan; Marianne Schech (soprano) - Sieglinde; Oda Balsborg (soprano) - Gerhilde; Ilona Steingruber (soprano) - Ortlinde; Grace Hoffman (mezzo) - Waltraute; Margaret Bence (contralto) - Schwertleite; Claire Watson (soprano) - Helmwige; Frieda Roesler (soprano) - Grimgerde; Annie Delorie (mezzo) - Siegrune; Hetty Plümacher (contralto) - Roßweiße; Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 13-17 May 1957 (Act III); Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, October 1957 (Act I)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 1892 [63:05 + 71:08]

When Kirsten Flagstad signed a contract with Decca she was already past sixty but her voice was still intact. She had the experience and stamina to carry through a comprehensive recording schedule during the next few years. For EMI she had set down Tristan und Isolde under Furtwängler and Dido and Aeneas under Geraint Jones. Now came - also with Jones - Gluck’s Alceste. Somewhat later she took the role as Fricka in Solti’s Das Rheingold, the first instalment in the first complete Ring des Nibelungen. Under Solti she recorded the third act of Die Walküre and the first act under Knappertsbusch. Decca also wanted her to set down act II, but Flagstad was reluctant and in the end she only recorded the Todesverkündigung with Solti and her long-time partner Set Svanholm. All these recordings and a great number of song recitals are now being reissued by Eloquence on fifteen CDs. In due time I will report on the total oeuvre.

These recordings of the two outer acts of Die Walküre are interesting also for the conductors’ views, since we here meet two great Wagnerians with almost diametrically opposite attitudes. Knappertsbusch was the great epic master, shaping long arcs of continuity and stressing the inherent beauty of the music; Solti was the dramatic, often stressing the thrill and intensity of the moment. The openings of the two acts are instructive - and also well suited to the two conductors’ temperaments. The act I prelude is no doubt dramatic in its dark menace, but it is also a kind of story-telling. Wagner paints the scene: outside a terrible storm, within Siegmund, exhausted and with throbbing heart - not only for running to seek shelter from the storm but also from as yet unknown pursuers. This is well depicted in Kna’s reading. He also draws glowing playing from the VPO strings, alternately urging them on and holding back. The cello solo before Siegmund’s Kühlende Labung has rarely been so beautifully restrained. But beautiful as most of the act is, it seems that there is some lack of adrenaline.

Solti’s Ride of the Walküre is among the most adrenaline intense with roaring brass resounding across the imaginary stage. This is a battle-call - not just a picture of the rocky landscape. And this feeling is retained throughout the act, Solti wringing every drop of inherent power from the score.

How much the conducting affects the singing is hard to say. The common denominator in both acts is Kirsten Flagstad, and she doesn’t even impersonate the same character. Sieglinde was her debut role at the Met in 1935, when she became the Wagner soprano overnight, but she sang it rather infrequently after that and by 1957 sounded too matronly for the role. She was still able to lighten the tone but by and large it is a Brünnhilde we hear. There is no denying, however, that her vocal powers were largely undiminished and in the final scene - which in effect is one long love duet with ever-increasing ecstasy - she delivers glorious singing, with Du bist der Lenz as the crowning glory. We must certainly be grateful that her adoption of this role has been preserved for posterity.

At her side Set Svanholm, with whom she regularly appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, is a pillar of strength. His was a voice with a lot of gleaming steel in it but he could also be restrained. He begins Winterstürme softly and gradually increases the intensity, making this one of the more memorable versions of the song. Before that he has been at his most heroic in Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater, where the cries of Wälse, Wälse are formidable.

To match these two veterans, Decca chose the fairly young Dutch bass Arnold van Mill for the role of Hunding. Van Mill had been singing at Bayreuth since the reopening of the festival in 1951 and had a long career in various roles. His was a warm and baritonal voice, treated with almost bel canto elegance - but he lacked the black malevolence of a Gottlob Frick or a Matti Salminen. It may not be necessary that an evil character is portrayed gnashing teeth and spitting venom but in particular on record there has to be something frightening. Van Mill is more a Hans Sachs.

Though there are several drawbacks with this performance I maintain that we are privileged to be able to hear two of the greatest Wagner singers from the previous century in such good shape and in a recording produced by John Culshaw and Erik Smith that is still fully acceptable.

The third act, recorded a few months earlier, finds Flagstad in her element as Brünnhilde. Solti’s complete recording of Die Walküre had to wait another ten years, but this act is no mere run-through, and even though it isn’t the spectacular sonic experience of the complete Ring, it is a worthy product. The supporting cast is also well chosen. Among the walküres we find names like Ilona Steingruber, Hetty Plümacher, a young Claire Watson and Grace Hoffman, who graced (excuse the pun) several important recordings during the 1950s and 1960s. Marianne Schech was an experienced Strauss and Wagner singer and though initially she sounds rather pale, she blossoms and sings gloriously in O hehrstes Wunder.

Otto Edelmann, one of the great basses of his day, was famous for his Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier and several Wagner roles. Here he sings Wotan with stern authority, sometimes rather heavy and foursquare, and many of his top notes are severely strained. Still he manages to make something memorable of many of the key moments, but he is no match for Hans Hotter in this role. By 1967, when Solti’s Walküre was issued, Hotter was past his best and his voice was frayed and vibrato-laden, but he was still able to turn a phrase memorably. There is however a separate recording of the second half of act III, made in 1957, the same year as this set, with Leopold Ludwig conducting and Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde. There Hotter is heard in all his magnificence. That disc - now on Testament - should be in every collection as a corrective to whatever other version(s) one has.

And what about Flagstad? It is a monumental reading, sensitive and glorious and sung with admirably steady tone. No one can really mistake this singer for a young or middle-aged woman but no one could believe either that it is a woman of sixty-two with behind her a career of forty-four years, the last twenty devoted to heavy-weight roles like Isolde, Brünnhilde and Fidelio. Then it’s a matter of personal taste if one prefers the silver-white brilliance of Birgit Nilsson or the bronze-tinted magnificence of Flagstad. At any rate this is a recording that will forever serve as one model for how Brünnhilde should be interpreted.

Göran Forsling