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The Flagstad Recitals - Volume 4 - Songs for Sunday
see end of review for details
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, UK, December 1956 (CD 2), April 1957 (CD 1)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0616 [42:09 + 50:49]

Experience Classicsonline


It is perhaps little known that Kirsten Flagstad’s repertoire also encompassed a large quantity of sacred works: Bach cantatas, Handel oratorios, Haydn’s The Creation and Mendelssohn’s St Paul. We have to be eternally grateful to Decca and John Culshaw that they gave her the opportunity to record some of this and related music during her Indian summer sessions in the mid-1950s. She also included a couple of operatic arias by Handel, reflecting that in 1932 she actually sang the title role in Rodelinda in Gothenburg; the aria Art thou troubled (in the original: Dove sei) has now at last been issued. Why it was not included on the original LP I don’t know. Maybe squeezing in 50 minutes playing time was considered audio-technically undesirable fifty years ago. As can be seen in the header the sacred songs on CD 1 clocked in at just over forty-two minutes, which was pretty much normal on my earliest LPs.

Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer leads off with a monumental opening, but don’t worry: Kirsten Flagstad was never the full-throttle kind of singer. She had an instinctive feeling for fine nuance. The dialogue with the chorus (not credited in the booklet) shows her dramatic expertise and O for the wings of a dove is warm and sensitive. Jerusalem is sung with serene clarity and beauty.

Gruber’s Silent night, like everything else on these discs sung in English, is folksong-simple to a sparse accompaniment, which grows to greater complexity with unexpected harmonies and counterpoint.

The opening recitative of O Divine Redeemer is impassioned - but simple - and the main melody, one of Gounod’s most inspired, is restrained and scaled down. Flagstad’s soft singing was still marvellous in 1957. It struck me that the cello solo at the beginning of the work must have been a model for John Rutter when he wrote his Requiem.

George V is said to have preferred Parry’s Jerusalem to God Save The King. Whether it was the words or the music that attracted him I don’t know but musically at least Jerusalem is definitely in a higher division and here it is further refined through the serene clarity and beauty of Flagstad’s singing.

Bortnyansky was one of the foremost Russian composers in the generations before Glinka. His setting of The Lord’s Prayer has for many years been a great favourite of mine but I can’t remember hearing Jubilate before. It’s a fine piece and Flagstad sings it with steady tone and innate feeling. Her final notes show that her steely power was still unbroken.

Wade’s O come, all ye faithful, is firmly established in the repertoire, not only in the English-speaking world. Flagstad’s version is less jubilant, more warm and simple with a celestial harp providing angelic atmosphere.

Most people are familiar with Monk’s Abide with me. Samuel Liddle’s version is more lyrical and inward and Kirsten Flagstad loves it - or so it seems: it is so simple and free from external disturbances. This is Kirsten Flagstad at her greatest. Overall this disc finds her in uncommonly good shape.

The Bach/Handel programme on CD 2 is less of a treat - for several reasons. First of all the last half century has seen a revolution in our attitude to baroque performance practice. The transparency, lightness and springy rhythms we have become used to since August Wenzinger and later Nicolaus Harnoncourt showed the new direction are completely absent here. Instead we have a thick romantic carpet of sound. We are also accustomed to a different way of singing baroque music: leaner, lighter voices with little or no vibrato. Not that Flagstad’s voice is greatly affected by vibrato but her matronly tone and heavy portamenti belong to another age. What is even worse: her intonation is often suspect and technically she seems rather unwieldy. The aria from St Matthew Passion is particularly unsuccessful and the other three Bach favourites exist in much better readings. I think the value with these recordings mainly lies in their historic interest. This was the way this music was often performed in bygone days. But even Elisabeth Schumann’s recording of If thou be near from 1934 is much closer to the mark, her silvery voice light and pearly.

The Handel arias are better and the recording of Art thou troubled is not unlike Kathleen Ferrier’s, which was one of my earliest records. He shall feed his flock, where she shows her impressive range, is possibly the best item on this disc, secure and sensitive. Sir Adrian Boult, though no baroque specialist, also seems more attuned to Handel than Bach; he recorded Messiah twice. It was through his second recording, from the early 1960s, with Joan Sutherland and Grace Bumbry that I learnt the work.

Swings and roundabouts no doubt, but CD 1 and several Handel arias are definitely worth a listen and the contents give further evidence of Kirsten Flagstad’s comprehensive repertoire. What a pity there are no recordings of her Italian repertoire. Imagine hearing her as Aida and Tosca!

Göran Forsling

Track details
CD 1
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
1. Hear my prayer - O for the wings of a dove [11:48)
2. Jerusalem (from St. Paul, Op. 36) [3:53]
Franz Xaver GRUBER (1787 - 1863)
3. Silent Night (arr. Woodgate, Young) [3:18]
Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893)
4. Ah, turn me not away … O Divine Redeemer [6:47]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848 - 1918)
5. Jerusalem [3:03]
Dmitry BORTNYANSKY (1751 - 1825)
6. Jubilate (arr. Woodgate, Young) [2:32]
John Francis WADE (1711 - 1786)
7. O come, all ye faithful [4:15]
Samuel LIDDLE (1867 - 1951)
8. Abide with me [5:57]
CD 2
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
1. Break in grief (from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, ed. Elgar, Atkins) [6:36]
2. Jesu, joy of man’s desire (from Cantata BWV 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, arr. W.G.Whittaker) [6:07]
3. If thou be near (from Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach; English version edited by Tippett, Bergman) [4:12]
4. Sheep may safely graze (from Cantata BWV 20: Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd) [5:19]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
5. Art thou troubled (from Rodelinda, HWV 19) [5:28]
6. Gods all powerful (from Radamisto, HWV 11) [3:10]
7. Oh sleep, why doest thou leave me (from Semele, HWV 28) [3:55]
8. He shall feed his flock (from Messiah, HWV 56) [5:20]
9. I know that my Redeemer liveth (from Messiah, HWV 56) [6:41]
10. Praise ye the Lord (Ochs, attrib. Handel, arr. Woodgate, McCormack) [3:17]

 


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