Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas [56.40] (Overture [3.11]; Act I - The palace [14.58]; Act II Scene 1 – The cave [9.06]; Act II Scene 2 - The grove [9.30]; Act II - The ships [19.45])
Kirsten Flagstad (Dido), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Belinda), Thomas Hemsley (Aeneas)
Mermaid Singers and Orchestra/Geraint Jones
rec. 15, 27-28 March 1952, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1. ADD
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung: Act III, Scene 3 [19.48]
Kirsten Flagstad
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 26 March 1948. ADD
This superb disc from Nimbus’s Prima Voce label features a 1952 recording of Purcell’s great opera Dido and Aeneas with a star cast. The recording was made only a year before Flagstad retired from the stage.
The immediate opening is magical – the strings extremely resonant, rich and deeply emotional – Geraint Jones allows the music to breathe, creating an almost sobbing sound from the lamenting instruments. It is also very slow indeed compared to many modern performances – and it works very well taken at this pace. The faster section of the overture is very punctuated, staccato and rather mechanical, a style which crops up from time to time on this recording. When the presumably fairly small chorus enter, it is an incredibly intimate moment – you really feel that they are there in the room with you. On the other hand, Flagstad’s voice is almost too big for such an intimacy, and she comes over as just slightly prosaic at times, particularly since Jones picks up the pace when the soloists join in. Schwarzkopf’s words aren’t always clear, her enunciation leaving something to be desired on occasion, but she has a pleasantly light touch, for example in “Fear no danger”. Hemsley is excellent – his voice warm and lyrical, and he is suitably commanding as Aeneas. The witches are also very good – appropriately sinister and menacing, and Arda Mandikian has a huge voice and is superb as the evil Sorceress.
There are exquisite bits in this version: the echo “In our deep vaulted cells” is very distant, and works well as such, as the Sailors Dance is most beautifully performed. It is, however, uneven, and at times can come across as slightly heavy-handed – the playing is often very staccato, and occasionally one wishes for more phrasing and breathing in the strings. The work is made to seem more Handelian than normal, probably on account of the unusually sumptuous strings.
The ending is similarly mixed – Flagstad’s “Away, away! No, no, away!” is just brilliant – gloriously characterful, and really brings the imperious and stubborn queen to life. The following chorus “Great minds against themselves conspire” contains some utterly gorgeous singing from the chorus – radiant, delicate and shimmering. The opening of Dido’s Lament left me slightly cold, as Flagstad comes across as resigned, rather than sorrowful and her words are not very clear. Even so, as she builds up to the great “Remember me” moment, she packs a real emotional punch – and together with the sobbing strings, is incredibly moving.
The disc concludes, as a bonus, with Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Act III, Scene III of Götterdämmerung from 1948. Flagstad is here in a more typical role, and appears more at home – glorious singing and playing.
Although this recording of Dido and Aeneas is not flawless, it is nonetheless an amazing rendition – fascinating to hear such singers as Flagstad and Schwarzkopf in these roles, and there are some staggeringly good, and touching, moments. Those familiar with Nimbus and their technology won’t be surprised at the superlative sound quality – so, overall, an absolute must for anyone interested in opera or who loves this seminal English work.

Em Marshall