Sound engineer Richard Caniell specialises
in re-creating “Dream Performances” of Wagner operas. This Götterdämmerung
from Immortal Performances in New Denver, British Columbia,
is the fruit of his latest project. Some of a more purist nature
have objected to his practice of reconstructing from other sources
performances which were never broadcast or recorded. The claim
is that these are somehow meretricious. I for one am merely grateful
that through his painstaking synthesis and remastering of fragments
of disparate origins we are afforded the opportunity of glimpsing
the splendour of a (virtually) complete performance from a Golden
Age of Wagner singing.
In this recreation of the final Siegfried sung by Melchior in the performance of Götterdämmerung
on 20 December 1948, no fewer than eleven original members of the cast may be heard, including all the principals except Regina Resnik, who (and henceforth I quote Richard Caniell) “happily replaces Polyna Stoska as Gutrune. And one of the three Norns, Jeanne Palmer, is replaced by Margaret Harshaw, who was also singing Waltraute in this performance. As for the Rhinemaidens, Dorothy Manski’s Woglinde is replaced by the marvellous Erna Berger. Maxine Stellman’s Wellgunde is replaced by Lucine Amara. In my opinion, every substitution tends to improve the performance overall.
“Essentially, the major cast of 20 December 1948 was drawn from the 1951 Met recording; the Melchior-Traubel Dawn Duet
from a Toscanini broadcast 1941; the Funeral Music
- Toscanini 1949; the Traubel-Toscanini Immolation
from 1941; Melchior comes from the Met 1936 performance plus two 78 rpm discs, as well as from the 1937 Covent Garden performance. Some of these passages occur in our Melchior-Flagstad complete Götterdämmerung
(Guild GHCD 2224). Apart from these interpolations, Fritz Stiedry conducts. The many cuts are his. He omits an entire stanza from Alberich’s brief scene (at “Ich - und du”) and also cuts much of the orchestral music that opens this act, a passage we have restored. And if that were not bad enough, Stiedry omits 18 exchanges between Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen, cutting from Hagen’s “Und dort trifft ihn mein Speer” to Hagen’s “Uns allen frommt sein Tod”, omitting 55 lines. There is no source with these singers from which the passage could be restored, so we are left with this truncation.
“Incidentally, this 1948 Dream Götterdämmerung
has lesser sonics only for very short passages —17 minutes in Act I and 12 minutes in Act III. These portions were also heard in our Melchior-Flagstad Ring cycle but I have improved the sonics somewhat for this edition. All else is in good sound for the broadcast era involved and some of the sonics are superlative.”
I have quoted the booklet notes at length here because they cannot be improved upon as a summary of the origin and nature of this enterprise and how the recording was assembled. For the most part, the sound is indeed remarkably satisfactory and homogeneous. The more obvious insertions from older sources are as seamlessly integrated as possible despite a few sudden increases in the amount of hiss, especially when the sections spliced in are obviously from 78 discs.
As Siegfried, Melchior is hors concours
as an artist; he is the very incarnation and epitome of the heroic Wagner tenor. He sings throughout with that famous combination of tenderness, virile thrust, clarion top notes, boyish charm, tireless endurance and beauty of tone which is enough to make any current aspiring Wagnerian heldentenor despair. He has it all and very little of the supposed "rhythmic sloppiness" is in evidence. The sustained top C hurled out by Melchior on greeting Hagen and the hunting party and the swelled, sustained E on “ein wonniges Weib” just before his fatal stabbing in the back by Hagen are things of wonder and ample evidence of both the power and beauty of his heldentenor.
Traubel’s gleaming top notes, warm, expressive middle tones and refulgent lower register make her ideal as Brünnhilde; she is less matronly, more womanly than, and just as heroic as, Flagstad. It was surely a good idea not only to substitute Toscanini’s famous and incandescent 1941 broadcast of key moments in preference to the more staid Stiedry’s account but also to have tidied them up by removing bum notes by both Traubel at the climax of the Dawn Duet and also the horn player during the subsequent Rhine Journey. Enhancing our pleasure by removing the accidents that can occur during live performances so that we may enjoy the music undisturbed in repeated listenings must surely be a welcome little piece of electronic jiggery-pokery that can hardly be regarded as a moral issue.
The two parallel trios of mythical ladies are exceptionally fine, featuring some famous names; both the Norns and the Rhinemaidens are rich and expressive of voice, making their music more absorbing than can sometimes be the case. The splendidly voiced Margaret Harshaw doubles up as both Norn and Waltraute. Regina Resnik gives us a more womanly and vibrant Gutrune than the passive victim more usually heard.
Unfortunately, three of the secondary artists, while adequate, would make it onto no one’s “Dream Wagner” billing. Compared with more distinguished contemporary Hagens, Dezsö Ernster is a little disappointing; he is somewhat laboured and woolly-voiced, lacking the power and blackness of tone required to freeze the marrow as can great exponents of the role such as Ivar Andresen and Gottlob Frick. Similarly, baritone Herbert Janssen’s Gunther is a little bland and makes one wish for Hermann Uhde – although Gunther is admittedly a weak character, and does not need a heroic voice. There is a droll photograph in the full and copiously illustrated booklet of Melchior and Janssen looking like Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum standing either side of Ernster impersonating Rasputin. Lastly, Gerhard Pechner’s light-voiced, workaday Alberich makes less impact than it might and is, in any case, shorn of some the little music he has been given by Wagner, as detailed above.
Little of this matters in comparison with the bigger picture of our being able to hear a persuasive and convincing reconstruction of what the lucky audience heard that 20th
December 1948. As it was not broadcast, Richard Caniell’s resurrection of this superlative performance gives Wagnerites everywhere a listening experience that nobody ever thought it would be possible to enjoy. This was clearly a labour of love and we should be grateful.
No libretto is provided but the synopsis is very full and usefully
cued to the tracks. Bonuses come in the form of Milton Cross’s
commentaries and brief, genial, edited excerpts from an interview
with Melchior made shortly before his death in the early 1970s.
Masterwork Index: Götterdämmerung