Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Ingrid Bjoner (soprano) - Gutrune/Third Norn; Unni Bugge-Hanssen (soprano) - Woglinde; Eva Gustavson (mezzo) - Waltraute/First Norn; Karen Marie Flagstad (mezzo) - Second Norn/Wellgunde; Beate Asserson (contralto) - Flosshilde; Set Svanholm (tenor) - Siegfried; Waldemar Johnsen (baritone) - Gunther; Per Grönneberg (baritone) - Alberich; Egil Nordsjø (bass) - Hagen
Opera Chorus, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Norwegian State Radio Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad
rec. Norwegian Radio Studios, Oslo, 5, 8, 10 January 1956 and University Hall, Oslo, 14 March 1956
NAXOS 8.112066-69 [4 CDs: 52:40 + 59:59 + 69:37 + 77:56]
The history behind this, the first commercially issued recording of Götterdämmmerung, is by now well known, but let me briefly relate it anyway. When John Culshaw, producer for Decca, approached Kirsten Flagstad to discuss a series of recordings with her, one condition from her side was that Decca issued on LPs the Norwegian Radio’s recent studio recording that had been broadcast live. After some discussions there was a deal, but it turned out that there were some scenes missing on the original tapes and an extra recording session was arranged to ‘fill in the gaps’, except the brief orchestral bridge between scenes 2 and 3 of Act I. The recording remained in the catalogue until Solti’s stereo set was issued in the mid-1960s. Since then it has been unavailable.
I listened to this almost 67-year-old set immediately after the sonically superb Oehms Götterdämmerung conducted by Sebastian Weigle from January-February 2012; the difference was striking. However, having spent uncountable hours over the last eight years listening to and reviewing re-issues of operas from the same period it was not difficult to adjust to the compressed dynamics, the mono sound and the limited frequency range. The result is warm and the orchestra is well caught. Øivin Fjeldstad was the foremost Norwegian conductor of this period but he wasn’t particularly associated with Wagner. In spite of that his is a worthy reading, not particularly illuminating but nor are there any idiosyncrasies. The orchestral playing has some blemishes but taken as a whole it is much more than acceptable, considering that it was recorded ‘live’.
Having seen some rather dismissive reviews of the singers - apart from Flagstad and Svanholm - it was a pleasant surprise to find a lot of accomplished singing; several of the singers had important international careers. Eva Gustavson (First Norn and Waltraute), who died as recently as February 2009, spent 15 years on European and North American stages and was in 1949 chosen by Toscanini to sing Amneris in his recorded broadcast of Aida. She is strong voiced, dark and steady - and not every First Norn one hears today can compete in this latter respect. The second Norn is Karen Marie Flagstad, Kirsten’s younger sister, who also appeared internationally and took part in the Furtwängler recording of Die Walküre from La Scala. Here she was past fifty and there are signs of unsteadiness. Ingrid Bjoner, the third Norn and doubling as Gutrune, had one of the most illustrious careers of any Norwegian soprano after Flagstad. She sang the big dramatic roles at Bayreuth, La Scala and other stages, was at the Met 1961-1967 and can be heard as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten from the inauguration of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1963. On the present set she is heard very early but it is already a classy voice.
On the male side Waldemar Johnsen is at best a serviceable Gunther while Per Grönneberg has a good strong bass-baritone with secure low notes - important for the role of Alberich. His delivery is rather blustery at times but when he sings softly he can be quite touching. Egil Nordsjø’s warm, steady tone and strong low notes tell us that he must have been a good fatherly Sarastro. For the evil Hagen this isn’t enough, the sinister side of the character must be more explicitly expressed.
Kirsten Flagstad at sixty is still regal, her characteristic bronze-tinted tone as steady as ever. She may not be as free and secure at the top, occasionally there is a certain shrillness, but hers is a magisterial reading and the Immolation scene -which was issued separately in Australian Eloquence’s monumental tribute to her some years ago - is only second to Nilsson’s and her own earlier recordings. In Set Svanholm she has a worthy partner and his sturdy tenor has the steely ring so seldom heard today. The tone is slightly drier than in the recordings he made with Flagstad 6-7 years earlier and he misses some of the poetry in the death scene but by and large his singing here should be a model for any aspiring heroic Wagner tenor.
While this recording is hardly a first choice it should be in every serious Wagner lover’s collection for the singing of Flagstad and Svanholm.
Should be in every serious Wagner lover’s collection for the singing of Flagstad and Svanholm.
see also reviews by John Whitmore and Ralph Moore
Masterwork Index: Götterdämmmerung
Naxos Historical reviews on Musicweb International