Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876) [4:20:12]
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - (Brünnhilde); Set Svanholm (tenor) - (Siegfried); Ingrid Bjorner (soprano) - (Gutrune); Waldemar Johnsen (baritone) - (Gunther); Per Grönneberg (baritone) - (Alberich); Egil Noredsjo (bass) - (Hagen); Unni Bugge-Hanssen (soprano) - (Woglinde); Eva Gustavson (mezzo) - (Waltraute); Karen Marie Flagstad (soprano) - (Wellgunde).
Opera Chorus; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Norwegian State Radio Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad
rec. Norwegian Radio Studios, 5, 8, 10 January 1956, University Hall, Oslo, 14 March 1956.
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.112066-69 [4 CDs: 52:10 + 59:59 + 69:37 + 77:56]
This famous recording was originally released by Decca on 6 LPs in 1956 (LXT 2055210) but has been generally overlooked ever since. It’s very much Kirsten Flagstad’s Götterdämmerung. Towards the end of her career, she was in the process of moving from EMI to Decca. During negotiations she was insistent that this Norwegian Radio performance should be issued by the company rather than recording the whole work again in Vienna under studio conditions with producer John Culshaw in charge. At the time, this recording was viewed as a testament to the newly instituted Norwegian Opera and despite John Culshaw’s pleading Flagstad got her way, partly due to her national pride. This is her farewell appearance in her celebrated role as Brünnhilde.
The radio broadcast performance, recorded in January 1956, had been cut by around 40 minutes for the transmission. Decca had to rectify this by recording the missing passages and doing some short fixes where there had been minor issues with the radio tapes. The extra session took place in Oslo in March that year. The recording as reissued by Naxos is virtually complete, the only section missing being a short bridge passage between Scenes 2 and 3 of Act One - the Oslo sessions in March ran out of time, unbelievably.
The performance certainly deserved its Decca release. Flagstad possessed one of the truly great operatic voices of all time and despite her being 61 years of age at the time her singing is splendidly secure and passionate. The tone is fabulous and the only minor criticism would be that just occasionally the top register isn’t what it would have been at her very peak. However, these are just fleeting moments - she skips the top C in the Prologue duet with Siegfried - and her performance, a fine example of top class Wagner singing, is astounding, especially for someone in their early 60s. Bear in mind that she had already retired from the opera house and died only six years later. The Immolation Scene is spine-tingling and the final part of the opera is both cataclysmic and very moving.
The sound quality is typical of a radio production. There’s nothing very glamorous here but at least it’s clear and despite being in mono has a decent front-to-back perspective. Don’t be misled by the historic tag that Naxos has given it. It’s not one of those tinny, distorted horrors where you struggle to listen through the bad sound to hear the music only vaguely. This is a perfectly good, thoroughly enjoyable recording. There is just a little tape hiss present but it isn’t distracting enough to spoil things. The transfer has been made from the original LPs and Mark Obert-Thorn has done wonders with the restoration. You’d be hard pushed to tell that it’s sourced from vinyl. The orchestral sound is not especially rich but everything is there and the voices have good presence when one considers the 1956 recording date. I understand that there have been two previous transfers available on CD. I haven’t heard them but I doubt if they would be in any way superior to this Naxos set.
The orchestral playing of the combined Oslo Philharmonic and Norwegian State Opera orchestras isn’t impeccable. There are a few slips here and there and some scrappy passages, especially from the strings, but on the whole the standard is well up to scratch. Øivin Fjeldstad (1903-1983) keeps the energy, momentum and drama going from start to finish. I’ve never associated Fjeldstad with Wagner before and it’s good to have Götterdämmerung to hand for a change rather than his other orchestral records such as Peer Gynt; much as I like the piece and the way he conducts it.
Flagstad is ably supported by the Siegfried of the veteran Set Svanholm who was in his 50s at the time of the recording. He brought considerable experience to the part. They are well matched emotionally and in terms of maturity. The rest of the cast are adequate and no more than that but collectors will buy this set just for Flagstad and they will not be disappointed. I'm pleased that I’ve heard this recording but at the end of the day it isn’t really a first choice. It’s a good supplement to an opera-lover’s collection but that’s about it.
The Solti/Culshaw Ring Cycle still reigns supreme with glorious playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite its age this Decca masterpiece, with its gripping Götterdämmerung, has tremendous drive, drama and power. The recording quality has an impact and range that has never been matched since. It really is a true classic that might never be beaten. It’s also beyond belief that it was recorded as early as 1964, only eight years after this Oslo production. There simply is no comparison in sound quality. Solti has Birgit Nilsson in her prime; Fjeldstad has Flagstad just past her best. Both are magnificent and each needs to be heard.
A welcome reminder of Flagstad’s art. Magnificent – needs to be heard.