In the light of my enthusiasm for the Hallé/Sir Mark Elder Götterdämmerung in 2010 – Bargain of the Month, see review – it’s almost enough simply to note the appearance of this set. Also let’s not forget the rave reviews which these performances of Die Walküre received in July 2011. I missed the Radio 3 broadcast, so I’m all the more pleased to have received these CDs for review. To all its other virtues add the fact that the set is available at a very competitive price and that’s all that some readers may wish to know.
For those who have bravely decided to read on, let me lay some cards on the table. If you were to ask me to name the two greatest opera composers, I wouldn’t hesitate to name Mozart and Wagner – I really wouldn’t like to choose between them. Inevitably some of their works feature more often than others in my listening schedule. I must admit that I find Die Walküre the one opera from the Ring cycle to which I return least frequently. This is inexplicable because here Wagner most closely follows the action of the Old Norse Vølsungasaga which was one of his sources and I’m a great fan of the sagas. That said, I would still want to have a recording of Walküre on my desert island.
We certainly weren’t short of good versions. For many years the only LPs which I owned were of Kirsten Flagstad’s wonderful recording of Act III. That was a kind of trial run for Georg Solti ahead of his complete Decca cycle. It was recently reissued inexpensively with Knappertsbusch’s Act I on Australian Eloquence 480 1892 (2 CDs – see review). This was later supplemented by the complete Karajan recording (now DG Originals 457 7852, 4 CDs).
Somehow I managed to miss Solti’s recording of the whole opera as part of his Ring cycle until I reviewed a download of it in my June 2010 Download Roundup (Decca 455 5592, 4 CDs) alongside Böhm’s 1967 Bayreuth recording. The latter is now available again separately on Decca Opera 478 3061 (4 CDs for around £20 or less) or as part of his very inexpensive complete Ring cycle, Decca Collectors Edition 478 2367 (14 CDs for around £47 – see review of the complete cycle). Ignore the download links to passionato.com which I gave – no longer a source of downloads. If you’re looking to download, go to hmvdigital.com for the both (Solti £19.99, Böhm £13.99, both in 320kb/s mp3).
I compared the two Solti recordings and Böhm with an underrated recording made by Eric Leinsdorf with Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Gré Brouwenstijn and the LSO, not currently available but last seen in economical 3-CD format on Decca 430 3912; it’s worth looking out for a second-hand copy. My conclusion was that all four versions have their advantages and disadvantages. It would be nice to combine the generally vigorous pace of Böhm and Leinsdorf with the quality of recording which Decca achieved for the complete Solti. Flagstad was past her best when she made the Eloquence recording, but she still sounds magnificent and that remains the Act 3 which I play the most. Nilsson is superb in all three versions on which she features – perhaps at her best for Böhm, but that version is vitiated slightly for me by Rysanek’s less than ideal Sieglinde. King and Nilsson are common to both the Solti and Böhm versions and both more than make up for any shortcomings there.
Apart from the Karajan, which I haven’t heard for a long time, I’ve used these recordings, together with Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior and Bruno Walter in Act I and Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter and Leopold Ludwig in Act III – both EMI; details below – as benchmarks for the new set.
As for the one DVD set which has come my way, from Lothar Zagrosek at Stuttgart, for all the variable virtues of the performance, the crazy production ruins the whole thing. It’s best to draw a discreet veil over the whole enterprise – see Tony Hayward’s review of Rheingold and Walküre and my review of the complete Ring cycle. You will, however, find that my DVD review also sums up the virtues of the complete Goodall Ring on a Chandos USB (CHUSB0005, the contents of 16 CDs in both mp3 and lossless sound), though I’ll leave that, too out of the reckoning because it’s sung in English.
Elder takes his time over the Prelude – 4:16 against Solti’s 3:16, Leinsdorf’s 3:23 and Böhm’s 3:50. I don’t consider Solti or Leinsdorf too hasty, though the latter’s tempi are on the fast side throughout, This is why the set can be fitted on three discs. The brooding mood is certainly intensified by Elder’s approach, especially with the volume turned up a few notches higher than usual; if you don’t, the opening interchange between Siegmund and Sieglinde is almost inaudible.
When things get going in Scene Three, Stig Andersen and Yvonne Howard are up against stiff competition from their distinguished predecessors in the big set-pieces. In Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater Andersen gives a fine account of himself. Once again Elder takes the music at a fairly sedate pace by comparison with Leinsdorf and Solti, though at around the same pace as Karajan and even a trifle faster than Böhm. I wondered at first if the tempo was going to work, but very soon willingly suspended disbelief (track 10). In Winterstürme wichen dem Mond (CD 1, track 13) Elder keeps the music moving, as the winter storms yield to the music of May. Here again Andersen rises to the occasion, yielding nothing to James King (Solti and Böhm) or Jon Vickers (Leinsdorf).
I cut some of my first Wagnerian teeth on Kirsten Flagstad singing der Männer Sippe and Du bist der Lenz (with Knappertsbusch, coupled with Wesendoncklieder, now on Eloquence 480 1796, 2 CDs – see review). Though Flagstad was then over 60, her performance here and in the complete Act I which she recorded a year later was a stupendous achievement. Even Régine Crespin (Solti) and Gré Brouwenstijn (Leinsdorf) don’t quite match her, but they come very close – Leonie Rysanek (Böhm) less so – and so does Yvonne Howard (CD1, track 14) who, I understand, took on the role at short notice.
Together she and Andersen bring the act to a glorious conclusion. It’s a difficult task for just the two singers to keep interest alive throughout over an hour in the first act. That’s perhaps the reason why my interest perks up towards the end of Act Two and throughout Act Three. That said, Andersen, Howard and Elder almost achieve the impossible. The well-deserved applause is retained throughout. I mention that because I know that some listeners are put off by it.
For the ultimate test in Act I, I turned to Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde and Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund (1935, with Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic). Though the sound is inevitably dated, the EMI transfer is good enough to allow us to hear what a stupendous version this is. Surprisingly, the Naxos Music Library doesn’t seem to offer their own 2-CD transfer of the whole of Act I and part of Act II – see review by Jonathan Woolf and review by Robert J Farr – but you will find the EMI version of Act I there (no longer available on CD except from Arkivmusic.com?). UK purchasers can download the Naxos from classicsonline.com. NB: the tracks on the EMI transfer are badly placed, with Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond and Du bist der Lenz starting well after the beginning in each case; the Naxos divisions are more carefully done.
I must warn you that returning to this recording, which I hadn’t heard for a considerable time, knocked my socks off. If you listen even to the 30-second excerpts from the classicsonline.com website, whatever other Walküre you have you’ll need to have this in one form or another; there’s also a Danacord transfer. The new Hallé version, very good as it is, can’t quite match up to it.
I haven’t mentioned Clive Bayley’s Hunding; he’s good – menacing even when offering temporary hospitality to his enemy, without dominating the action to the same extent as Gottlob Frick on the Solti recording. I understand that some of the applause was – justifiably – directed at him.
The Prelude to Act II is taken at a fairly fast pace – mere seconds slower than Solti or Böhm. Egils Silins as Wotan and Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde are a little slower to warm up than some of their rivals. Here I felt that the live recording yielded a little to the studio versions and even to the live Böhm recording. Both voices are slightly backward in the balance. Silins was apparently poorly – the notorious Manchester weather – which perhaps accounts for my slight disappointment. It may be that seeing the singers would have helped redress this balance problem, but I note that some of those present on the night were also slightly underwhelmed by both Silins and Bullock.
Fricka should come over as a wife not to mess with. I thought that Susan Bickley was only partially successful in intimidating Wotan into agreeing to destroy Siegmund. She doesn’t quite summon up the violent storm which Brünnhilde predicts when she approaches and which the stage direction demands: in höchste Entrüstung ausbrechend. Whatever else I think of Silins his reluctant and defeated Was verlangst du? (CD 2, tr.6) certainly conveys the henpecked husband most successfully.
The ensuing discussion between Wotan and Brünnhilde is effectively managed, though it has to be admitted that the plot summary of the action of Das Rheingold – yet to be composed when Die Walküre was first performed, so necessary because Wagner conceived the operas in reverse order – is somewhat tedious. It’s important too that those not familiar with the Norse story of the Vølsungs should know of Wotan’s guise as Wälse and his engendering of Siegmund and Sieglinde. This is the most arid part of the opera and even Elder and his singers can’t make it otherwise.
CD 3 opens with the Act II Todesverkündigung, in which Brünnhilde warns Siegmund of his impending death and journey to Valhalla. Flagstad recorded this scene with Set Svanholm and Georg Solti – it originally appeared with Act III on a 2-LP set. It now features on the Eloquence set with Wesendoncklieder, which I’ve already mentioned in connection with Du bist der Lenz. Both Flagstad and Svanholm are in glorious voice and they remain my benchmark for this scene. Try listening on Spotify if you need to be convinced or reminded. You’ll find the whole 10-CD Decca Kirsten Flagstad Edition there, free if you can bear the ads. Don’t be tempted by what looks like a bargain download version offered by several websites on the Hallmark label – the short extracts from it which I’ve sampled suggest that a very poor copy of the original LPs was employed.
Neither Bullock nor Andersen can quite match the power of Flagstad and Svanholm. They take a little while to reach full throttle, though Elder and Hallé give them very able support. After a slowish burn, the scene develops the requisite intensity. I haven’t yet mentioned the vital part which the orchestra plays, so let me say that they have some claim to be the stars of the whole production, even by comparison with the Vienna Philharmonic on rival recordings.
Even leaving aside that earlier recording with Flagstad and Svanholm, Nilsson, King and Solti achieve more intensity here and do so more quickly, assisted by the greater presence of the studio recording. The same is true of the same two singers on the Böhm recording, though that was recorded live. It’s only by making comparisons, as in the case of Siegmund’s So grüße mir Walhall, that the new version disappoints slightly. Take it on its own merits and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
I’m not going to make detailed comparisons with the Flagstad/Solti Act III – it’s beyond comparison. There is, however, one other classic recording which needs to be considered. As well as appearing on the three complete recordings, Birgit Nilsson recorded the last 39 minutes of Act III, with Hans Hotter, for EMI: Great Recordings 5097022, a very well filled CD, with music from other Wagner operas. In War es so schmählich? she starts in an understated manner, keeping the power of her voice in check. Even so, she does not allow her powerful voice to be swamped by Hotter, still at full strength when the recording was made in the late 1950s.
These performances still sound as stupendous as they did in 1959 when Philip Hope-Wallace reviewed the LP. Colin Clarke was equally impressed by the CD reissue – review – as was Göran Forsling by the parallel reissue on the Archipel label (ARPCD0334: Recording of the Month – review). Listen to this recording via the Naxos Music Library and, like the Lehmann-Melchior-Walter Act I, you’ll want it in your collection. Don’t be tempted to purchase via the classicsonline.com button, though: the download will cost you twice as much as the CD – the latter available for around £7 – unless their illogical pricing policy has been sorted out by the time that you read this review. If the Magic Fire Music (track 9) is a little less than magical in the hands of Leopold Ludwig, that’s no great handicap.
Elder and his team can’t quite match that, but they don’t disappoint. The Interlude which opens Scene 3 is taken at a sedate pace and, as with the Todesverkündigung, the tension builds only slowly in the interchange between Brünnhilde and Wotan. I don’t want to suggest that Elder’s pace is too slow. In fact it falls between extremes; on the new recording, tracks 9 to 12 take a total of 15:27 against Böhm’s 13:46, Solti’s 16:56 and Nilsson, Hotter/Ludwig 17:31. I can’t give an exact equivalent for Flagstad/Solti or Leinsdorf, where the tracks are differently divided, but Leinsdorf is on the faster side here, like Böhm. Splitting the difference isn’t always the answer, but here it seems to me about right. Above all it’s the tenderness of the father-daughter relationship that is stressed more strongly on the Hallé set than anywhere else.
If Leopold Ludwig slightly let the side down in 1957 with the Magic Fire Music, here Elder’s direction of the Hallé and their glorious performance of the closing moments is one of the glories of the set. Once again the brief selection of applause that has been retained is very well deserved.
Apart from the occasional balance problems which I’ve mentioned – almost inevitable in a live recording, even with some subtle assistance from the rehearsal – the sound is very good throughout, though benefiting from a volume increase.
The new recording is enshrined on five discs, all presented neatly in the kind of case that used to be employed for 2- and 3-disc sets. Four CDs contain the performance; the fifth disc has the text, English translation and photographs from the performance. The slim booklet offers only a brief synopsis. It’s a nuisance having to print out the libretto or keep looking at the computer screen, but it does keep down the cost. If you have another recording you can use the booklet from that – better still if you have the Faber book with the texts of the whole Ring alongside Andrew Porter’s translation.
I’m pleased to see that the Hallé translation is a good deal more idiomatic than the one which I first borrowed from the Oxford Union library to listen to a Bayreuth broadcast fifty years ago. The opening words of Sieglinde there unfortunately translated as ‘A stranger here/I must accost him.’ That becomes ‘A stranger?/I must question him.’ in the new version. Better still, though less literal is Andrew Porter’s singable and idiomatic English ‘A stranger here?/Where has he come from?’
It doesn’t appear that the Hallé plan to repeat the experiment of offering a version on mp3 alongside the conventional CD set, as they did so successfully with Götterdämmerung. Die Walküre is, however, offered at a keen price – £22 post free world-wide from MusicWeb International here – which makes it competitive with the latest releases of the older recordings. I’m not about to jettison any of the rivals which I’ve mentioned, apart from the DVD set, but I’m sure to be returning to Elder and his team. After almost two weeks of exhaustive comparisons between different versions of this opera, without tiring of hearing it, it’s fair to say that Die Walküre has risen in my estimation, a tribute not least to this new recording.