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Martha Mödl - Portrait of a Legend - Anniversary Edition
Martha Mödl (soprano, mezzo) and others
Full performance and cast details at end of review.
rec. 1950-82

At the time of Martha Mödl’s death in 2001 I remember reading her obituary. Since then I have heard her recordings only very occasionally on the radio. The present set was released at the end of 2012 to mark the centenary of her birth. I initially dismissed it, thinking that the sound quality would be far too problematic for my tender ears. In fact I cannot praise Mödl’s wonderful voice enough. I would imagine that she is as fondly regarded in Germany as Ferrier and Baker are in Britain. It is no wonder that Portrait of a Legend has become a bestseller in Germany and that Mödl was the subject of a special exhibition in 2012 in Bayreuth. 

Profil state that all the tracks here are previously unreleased live recordings. They derive from the collection of a friend and devotee of the singer. Most of the transfers are from radio broadcasts with the remainder from the collector’s private archive. As with most historical recordings the rareness and excellence have to be balanced with often difficult and uneven sound quality. There are no sung texts included.
Born in Nuremberg in 1912 Mödl came to a career as a professional singer relatively late. She worked as a bookkeeper and secretary through most of her twenties and did not make her stage debut until 1942 at age of thirty-one. A mezzo-soprano she later took on dramatic-soprano roles for a time before returning to home territory as a mezzo.
As one of the leading Wagnerians of her day she was a natural for Isolde, Kundry and Brünnhilde. She first sang Wagner in 1950 at La Scala, Milan and made her Bayreuth debut as Kundry in Wieland Wagner’s staging of Parsifal at the newly re-opened theatre in 1951. Mödl continued on stage well into her eighties in comprimario roles. She appeared aged eight-seven as the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) and even later at an amazing eight-nine as the Mummy in Aribert Reimann's opera Die Gespenstersonate.
Given her reputation as a marvellous actress it must have been quite something to have seen Mödl live. On more than one occasion people have compared her in this respect to Maria Callas. Furtwängler who often worked with Mödl is reported to have said “Other singers can sing what they like, you'll always recognise them. With Martha Mödl, her voice identifies so closely with the role that you are only aware of the character on stage.”
The first disc in this all-Wagner double set commences with Gerechter Gott!,Adriano’s great act 3 scene and aria from Rienzi. It was recorded in Berlin in 1951. In this trouser role Mödl pushes firmly upwards under hard-driven conducting from Heinrich Hollreiser and the RIAS Symphonie-Orchester. The voice is as rich and mellow as the finest ground coffee and despite some minor strain is in fine condition.
Next come three scenes and arias from Tristan und Isolde. Here she is caught in 1958 in München as part of the annual Opernfestspiele. The city’s Prinzregententheater was used because the National Theatre had been destroyed by bombing in 1943; it didn’t reopen until 1963. Mödl is there as Isolde with Joseph Keilberth conducting the Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Alongside contralto Hertha Töpper as Brangäne she conveys dark-hued and tender expression in Doch nun von Tristan, Isolde’s narrative and curse from act 1. Keilberth’s conducting produces highly dramatic orchestral playing. In Begehrt, Herrin was ihr wünscht from act 1 Mödl articulates great drama; one can’t help but notice her well defined diction. With significant amplitude Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan matches her in bell-like clarity and in War Morold dir so wert Ludwig Suthaus is no less admirable. For the most part Mödl is able to slide up to her high register although occasionally having to grab at the top notes. Both Mödl and Suthaus are evidently inspired by Keilberth’s drive and intensity. One negative note about these Munich recordings: lurking in the background behind the orchestra is a low aqueous noise which I found a touch annoying. It’s part of the price we have to pay.
In 1955 the company of the Staatsoper Stuttgart visited the Royal Festival Hall, London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Ferdinand Leitner. From this event we hear three scenes and arias from act 2 of Tristan un Isolde. As Isolde Mödl is accompanied to magical effect by a talented group of singers. The fresh and vibrant tenor Wolfgang Windgassen is there as Tristan, mellow sounding mezzo-soprano Grace Hoffman is Brangäne and rock-steady bass-baritone Gustav Neidlinger take the role of Kurwenal. Mödl’s vibrato is rather off-putting at times but this is pretty much negated by the striking expression, stamina and discipline that she brings to the role. From scene 2 I particularly enjoyed So stürben wir, um ungetrennt which is framed by splendid orchestral playing under Leitner who is not afraid to quicken the pulse. The climax is tremendously exciting and is one of the highlights.

Next comes a recording of Mild und leise (Isolde’s Liebestod) from act 3. For this we are returned in 1958 to the Opernfestspiele held at the Prinzregententheater, München. Accompanied by Joseph Keilberth conducting the Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Mödl, displaying dramatic intensity and unshakable conviction, again makes for a wonderfully expressive Isolde. The sound quality is an improvement over most of the other recordings.
Closing disc one, we are taken back to the Kulturraum Bamberg in 1959 and the Wesendonck Lieder. Immediately I was struck by the fine support Mödl receives from the Bamberger Symphoniker under Joseph Keilberth. Although I could never recommend this over several of the excellent rival versions in the catalogue it comes to us steeped in sincerity. The first song, Der Engel demonstrates Mödl’s imperious mid-range whilst Stehe still! sees her moving up the register somewhat jerkily as if ratcheted. The wonderful Im Treibhaus has a suitably dark tone if sounding a touch nasal with Schmerzen and the lovely Träume given routine and occasionally unsteady performances.
The second disc opens with Mödl in 1954 at Bayreuth singing two of Sieglinde’s arias from act 1 of Die Walküre with the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele under Joseph Keilberth. In Der Männer Sippe Mödl has been in much better voice than this and the metallic recording certainly doesn’t help her cause. Yes, the vocal and expressive power is evident but there is little in the way of beauty of tone. Du bist der Lenz has a better sound with the voice closely recorded. Appearing rather rushed she finds it hard to centre her voice in the registration.
Brünnhilde’s act 3 Schlussgesang was recorded at the Villa Strauss, in Vichy in 1957. Here Mödl is accompanied by the Orchestre Symphonique de Vichy under Georges Sebastian. Mödl claimed that Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung was her favourite role. In Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort (Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene) the range of emotions that Mödl expresses in this soprano role is remarkable; her weight of amplitude no less notable. Although she does not sound especially attractive here this may be down to the modest recording quality. In Mein Erbe nun nehm' ich zu Eigen her timbre is dark and rich and this is once again balanced with a highly assured grip on the drama of the music. Lofty intensity continues in Grane, mein Ross, sei mir gegrüßt with the enunciation striking and plenty of vocal colour on call.
The first non-Wagnerian material is from Strauss’s Elektra. Mödl in the mezzo-soprano role of Klytämnestra is recorded in the great entrance scene of the murderess: Was willst du? Seht doch dort! This was recorded in 1967 at the rebuilt Staastoper located in what was then East Germany. The Staatskapelle Berlin were there on that occasion under their music director Otmar Suitner. Mödl is joined on stage by sopranos Ingrid Steger as Elektra, Elisabeth Rose as Vertraute and Rosemarie Rönisch as Schleppträgerin. The high drama that Mödl brings to the proceedings is quite stunning and is of an elevated intensity rarely encountered on record.
The next two scenes are from operas by two more German composers. First there is a scene from Bluthochzeit, a lyric tragedy by Wolfgang Fortner composed in 1957. Mödl is nicely recorded at Erstaufführung, Stuttgart in 1971 under Ferdinand Leitner in Nachbarinnen! Mit einem Messer. Once againit feels as if she is living the music, such is her commitment. Secondly there is a scene from Aribert Reimann’s music-drama, Melusine from 1971. The composer dedicated Melusine to Mödl which she recorded in 1971 at the Schwetzinger Festspiele. In this excerpt conducted by Reinhard Peters, Reimann’s music sounds brassy and raucously percussive. Mödl as Pythia and bass Josef Greindl as Oger are in convincing voice. These are not operas that I am familiar with but these recordings demonstrate the singer’s fondness and support for what were then contemporary works.
Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) is represented by Mödl in the Countess’s celebrated act 2 scene and chorus Schweigt doch endlich! Alles Lüge. Ich bin müde. Nikša Bareza conducts the Chor und Orchester der Grazer Oper. She was seventy when this 1982 Graz recording was made yet her voice still seems remarkably agile and fluid.

The final work is Beethoven’s Sechs Lieder von Gellert, Op. 48 with Michael Raucheisen. This was recorded in 1950 at a RIAS recital in Berlin. From 1950 these are the oldest recordings on the disc and despite the excellence of Mödl’s performance I was left disappointed by Raucheisen’s instrument, sounding much of the time like a pub piano. Mödl’s voice is caught in fine condition with the registration of these songs suiting her admirably. I enjoyed the expressive force with which she imbues the opening song Bitten; her strength and clarity in Die liebe des Nächsten is striking too. In Vom Tode Mödl moves up securely to the high notes and in Die ehre Gottes aus der Natur is again remarkable in her high register. There is plenty of drama generated in Gottes Macht und Vorsehung and she copes admirably with the high tessitura of the final song Bußlied
I congratulate Profil for releasing this excellent set of previously unreleased live recordings. Sincere thanks are also owed to the Mödl enthusiast who provided these recordings. Opera-lovers everywhere will delight in this stunning voice.
Michael Cookson  

Track listing
CD 1
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
1. Gerechter Gott! - (Adriano’s scene, act 3) [7:29]
RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Heinrich Hollreiser
rec. 1951, Berlin, Germany
Tristan und Isolde:
2. Doch nun von Tristan. - Erzählung Und Fluch Der Isolde act 1 (Isolde's narrative and curse) [10:23]
Hertha Töpper (contralto as Brangäne),
Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper/Joseph Keilberth
rec. 10 August 1958, Münchner Opernfestspiele, Prinzregententheater, München, Germany.
3. Begehrt, Herrin was ihr wünscht. - act 1 (Tristan, Isolde) [7:20]
Ludwig Suthaus (tenor as Tristan);
Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper/Joseph Keilberth
rec: 10 August 1958, Münchner Opernfestspiele, Prinzregententheater, München, Germany.
4. War Morold dir so wert. - act 1 (Tristan, Isolde) [9:25]
Ludwig Suthaus (tenor as Tristan);
Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper/Joseph Keilberth
rec: 10 August 1958, Münchner Opernfestspiele, Prinzregententheater, München, Germany.
5. Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold. - act 2 (Isolde, Brangäne) [6:15]
Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano as Brangäne)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. 14 September 1955, Royal Festival Hall, London, England
6. Dein Werk? O tör’ge Magd! - act 2 (Tristan, Brangäne) [3:27]
Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano as Brangäne)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. 14 September 1955, Royal Festival Hall, London, England
7. So stürben wir, um ungetrennt. - act 2 (Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne, Kurwenal) [8:26]
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor as Tristan), Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano as Brangäne), Gustav Neidlinger (bass-baritone as Kurwenal), Guest appearance by the Staatsoper Stuttgart/Ferdinand Leitner,
rec. 1955, Royal Festival Hall, London, England
8. Mild und leise. - act 3 Isolde's Liebestod [6:20]
Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper/Joseph Keilberth,
rec. 10 August 1958, Münchner Opernfestspiele, Prinzregententheater, München, Germany
Wesendonck Lieder:
9. Der Engel [2:55]
10. Stehe still! [3:37]
11. Im Treibhaus [6:10]
12. Schmerzen [2:25]
13. Träume [4:44]
Bamberger Symphoniker/Joseph Keilberth
rec. May 1959, Kulturraum, Bamberg, Germany  
CD 2
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre:
1. Der Männer Sippe. act 1 (Sieglinde) [4:29]
rec. 25 July 1954, Bayreuth, Germany
2. Du bist der Lenz. Act 1 (Sieglinde) [2:08]
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Joseph Keilberth
rec. 25 July 1954, Bayreuth, Germany
Brünnhildes Schlussgesang, act 3:
3. Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort (Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene) [7:40]
4. Mein Erbe nun nehm' ich zu eigen [3:25]
5. Grane, mein Roß, sei mir gegrüßt [5:58]
Orchestre Symphonique de Vichy/Georges Sebastian
rec. 1 July 1957, Villa Strauss, Vichy, France.
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
6. Elektra: Was willst du? Seht doch dort! (Klytämnestra’s entrance) [16:25]
Ingrid Steger (soprano as Elektra), Elisabeth Rose (soprano as Vertraute), Rosemarie Rönisch (soprano as Schleppträgerin),
Staatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner
rec. 25 February 1967, Staastoper, Berlin, Germany
Wolfgang FORTNER (1907-1987)
7. Bluthochzeit: Nachbarinnen! Mit einem Messer. Schlusszene der Mutter, act 2 [3:39]
Orchester der Württembergischen Staatsoper/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. 30 May 1961, Erstaufführung, Stuttgart, Germany
Aribert REIMANN (b.1936)
8. Melusine: Heut, hier und jetzt wird es entschieden. Szene der Pythia, act 3 [8:13]
Josef Greindl (bass as Oger),
Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester (now Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR)/Reinhard Peters
rec. live: 29 April 1971 Aufnahme im Rahmen der Schwetzinger Festspiele, Germany
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
9. Pique Dame: Schweigt doch endlich! Alles Luge, Ich bin mude. Chor und Szene der Gräfin, act 2 [7:52]
Chor und Orchester der Grazer Oper/Nikša Bareza
rec. 18 September 1982, Graz, Austria
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sechs Lieder von Gellert, Op. 48:
10. Bitten [2:22]
11. Die liebe des Nächsten [2:53]
12. Vom Tode [4:28]
13. Die ehre Gottes aus der Natur [2:41]
14. Gottes Macht und Vorsehung [0:05]
15. Bußlied [6:00]
Michael Raucheisen, piano
rec. 1950, RIAS Berlin, Germany