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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Scenes from Götterdämmerung, Siegfried, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Wesendonck Lieder
Astrid Varnay (soprano), Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor), Hertha Töpper (mezzo)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Bamberger Symphoniker/Leopold Ludwig, Hermann Weigert, Ferdinand Leitner
rec. 1954-59. Bamberg, Munich, Germany
No sung texts provided
Full Programme listing at end of review
ELOQUENCE 480 7283 [80:37 + 80:38]

For some years a much treasured disc in my collection has been an all-Wagner single disc of Tristan und Isolde scenes with the orchestral song cycle Wesendonck Lieder sung by Astrid Varnay (1918-2006). It’s on Deutsche Grammophon mono 423 955-2. Now this double set Astrid Varnay Sings Wagner reissued by Eloquence contains all the material from the above disc together with some additional tracks from three DG sessions held in 1954-59 in Munich and Bamberg. There is another release titled Wagner:Der Ring des Nibelungen on Deutsche Grammophon 432 720-2, which I don’t have but I believe it includes most of the material from the first disc of this Eloquence set.
Swedish by birth and raised in America, Ibolyka Astrid Mária Várnay, the daughter of two Hungarian opera singers, the coloratura soprano Mária Jávor and Alexander Várnay a dramatic tenor, grew up steeped in the operatic way of life. She was advantaged by her pedigree, valuable connections and personal tutoring from her mother. With Hermann Weigert - later to become her husband - the twenty-two year old Varnay in preparation for her auditions at the New York Met had knuckled down to extensive study. Amassing an extensive knowledge of all the major Wagnerian operas and some Italian repertoire Varnay memorised thirteen challenging roles. Her proficiency in five languages astonished the Met selection board including Erich Leinsdorf. She was offered a three year contract insisting on a name change to Astrid Varnay.
Varnay progressed to become one of the leading Wagnerian hochdramatisch sopranos of her generation with a formidable mezzo capability. She made her sensational debut aged twenty-three replacing an indisposed Lotte Lehmann. That was at the Met in 1941 as Sieglinde in Die Walküre - a performance that was being broadcast on radio. Specialising in singing heavy dramatic soprano roles Wieland Wagner engaged Varnay in 1951 to sing at the first post-war Bayreuth. There she sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and became a key figure at the Festival. Later, in 1959, Varnay made her home in Munich becoming a stalwart of the Opera House and making her last appearance on stage there in 1995 to mark a remarkable fifty-five years on the operatic stage. She died in Munich aged eighty-eight in 2006.
The material on this Eloquence disc is taken from three separate DG recording sessions. The first sessions took place on 2-4 June 1954 at the Herkulessaal in Munich with Hermann Weigert conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Those mono recordings include wonderfully dramatic scenes from act III of Siegfried notably Brünnhilde’s Awakening with Varnay as Brünnhilde and the French born/German tenor Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, probably the finest Heldentenor of the day. Also from act III of Götterdämmerung there is a striking Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene with Varnay singing Brünnhilde. Next Isolde’s Narration and Curse scene from act I of Tristan und Isolde with Varnay as Isolde and Austrian mezzo Hertha Töpper in the role of Brangäne. I was immediately struck by Varnay’s powerful voice. It displays a dusky, well rounded timbre. Noteworthy is her remarkable and seemingly endless top register together with a secure mezzo facility. As well as her wide breadth of expression and unflappable stage personality Varnay was a gifted actress, well respected in the field for her prowess in characterisation. Extremely self aware she was able to employ her aptitude for what she described as “musico-dramatic flexibility” and this stood her in great stead. Much loved by audiences Windgassen might not have had the most forceful projection but was known for his keen dramatic expertise and elevated musicianship. Here the assured tenor’s compelling vocals take on a highly attractive timbre. Hertha Töpper impresses too with her smooth dark and effortless tones.
Varnay’s next recording sessions were on 5-9 September 1955 in mono returning to the wonderful acoustic of the Herkulessaal in Munich. Once again the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is used but this time under the baton of Leopold Ludwig. With Siegmund! Sieh auf mich! from act II of Die Walküre Varnay is Brünnhilde with Windgassen singing Siegmund. Then comes the Prologue from Götterdämmerung with Varnay as Brünnhilde and Windgassen as Siegfried. The same recording session also enshrined Varnay singing the Wesendonck Lieder to a text by Mathilde Wesendonck. Varnay’s performance of this cycle issung with deep concentration and such sensuous beauty. It is the finest I have heard and my first choice. I have played this stunning Varnay performance of the magnificent third song Im Treibhaus (In the Greenhouse / Hothouse) at a number of presentations at Recorded Music societies and it has always been favourably received. 
Varnay’s final recording sessions took place on 14-16 April 1959 at the Kulturraum in Bamberg. Here the Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Ferdinand Leitner set down scenes from act II and III of Tristan und Isolde. Of special note are the marvellously performed Love Duet from act II and the Liebestod from act III with Windgassen as Tristan and Töpper as Brangäne. This reissue indicates that this is stereo sound but my release on Deutsche Grammophon 423 955-2 describes the sound as mono.
Without reservation I enjoyed every track on this Eloquence release. Although some of the mono recordings are around sixty years old there is nothing at all to worry about with the sound which is very good for its age. Astrid Varnay singing Wagner is always an exciting prospect and this reissued material brought together on a double set certainly does her proud.
Michael Cookson 

Full Programme listing: 

Astrid Varnay Sings Wagner
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Die Walküre (Act II):
1. Siegmund! Sieh? auf mich! [17:46]
Brünnhilde, Siegmund
rec. mono, 5-9 September 1955, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
Siegfried (Act III):
2. Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht! (Brünnhilde’s Awakening) [7:46]
3. So starb nicht meine Mutter [11:48]
4. Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich [11:51]
Brünnhilde, Siegfried
rec. mono, 2-4 June 1954, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
5. Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde [13:23]
Brünnhilde, Siegfried
rec. mono, 5-9 September 1955, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
6. Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort (Brünnhilde’s Immolation) [17:50]
Brünnhilde - Astrid Varnay (soprano); Siegfried (Siegmund track 1) - Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor),
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Leopold Ludwig (tracks 1, 5); Hermann Weigert (tracks 2, 3, 4, 6)
rec. mono, 2-4 June 1954, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
Tristan und Isolde:
1. Weh, ach wehe! Dies zu dulden (Isolde’s Narration and Curse, Act I) [11:48]
Brangäne, Isolde
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Hermann Weigert
rec. mono, 2-4 June 1954, Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich, Germany
2. Isolde! - Tristan! - Geliebte! [17:27]
3. O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe [5:12]
4. Einsam wachend in der Nacht (Act II) [17:48]
Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne,
5. Mild und leise wie er lächelt (Liebestod, Act III) [7:01]
Isolde - Astrid Varnay (soprano), Tristan - Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor), Brangäne - Hertha Töpper (mezzo-soprano)
Bamberger Symphoniker/Ferdinand Leitner
rec. stereo 14-16 April 1959, Kulturraum, Bamberg, Germany
Wesendonck Lieder song cycle:
6. I. Engel [3:20]
7. II. Stihe still! [3:16]
8. III. Im Treibhaus [6:28]
9. IV. Schmerzen [2:35]
10. V. Träume [5:12]