Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre: Act II (San Francisco, 1936)
Wotan - Friedrich Schorr (bass-baritone)
Brünnhilde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Fricka - Kathryn Meisle (mezzo)
Siegmund - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Sieglinde - Lotte Lehmann (soprano)
Hunding - Emanuel List (bass)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. live, 13 November 1936, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. AAD
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1272 [74:28]
The prospect is mouth-watering: "the two greatest living Wagnerian sopranos" of their age - and probably any age - alongside the indisputable king of Wagnerian tenors and one of the most distinguished and celebrated bass-baritones ever to sing Wotan, all on stage together under the fiery baton of Fritz Reiner.
Nothing in this world is perfect, so a few caveats: first, the sound is gritty, swishy, hissy and derives from an AM broadcast - even though one happily listens through it. Secondly, although Friedrich Schorr is monumentally authoritative and delivers his narration tellingly, there is no denying that even though he is here only 48 years old, he is past his best. He can be heard husbanding his diminished vocal resources, either faking or yelling his top notes - as in "O heilige Schmach!". His last, climactic command, "Zurück von dem Speer! In Stücken das Schwert!" is inaudible in the orchestral din, apart from the first word which can just, faintly, be heard, Thirdly, the three big cuts, totalling more than twenty minutes, are serious and mar the Fricka-Wotan argument in Scene1, Wotan's narration in Scene 2, and the “Todesverkündigung” in Scene 4. I suppose for some who find too many longueurs in this act, which can easily seem anti-climactic or disappointing after the thrills of Act 1, these cuts might even be welcome, as they were for many of the patrons in 1936 but they will scandalise the true Wagner aficionado. Whatever the damage, I can live with it in return for being able to hear such glorious voices. Finally, and most irritatingly of all, the announcer Marcia Davenport invents "a slowly descending curtain" to cover the fact that the broadcast is truncated 43 bars before the end of the Act while Wotan has still to dismiss Hunding and voice his wrath at Brünnhilde's disobedience in attempting to protect Siegmund. It’s a shocking, early example of the inflexible tyranny of NBC programme scheduling.
And yet, and yet ... this is still a collector's item and the only extant audio record of the frequent collaboration between Kirsten Flagstad and Lotte Lehmann. Both are phenomenal, Flagstad in particular reminding us of the superhuman gleam of that extraordinary voice in its prime, embodying in her more aloof, hochdramatischer soprano a Brünnhilde as yet untouched by mortal tragedy. Lehmann's remarkable Sieglinde is all desperate, womanly suffering, her pure intense tone vividly conveying Sieglinde’s desperation and hysteria. As the commentator puts it, "one is woman and the other superwoman". Those performances alone would be reason enough to treasure this issue but add the thrilling tenor of Lauritz Melchior and you have true Rheingold; the moment when Melchior lets fly on the climactic phrase “Umfängt Siegmund Sieglinde dort?” is simply marvellous. The principals are ably supported by the lesser-known but impressive Kathryn Meisle as an impassioned Fricka, even if her top notes are occasionally too cautious. The few bars given at the end of the Act to Emmanuel List remind us of why he was the Hunding du jour. Reiner conducts with real drive; he has a totally natural and compelling feeling for the ebb and flow of the music, encompassing both the high drama of Sieglinde's ravings and the grave beauty of passages such as the Introduction to the “Todesverkündigung”, the scene which for me forms the highlight of this Act. The introductory commentary is a quaint little gem of period sexism, musical biographer Marcia Davenport being condescendingly described as "an attractive brunette".
Regarding the provenance of this re-mastering, I quote here the note in full: "First released by our predecessor organization, educational Media Associates of America, Inc., in 1976 on LP-426, this recording was subsequently reissued in a restoration by Maggi Payne in 1999 as Music & Arts CD-1048, and was newly restored for the present edition in 2013 from recently discovered NBC transcription discs by Ward Marston and Aaron Z. Snyder." The sound is still hissy but nowhere near as harsh as previous issues.
The obvious comparison to be made with this is the Act II issued on EMI, which was derived from an assemblage of recordings made in 1935 and 1938 in Berlin and Vienna with two different conductors (Brunos: Walter and Seidler-Winkler), two different orchestras (the VPO and the Berlin Staatsoper) and two different singers as both Wotan and Brünnhilde (Ella Flesch and Alfred Jerger in Scene 5 only) but again featuring Lehmann and Melchior. Marta Fuchs is a far from inadequate Brünnhilde, Margarete Klose a vibrant Fricka and a young Hans Hotter is in superb form as Wotan. Despite the absence of Flagstad - indubitably a lamentable loss for all Fuchs' competence - the superior studio sound and a preferable Wotan might for some collectors make it a more attractive option; the true Wagnerite will want both.
If, by the way, you find the truncated ending too much to endure, Legato Classics have issued the same performance and patched the ending with another roughly contemporaneous recording by Schorr.
A collector's item and the only extant audio record of the frequent collaboration between the phenomenal Flagstad and Lehmann.
Masterwork Index: Die Walküre
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