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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The All-Wagner Concert, 22 February 1941
Lohengrin (1850): Act One Prelude [9.32]
Tannhäuser (1845): Dich, teure Halle [5.41]+
Die Walküre (1870): Act One, Scene Three [27.46]*+
Tristan und Isolde (1865): Act One Prelude [12.24]
Götterdämmerung (1876): Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [20.38]: Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March [13.14]: Brünnhilde’s Immolation [20.21]*+
*Lauritz Melchior (tenor), +Helen Traubel (soprano)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York
includes radio announcements and interval talk by Samuel Chotzinoff [20.56]
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO105 [55.15 + 73.29]

While we have two more or less complete recordings of Wagner’s Ring conducted by Wilhelm Fürtwängler, this set contains only extracts from the cycle conducted by his arch-rival Arturo Toscanini. The lack of a complete representation was regretted by Alan Blyth in his review of recordings of the Ring in the first volume of Opera on Record. The recordings have been available before, and I first encountered them in one of the boxes of Toscanini issued by RCA in the 1960s. The sound was pretty execrable even then, closely miked and quite lacking in atmosphere. This re-mastering by Andrew Rose cannot do much about the close observation of both singers and orchestra, but it does give us a much better reflection of the acoustic of the Carnegie Hall. It was in fact a much more responsive venue than the airless sound of the NBC studios where so many of Toscanini’s recordings during the 1940s and 1950s were made. Rose has been assisted by the provision by an anonymous donor of a set of transfers from the original NBC acetates. These include the original broadcast introductions and interval talk (separately tracked), not previously available so far as I aware.
What it also cannot do much about are the occasional slips made by the performers. This is surprising in singers like Melchior who had been singing these roles for years, although perhaps less so in the case of Traubel whose Wagnerian career was relatively brief. Melchior had a bad reputation for rhythmic slackness which Toscanini was clearly not prepared to tolerate. Here he actually contrives to omit one whole phrase from the Dawn Duet in Götterdämmerung, quite inexcusable in the case of a concert performance. Then again, there is the voice. Melchior was quite simply the great Wagnerian heldentenor of the twentieth century, and there has been nobody quite like him since. He had a naturally huge voice which was capable of coping with all Wagner’s superhuman demands. He showed a willingness to engage with the words and when singing quietly he had a honeyed ring to his tone which eluded most of his rivals. Some later singers of these roles – Windgassen, Remedios, Jerusalem and Domingo, to take some of the most notable examples which immediately spring to mind – could rival him in the latter two attributes. None of them had the sheer sense of a voice which could face the most strenuous challenges without flinching. At the time of this recording Melchior was coming towards the end of his career but all his many virtues remain in evidence. There is never any sense of strain such as afflicts so many modern interpreters of the heldentenor repertoire.
The concert opens with the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin, given an expansive reading which belies Toscanini’s reputation for fast speeds. That said, it must be observed that his Bayreuth performances in the early 1930s were noted for their extreme slowness. Notable also is the employment of portamento in the opening string phrases (at 1.23 for example) which is definitely of its period and, it must be admitted, sounds rather odd to modern ears. At the climax the trumpet phrases at 6.19 have a brassy abrasiveness which sounds more Verdian than Wagnerian. However the descending phrases at the end, as the Grail ascends back into Heaven, have all the warmth and breadth that one could desire. The audience applause at the end sounds oddly luke-warm, even given that it is faded down to accommodate the words of the radio announcer. They are not much more enthusiastic about Helen Traubel’s delivery of Elizabeth’s greeting from Tannhäuser. The announcer then informs us that some latecomers in the audience are now taking their seats … what on earth were they doing?
The scene from Die Walküre, on the other hand, is a real corker. The bass trumpet at 0.54 is a bit on the reticent side, but from the moment of Melchior’s entry (1.12) the performance springs to life. The love duet bristles with passion, and Toscanini allows Melchior sufficient time to deliver his spring song with delicacy before he reverts to full heroic mode for the end of the scene. There is a momentary blip in the orchestra during the concluding bars, but the audience – now reinforced with the latecomers – seem properly to appreciate what they have heard. After this the interval talk does not add much to the listener’s pleasure or information. It’s largely a factual summary of Wagner’s financial salvation by Mad King Ludwig lifted bodily from Ernest Newman’s then recently published Life of Wagner. Radio 3 does this sort of thing so much better nowadays.
The second disc begins with the Prelude to Act One of Tristan und Isolde, a performance which like Lohengrin gives the lie to Toscanini’s reputation for speed even when he presses forward towards climaxes. Only some string portamenti (as at 1.15) betray the age of the recording, which has plenty of passion and commitment as one would expect. The sound too has body and resonance which was not evident in earlier transfers. It is no worse than in Furtwängler’s 1952 EMI recording, for example. Interestingly we are here given Wagner’s own concert conclusion, quoting material from the Liebestod to bring the Prelude to a more satisfactory than the usual dying fall. Ernest Newman in Wagner Nights referred to this version as ‘usual’ during the 1940s but it seems to have fallen into nearly total disuse in recent years. I heard it for the first time in a Proms performance only last year.
The final segment of this two-disc set is devoted to three extracts from Götterdämmerung. These are somewhat more than the usual ones, since we are also given Siegfried’s death scene preceding the Funeral March. Less satisfactorily we are also given a ‘concert conclusion’ to the Rhine Journey which is certainly not by Wagner. It contradicts in its final bars the whole transition from joy to tragedy through which the composer has been working for five minutes. In fact, it appears it may have been prepared by the composer Engelbert Humperdinck who was an assistant at Bayreuth during the Festivals. This is a really tawdry affair, and one is surprised that Toscanini, usually a stickler for the letter of the score — although less so than reputation would have us believe — was prepared to tolerate it. Melchior’s omission of his line at 11.24 is, as it happens, only momentarily disconcerting, but Traubel’s top C at the end of the duet (13.12) is not a pleasant sound, showing decided evidence of strain. There is also a slight slip in Siegfried’s offstage horn call after he has left Brünnhilde (14.50) which is excusable in the context of a live performance.
For some totally obscure reason, we do not hear Melchior in the context of Siegfried’s death scene. Instead Toscanini delivers a purely orchestral rendition of the music that accompanies his words. This then leads directly into the Funeral March, which sounds in places rather forlorn without the vocal line. This is however a very great performance indeed ruined by an obnoxiously brassy trumpet delivery of the Siegfried theme at 9.25. With its vibrato-laden and almost jazzy tone it sounds quite inappropriate to the music. Add to this some unresonant cymbal clashes that resemble dropped tea-trays. The concert conclusion to the March is the standard one used by many conductors, which does not disturb the music at all.
Traubel is excellent in her delivery of the Immolation, helped by Toscanini’s accommodatingly slow speed for her central address to Wotan. This allows for some really inward singing, as at her almost whispered “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” This is only spoilt by the tubby tone of the bass trumpet (at 9.30). It sounds here like the keyed trombone that Piston in his Orchestration states was sometimes used as a substitute in American orchestras at the period but which lacks any sense of proper heroic strength. At the end Toscanini permits the addition of some sound effects — unless they are simply very enthusiastic percussion players — to represent the collapse of the Gibichung Hall. These come over spectacularly here in the new re-mastering. His delivery of the closing pages does not have the subtlety that Barenboim achieved in his La Scala Ring which I reviewed earlier this year. Commendably he avoids the inauthentic pause before the final eight bars of the score even if he does not ideally ‘bring out’ the descending bass line at this point.
Wagner’s music really benefits from modern stereo sound, but the effect of this recording made over sixty years ago gives a very good representation of the scores. There’s none of the forward placement of the voices and muffled orchestral sound that so often spoils vintage recordings of this period. The instrumental detail is always clear, and the audience – properly enthusiastic at the end – are as quiet as mice even during the quietest passages. In his closing announcement the commentator spends much time advertising a forthcoming broadcast featuring George Szell — whom he persistently pronounces “Shell” — rather than commenting on what we have just heard. Since these announcements are separately tracked they can easily be edited out by listeners. As is usual with these Pristine re-masterings, information with the disc itself is limited. To judge by their usual standards an immense amount of valuable information will presumably be made available online — although I could not find this at the time of writing.
Paul Corfield Godfrey