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Lauritz Melchior - The King Size Hero
Lauritz Melchior (tenor and baritone)
various accompanying musicians
rec. 1913-1960
DOCUMENTS 600017 [10 CDs: 750:45]

Has there ever been a greater Wagner tenor? I doubt it. The earliest generations of Wagner singers are not documented on records and even those who were, during the first decades of the previous century, are difficult to evaluate when it comes to actual volume. It is absolutely clear, however, that besides a tremendous voice he also had exceptional stamina, seemingly never tiring, not even during performances of Tristan. He preserved his voice remarkably well even when he was approaching suxty and finally retired from the operatic stage. By then he had sung 223 Tristans, 183 Siegmunds, 144 Tannhäusers, 128 Siegfrieds, 107 ‘elder’ Siegfrieds, 106 Lohengrins, 81 Parsifals and around 2,100 concerts.
 
Ten years later his voice was still a pliant instrument, as we can hear on the first two tracks of CD 1, recorded at a gala concert in Copenhagen held 11 days after his seventieth birthday. The recording from Danish Radio is quite good, the orchestra sounds fine and Dorothy Larsen is a more than acceptable Sieglinde. We get two excerpts from the first act of Die Walküre, first the opening of the act when the exhausted Siegmund stumbles in through the door to Hunding’s dwelling and meets his twin sister, and then a challenge for any tenor of any age, Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. It’s a nuanced reading, the tone truly heroic, slightly drier than during his heyday, but his cries of Wölse are brilliant and rock-steady.
 
The same solo opens the long live-recorded last half-hour of the act with the NBC SO under Toscanini from 1941. Even more glow here and more youthful tone - but he was past fifty here too. Helen Traubel is a wonderful Sieglinde and Toscanini builds the tension to sheer ecstasy. A real thriller. From the same year, but now with the Met orchestra under Leinsdorf, comes the long excerpt from act II, the Todesverkündigung and to the end of the act. Here Traubel has advanced to Brünnhilde and the ‘newcomer’ Astrid Varnay sings Sieglinde. We also get glimpses of Schorr’s Wotan and Kipnis’s Hunding. What a team. Melchior’s dark-toned Siegmund is monumental. The sound is more variable, but no one can possibly listen to this without realizing that here is one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. Not only has he more power and brilliance than any other but also the ability to sing softly without losing momentum. Moreover Traubel outsings most of today’s Brünnhildes, Stemme and Dalayman excepted.
 
The remaining two tracks are even earlier. He was at the height of his powers in 1929 when he recorded the magnificent Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. Back in 1923 the acoustic horn caught him in company with another golden voice that of Frida Leider. There is some distortion here but that can’t mask the greatness of these two Wagnerians.
 
On CD 2 we get one of the classical recordings: act I and two chunks from act II of Die Walküre with Bruno Walter at the helm of the Vienna Phil, Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde - possibly unsurpassed - and Emanuel List a truly frightening Hunding. I reviewed the GROC issue of this music, recorded in 1935, some years ago and since I haven’t changed my opinion an iota I take the liberty to quote from that review:-
 
“Lotte Lehmann is not exactly youthful sounding but she is so perfectly attuned to the role and the interplay between her and Walter often produces magic. The concluding scene, from Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater until end of act (tr. 8 - 13), with the twins alone after Hunding has fallen asleep, is an object lesson in Wagner singing and Lehmann’s impassioned Du bist der Lenz (tr. 11) is possibly unsurpassed. In the excerpts from act 2 she is, if possible, even more impressive in Hinweg! Hinweg! (tr. 15), singing with such incandescence and identification that she seems to be present in my living-room.”
 
“Lauritz Melchior as her twin brother is also magnificent. The greatest Heldentenor ever with that baritonal timbre and seemingly limitless powers, impresses even more through his ability to colour his voice, to scale down to the most hushed intimacy with velvety tones to put even Bing Crosby in the corner. His first phrases sound tired and having been chased and running for hours, Siegmund must of necessity be exhausted when he stumbles into Hunding’s dwelling and falls unconsciously to the floor. Refreshed by the water Sieglinde treats him to, his voice retains the lustre and the steel. All through the act he is so responsive to the text and to Wagner’s markings from the marvellously soft and beautiful Nun weisst du, fragende Frau (tr. 6) to the glowing intensity of Winterstürme (tr. 10) and Siegmund heiss ich (tr. 13) that puts practically all later tenors in the shade - and he still seems to have so much power in reserve.
 
“The ominous sounds that announce the arrival of Hunding are more frightening than ever in Walter’s reading and he has certainly moulded them in accordance with Emanuel List’s black-voiced and formidable character. Other basses have been able to sing this part with more legato, but List is a singer and actor with great presence, also when just heard. Just try his Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht (tr. 7), where he can challenge the best.”
 
On CD 3 we get various excerpts from Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. The first In fernem Land (tr. 1) is from a Met broadcast in 1943, and the second (tr. 6) also from the Met but in 1947. Here we get the rest of the final scene and before that Lohengrin’s arrival from the first act. The third In fernem Land (tr. 7) is a rarity, recorded in Danish when he had just turned 30. One hears already his typical timbre and those who heard him in the flesh must have understood that here was an exceptional talent. Six years later, in 1926 when he recorded the Bridal Chamber Scene (tr. 2), he was the fully fledged Heldentenor. With the lovely Elsa of Emmy Bettendorf these nineteen minutes are a lesson in Wagner singing. The extracts from 1928 (trs. 3-4) just confirm this. The Tannhäuser excerpts are further proof of his greatness, not least the Rome Narration, so filled with pain. I have a slightly later recording of this scene in much better sound, but vocally they are very similar.
 
Tristan was arguably his greatest role and in any case the one he sang most often. Quite consistently we are offered here more than two hours of music from Tristan und Isolde. CD 4 contains four scenes from the legendary Met performance on 8 February 1941 conducted by Leinsdorf and with three Scandinavian stars, besides Melchior’s Tristan we hear Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde and - in the second act love scene - Kerstin Thorborg’s Brangäne. The latter’s Einsam wachend in der Nacht is something to savour and it is a pity that there isn’t a cue-point for it. In general this is a drawback in many places in this box. On the other hand this seamlessly constructed drama should be enjoyed continuously and Flagstad and Melchior on top form really trigger each other to give of their best. On CD 5 we get them again in the love duet from a performance at Covent Garden in 1936 and with Fritz Reiner in the pit there is no lack of either sensuality or drama. Sabine Kalter, the Polish mezzo-soprano, is a worthy Brangäne. On the first track of this disc we get a third hearing of the first half of the love duet, this time in a studio recording from 1929 with Frida Leider. Any discussion on the foremost Isoldes of the 20th century finally settles on three names: Leider, Flagstad and Nilsson. The relative order is harder to decide. I sometimes feel that Leider is the warmest, most human of the three, something that is confirmed by this recording. As Parsifal and the young Siegfried Melchior is again compelling, and even though the young hothead Siegfried is the least likeable of Wagner’s tenor heroes, in the first act anyway, Melchior’s gusto and thrust at least makes him truly thrilling, not least in the live excerpts on CDs 5 and 6 from Met 1937. The legendary studio recordings from London 1929 under Albert Coates are all here, complemented by Robert Heger’s from the early 1930s. The excerpts are crowned by the final scene from Siegfried, the duet with the newly awakened Brünnhilde, sung by Florence Easton, the remarkable British soprano who obviously could sing anything. Born in 1882 she made her American debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1906, was a leading Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly with more than three hundred appearances in the role. She was Puccini’s choice as Lauretta at the premiere of Gianni Schicchi in 1918, but also sang Elektra, Isolde and Brünnhilde. This recording of Heil dir, Sonne was her own favourite among her more than one hundred recordings. She was fifty at the time and had retired from singing the year before - temporarily it turned out. A couple of years later she actually was Brünnhilde opposite Melchior’s Siegfried in a performance of Siegfried at Covent Garden.
 
The excerpts from Götterdämmerung on CD 6 are also enlightening. Zur neuen Taten, the prologue from the opera, is from a 1941 broadcast with Helen Traubel - she was a great soprano - and with Toscanini conducting. In Brünnhild’, die hehrste Frau live from Covent Garden 1936 Melchior once again sings opposite Frida Leider’s Brünnhilde. Herbert Janssen is also there as Gunther. He was one of the best German baritones of the period in the lyrical repertoire and as a Lieder singer. Ludwig Weber makes a nasty Hagen. Wilhelm Furtwängler, no less, is the conductor. Friedrich Schorr, the greatest Wotan and Hans Sachs of the thirties, appears as Gunther on the studio recording of another scene from Götterdämmerung, made in 1929. From 1930, Heger conducting, comes Siegfried’s death scene, touchingly sung by Melchior.
 
On CD 8 are collected one more Winterstürme (1926) and several excerpts from Die Meistersinger, including the quintet from 1931, conducted by a young John Barbirolli. Elisabeth Schumann is there as Eva and Schorr as Hans Sachs. Allmächt’ger Vater from Rienzi, a noble reading, is also conducted by Barbirolli. Two of the Wesendonck songs, together with a song by Felix Weingartner, were recorded acoustically in 1923, as was Richard Strauss’s Cäcilie in 1926. 
 
Melchior also sang some French and Italian roles, though mostly in German. Arias from L’Africaine,Pagliacci and Otello were set down in London in 1930 with Barbirolli again at the helm. The Tosca arias were recorded in 1947 with the M-G-M Studio Orchestra. Then there is more Otello, also in duet with Herbert Janssen. The Amneris - Radames duet Gia i sacerdoti from Aïda was on an historical LP-anthology from the Polydor catalogue. I bought this some 45 years ago and it was nice to come back to it - for Melchior’s sake but also for the excellent Margarethe Arndt-Ober. The recording was made in 1923. The most impressive of these excerpts are Canio’s Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci and Niun mi tema from Otello. Though sung in German they have an intensity that very few tenors have been able to muster.
There is one more item on this disc and that is Di Provenza il mar, Germont’s aria fromLa traviata. That’s a baritone aria. Correct, and Melchior started his singing career as a baritone in Copenhagen. This recording was made in 1913, he was then only 23 but we hear a well schooled, warm and expressive voice. This was the year when he made his operatic debut as Silvio in Pagliacci, and after that he sang mostly minor roles for some years. He was told by a visiting mezzo-soprano who heard him singing a high C, that he was a tenor ‘with the lid on’. On her advice he restudied his voice for a year and made his second debut, now as a tenor, in 1918 in the title role of Tannhäuser, allegedly one of the most exhausting roles in the tenor repertoire. After that his career was on the go.
 
The remaining two discs are perhaps of lesser interest to Wagnerians, but they are valuable in their own right. CD 9 contains a collection of Danish songs, several of which are very early recordings (1913 and 1915) and thus we hear him also as a baritone. Track 3, recorded in 1939, is the Danish National Anthem, Behüt’ dich Gott! (tr. 21) is an aria from the once very popular German opera Der Trompeter von Säkkingen and the final track is a Swedish drinking song that has been bawled at innumerable parties but rarely as musically and brilliantly as here. Otherwise there are many beautiful songs by the cream of Danish song writers from the 19th century. Names like Lange-Müller, Weyse, Heise and Hartmann are still well known in Denmark. Admittedly the sound quality is such that a lot of detail is obscured and there is a lot of distortion, possibly due to worn originals.
 
CD 10 can be dismissed straight off. Here is a beefy Because, a not-so-bad Deep in my heart with a quite good soprano, an overblown I love thee (Grieg) with a chorus, Hollywood-like. The chorus and the arrangements spoil The lost chord and Romberg’s Serenade as well. The chorus was obviously dismissed before Lehár’s You are my heart’s delight, but it is rather charmless anyway. The rest is mostly spoken comedy, some of it with Judy Garland and Danny Kaye. The sound is definitely not hi-fi.
 
My advice is: buy the box, throw away CD 10 and label CD 9 ‘Handle with care’. The first eight discs, in spite of some less than attractive sound quality, contain some of the best Wagner singing ever recorded. The box is cheap and well worth the outlay. It costs, at some dealers, less than one full-price CD.
 
Göran Forsling 

 
Full contents list

CD 1 [80:06]: Radiosymfoniorkestret / Thomas Jenssen - Die Walkure: Wes' Herd dies auch sei hier muss ich rasten. Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini - Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. Der Manner Sippe sass hier im Saal Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond. Du bist der Lenz Siegmund heiss' ich. New York Met Opera House / Erich Leinsdorf - Siegmund sieh auf mich / Der dir nun folgt / So grusse mir Walhall / Zauberfest bezahmt ein Schlaf / Geh hin Knecht. Orchester der Berliner Staatsoper / Leo Blech - Umschnitt von Matritzen in unterschiedlicher Qualitat. Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater. Du bist der Lenz /Siegmund heiss' ich Frida Leider (WAGNER).
 
CD 2 [79:26]: Wiener Philharmoniker / Bruno Walter - Die Walkure Act 1 complete / Act 2. Raste nun hier / Hinweg! Flieh die Entweihte! / Zauberfest bezahmt ein Schlaf (WAGNER).
 
CD 3 [79:17]: New York Met Opera House/ Erich Leinsdorf - Lohengrin: In fernem Land. Orchester / Frieder Weissmann - Das susse Lied verhallt / Atmest du nicht... / Hochstes Vertraun hast du mir schon zu danken / Weh nun ist all' unser Gluck dahin. Berliner Staatsoper / Leo Blech - Hochstes Vertraun hast du mir schon zu danken. New York Met Opera House / Fritz Busch - Nun sei bedankt mein lieber Schwan / Heil Konig Heinrich / In fernem Land / Mein lieber Schwan / Fahr heim.... In fernem Land. London Symphony Orchestra / John Barbirolli - Tannhauser: Dir tone Lob. Orchester / Paul Breisach - O Furstin. Inbrunst im Herzen / Nach Rom gelangt' ich / Als ich erwacht' (WAGNER).
 
CD 4 [79:17]: New York Met Opera House / Erich Leinsdorf - Tristan und Isolde: Begehrt Herrin was ihr wunscht / War Morold dir so wert / Isolde! Geliebte! - Tristan! Geliebter! / O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe / Einsam wachend in der Nacht / Lausch Geliebter / O Konig das kann ich dir nicht sagen / Als fur ein fremdes Land / Verrater! ha! Zur Rache Konig / Die alte Weise - was weckt sie mich / Dunkt dich das? / O diese Sonne (WAGNER).
 
CD 5 [78:14]: Orchester der Berliner Staatsoper / London Symphony Orchestra / Albert Coates - Tristan und Isolde: Isolde! Geliebte! - Tristan! Geliebter! / O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe. London Symphony Orchestra / Robert Heger - O Konig / Wohin nun Tristan scheidet Wie sie selig... Royal Opera House London / Fritz Reiner - Isolde! Geliebte! - Tristan! Geliebter!. O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe Einsam wachend... Lausch Geliebter. Die Wunde Orchester / Paul Breisach- Parsifal: Amfortas!. Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy - Nur eine Waffe taugt. New York Met Opera House / Arthur Bodanzky - Siegfried: Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert Selige ode... Wie weck ich die Maid (WAGNER).
 
CD 6 [78:36]: NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini - Gotterdammerung: Zu neuen Taten teurer Helde. Orchester der Berliner Staatsoper / Leo Blech - Hast du Gunther ein Weib? / Was nahmst du am Eide... Royal Opera House London/ Wilhelm Furtwangler - Brunnhild' die hehrste Frau. London Symphony Orchestra / Robert Heger - So singe Held / Mime hiess ein murrischer Zwerg / Brunnhilde! Heilige Braut. Siegfried: Hoiho! Hau ein! / Da hast du die Stucken / Als zullendes Kind zog ich dich auf Vieles lehrtest du Mime. New York Met Opera House / Arthur Bodanzky - Schmiede mein Hammer ein hartes Schwert. (WAGNER)
 
CD 7 [77:32]: London Symphony Orchestra / Albert Coates - Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert / Hoho! Hoho! Hohai! Schmiede, mein Hammer / Dass der mein Vater nicht ist / Da liegt auch du, dunkler Wurm / Kenntest du mich, kühner Spross / Zieh him! London Symphony Orchestra / Robert Heger - Selige Öde / Was ruht dort schlummernd / Komm, mein Schwert, schneide das Eisen. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London / Robert Heger - Heil dir Sonne / Dort seh’ ich Grane / Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich (WAGNER)
 
CD 8 [77:12]: London Symphony Orchestra / John Barbirolli - L’Africaine: Land so wunderbar (MEYERBEER) Pagliacci: Jetzt spielen (Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio) (LEONCAVALLO) M-G-M Studio Orchestra / /Giacomo Spadoni - Tosca: Recondita armonia (Wie sich die Bilder gleichen) / E lucevan le stelle (Und es blitzten die Sterne) (PUCCINI). Orchester - La Traviata: Di Provenza il mar (Hat dein heimatliches Land) / Aida: Schon sind die Priester all’ vereint (Gia i sacerdoti) / Otello: Ora per sempre addio / Si pel ciel / New Symphony Orchestra / John Barbirolli -Gott warum hast du gehauft dies Elend / Jeder Knabe kann mein Schwert mir entreissen. (VERDI) LSO / Lawrance Collingwood - Die Walkure: Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond. Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Morgenlich leuchtend. - Am stillen Herd. LSO / Robert Heger - Abendlich gluhend. LSO/ John Barbirolli - Selig wie die Sonne. LSO / John Barbirolli - Rienzi: Allmacht'ger Vater blick herab. Schmerzen / Traume (WAGNER). Liebesfeier (WEINGARTNER). Cacilie (R STRAUSS).
 
CD 9 [72:44]: Johan Hye-Knudsen - Danmark (Rygaard Juel) Flaget (Rygaard Juel). Der er et yndigt Land (Kryer Oehlenschlager). Kongernes Konge (Hornemann Reeke). Mitglieder des Koniglichen. Foraarssang (Henriques Reumert) / Den gang jeg var kun saa stor som saa (Heise). Skovensomhed (Heise Aarestrup). I Wurzburg ringe de Klokker til Fest (P E Lange-Muller). Hvor Nilen vander (Rung H Andersen). Da freden drog over lande (Bonnen). Lover de Herre den mgtige Konge (Anon). Den signede dag (Weyse Grundtvig). Velkommen igen Guds engle sm (Berggreen Grundtvig). Md mig i nat i drmme (Friedmann Whitson / Clausen). Smandsliv (Bechgaard). Fager er den blide vr (Heise v D Recke de Born). Ornen Lofter med staerke slag (Heise Bjornson). Nattens!daemrende!tager!(Mortensen Ploug). Kongeas!bolger! (S Andersen Jensen). Elskede!min fra den unge var (Kjellerup Holm). Christiansborg (Hovalt Nathansen Carlsen). Behut' dich Gott! Es war' so schon gewesen (Nessler). Flyv Fugl flyv (Hartmann Winther). Serenade (Lange-Muller Drachmann). Studentersangforeningens Chor/ Johan Hye-Knudsen.
 
CD 10 [47:21]: LIVE BROADCASTS 1943 to 1945 - HERBERT: I want what I want when I want it. D'HARDALOT: Because. ROMBERG: Deep in my heart. GRIEG: I love thee. COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Life and Death. SULLIVAN: The Lost Chord. ROMBERG: Serenade. LEHAR: You are my heart's delight. Comedy Conversation / Home on the range. Modern travel on Opera with Judy Garland Danny Kaye. Sketch from Dinah Shore Program of 29 July 1944 including La Traviata (parody) and final song Jeg elsker dig (Grieg). What is America to me (Robinson).



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