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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung - Act III
Birgit Nilsson – Brünnhilde; Wolfgang Windgassen – Siegfried; Gottlob Frick – Hagen; Marie Collier – Gutrune; Thomas Stewart – Gunther; Barbara Hall – Woglinde; Gwyneth Jones – Wellgunde; Maureen Guy – Floßhilde
Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Georg Solti
rec. live, 6 September 1963, Royal Albert Hall, London
Text and translations not included
TESTAMENT SBT1506 [75:05]

This release from Testament brings us a bit of Wagner performance history. This concert performance of Act III of Götterdämmerung was given at the Proms as part of an all-Wagner concert during the 150th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. As Tony Locantro relates in his notes it was in effect a dress rehearsal for the new Royal Opera production of the music drama which opened on 11 September as the latest instalment of a Covent Garden ‘Ring’ cycle, directed by Hans Hotter. Interestingly, this was the first time that Solti had conducted any of Götterdämmerung in public. The following year most of these soloists took part in the Decca recording of Götterdämmerung in Vienna. The cast changes were as follows: Claire Watson sang Gutrune on the recording, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was Gunther, and Lucia Popp replaced Barbara Hall as Woglinde. The fact that changes were made for the recording shouldn’t be taken to mean that the Covent Garden cast was inferior; on this showing there wasn’t a weak link.

For a start, there’s a fine trio of Rhinemaidens. At the start of the Act Barbara Hall, Gwyneth Jones and the late Maureen Guy all sing extremely well, both individually and as a trio, as they first tease Siegfried and then issue him with a dire warning of what may befall him if he retains the Ring. Later, Marie Collier and Thomas Stewart impress as Gutrune and Gunther respectively. Collier, in particular, conveys very convincingly her anguish when she learns of the death of Siegfried.

Wolfgang Windgassen really makes his vocal presence felt as Siegfried. His narration of his past dealings with Mime and how he found Brünnhilde is very involving. And as he comes to this Act of the opera fresh, rather than at the end of a full performance, there’s no hint of tiredness in the voice. The hero’s final solo, as he dies, thinking of Brünnhilde, is very affecting. There’s nothing heroic about the scheming Hagen and Gottlob Frick’s big black-toned voice is ideally suited to this role. Even when, superficially, he softens his tone there’s an air of menace.

But dominating the proceedings is the Brünnhilde of Birgit Nilsson. Her very first phrase (“Schweigt eures Jammers jauchzenden Schwall”) is imperious and sets the tone for a commanding performance. Like Windgassen, I’m sure that because she hadn’t had to sing through the earlier acts she’s able to give even more on this occasion.. The Immolation scene itself is launched majestically (“Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort”). A little later, however, as she recalls Siegfried (“Wie Sonne lauter strahlt mir sein Licht”) she controls her voice impressively in order to invest the music with tenderness. In Brünnhilde’s last moments (from “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!”) Nilsson’s singing is absolutely gripping. During the whole of the Immolation scene she commands the stage absolutely; this is regal singing and compelling characterisation.

I said that Nilsson dominates the proceedings. Actually, that’s not quite true: she doesn’t dominate alone because Solti is just as powerful a presence. I know that some expert Wagnerians find his way with Wagner’s music overwrought and too driven. All I can say is that I find him completely convincing here. Yes, his conducting is often very tense but so is the music. It seems to me that his direction is sure-footed and compelling with a fine sense of drama and pacing. The orchestra isn’t flawless but it plays very well for him. The Funeral Music is dark and intensely dramatic at the start, presaging a very powerful rendition. As for the end of the opera, the orchestral sound at the moment of Immolation and in its immediate aftermath is apocalyptic while in the closing pages Solti achieves genuine grandeur. I would not have known, had I not been told, that he had never conducted this music in public before.

At the end there is a huge ovation from the Proms audience. That’s completely understandable in view of what they’ve just heard. It’s just a pity that they can’t let the last chord decay for even a second before voicing their approval. It seems that even in 1963 the Promenaders were not known for their restraint.

This is a BBC recording – I presume the original tapes have been used. It’s come up jolly well when you consider the recording is now over fifty years old. The orchestra sounds a bit undernourished at times – but not seriously so. I suspect all the singers were positioned at the front of the stage – that’s how it sounds – and without exception their voices register clearly and with presence. Paul Baily has re-mastered the recording and has done so skilfully. No one need hold back from acquiring this disc on sonic grounds.

There’s a very good background note by Tony Locantro which usefully links together the Covent Garden ring cycle, the Decca recording and this present performance. Sadly, no libretto is provided. A PDF is available from the Testament website, however, and I suspect that many people who invest in this set will already have access to the text and a translation.

As I said at the outset, this disc contains a bit of Wagner performance history. It’s also a fine performance in its own right.

John Quinn


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