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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser Overture [14:56]
Siegfried Idyll [17:00]
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod [15.53]
Siegfried's Rhine Journey [12:02]
Siegfried's Funeral March [7:58]
Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene [18:05]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. live, 1 July 1963, Kursaal, Scheveningen
TESTAMENT SBT21507 [47:50 + 38:05]

It is interesting to read in Richard Osborne’s accompanying booklet notes how Monteux was more often than not passed over by concert management when it came to Wagner, a composer that ‘... haunts me and at times I feel possessed by it’. The reason, he reckoned, was simple: ‘My name is Pierre Monteux born in Paris, not Klaus Schmidt born in Köln’. Frontiers were a determining factor, as far as he was concerned, so he conducted Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel. Remarkably, in his forty odd years in the States, where he conducted a great deal of opera, mainly at the New York Met, he was never asked to do Wagner.

The year 1963 marked the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and Monteux must have thought his luck was in when the Holland Festival granted him an all-Wagner concert. Added to that was his securing the services of Birgit Nilsson, a singer he greatly admired, and whose Wagner credentials were firmly established. Nilsson was considered by many the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time, the successor to the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, particularly in the role of Brünnhilde. She graces us with her presence in the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung at the end of the concert. In the first half she sings the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde.

The impressive Tannhäuser Overture, which kicks off proceedings, is a foretaste of things to come. Monteux gets under the skin of this music and intuitively judges its cumulative thrust. It is a noble and intensely powerful reading. The peace and tranquillity of the Siegfried Idyll, which follows, provides a soothing contrast. Comfortably paced, the performance unveils the ardent tenderness of Wagner’s masterly writing. I found more peace and serenity in this performance than in the disappointing BBC Legends (4096) performance with the RPO from November 1960.

In the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde we are able to sit back and savour the lush chromaticism of Wagner’s music in Monteux’s glowing and incandescent interpretation. The Liebestod is overwhelming. Nilsson is resplendent, with the vocal line instinctively contoured. Monteux accentuates the sensuous and angst-ridden qualities, building the music up to a highly-charged climax.

From Götterdämmerung there are two orchestral selections — ‘Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey’ and ‘Siegfried's Funeral March’. The former must surely have been one of the high points in the concert. Monteux's opening evokes the dark and the sombre, achieving a superbly controlled pp, as marked in the score, and gradually builds up the dynamic as the dawn breaks. At four minutes in the brass enters triumphantly in exaltation and things truly catch fire. The success of the recording is further enhanced by the outstanding way the engineers have managed to harness the solo winds and brass.

The final item is a peerless rendition of Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene and, as in the Liebestod, Nilsson is vocally on top form. What strikes me whenever I hear her is the sheer size, power, precision and penetrating quality of the voice. Monteux’s inspirational conducting and the assured playing of the Concertgebouw prove a heady mix. You sense that all concerned have utter commitment to the music, and the resulting rewards are immense.

Although recorded in mono, the sound is more than acceptable, and when you listen to music-making of this calibre it becomes a secondary consideration anyway. Testament are to be commended for releasing this valuable historical document.

Stephen Greenbank



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