Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre: Act 1
René Kollo – Siegmund
Eva-Maria Bundschuh – Sieglinde
John Tomlinson – Hunding
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Klaus Tennstedt
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, 7 and 10 October 1991

I was delighted to receive this performance for review. Tennstedt is a conductor whom I regard with a feeling only just this side of idolatry. I first heard him live in a performance of this same Wagner act in October 1981, exactly ten years before the one under review here, with Jessye Norman, Robert Schunk and Marius Rintzler. From the mid 1980s, I attended every concert he gave in London until his final ones in 1993. Ill health forced his retirement at the—for a conductor—early age of 68 in 1994. He died in 1998. The 1981 concert was broadcast (I have the tape a friend recorded while I attended the event), so it would be wonderful to have this made available at some stage, though I expect that the fee Madame Norman would ask to allow its issue would make it financially unviable. Neither of the 1991 performances was broadcast. At that time, the LPO were regularly recording their own concerts, possibly with the intention of starting their own label, but the microphones disappeared after a couple of years, so I assumed it was just too difficult or too expensive to continue doing so.

I would think, though I do not know, that Tennstedt must have conducted Wagner whilst at Dresden, Schwerin and Kiel before his international fame began in the mid 1970s. In any case, as far as I am aware, Act 1 of Die Walküre is the only complete act of a Wagner opera conducted by Tennstedt that survives in a recording. Anyone who listens to this disc cannot but agree that this is a deeply regrettable situation, because this performance is simply wonderful. It is alive from the first note. The prelude portrays Siegmund fleeing through the forest from the kinsmen of a man whom he had just killed to protect a young woman from a forced marriage. It regularly surprises me how often in performance it emerges as a stolid trudge rather than the terrifying flight for life that it should be. Tennstedt, despite a moderate tempo, manages to convey a real sense of a life-or-death pursuit. Here is one of the interesting things about this performance: although, at over 69 minutes, it is longer than any of the half dozen other recordings whose timings I was able to compare, the sense of momentum in Tennstedt’s conducting means that it never drags or even feels particularly slow.

The glory of the conducting lies in the way that every note is characterised without ever becoming fussy or detracting from the momentum. I will give a few examples, but you could pick any page in the score and find them. Immediately after the prelude, listen to the cello phrases when Sieglinde enters: tentative at first, but becoming increasingly confident and stirred by the sight of the prostrate Siegmund. Wagner makes every phrase in the orchestra between her entrance and Siegmund’s acceptance of the water she brings him chart the emotional journey. Tennstedt brings those phrases to life with extraordinary intensity. Or try the passage before Siegmund agrees to stay and await the arrival of Hunding. Tennstedt catches in all its complexity the turmoil in Siegmund’s mind as he wrestles with what he wants to do and what he knows is sensible to do. To take an opposite extreme, the peroration at the end of the act after Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree and the pair rush off onto the night is played with tremendous excitement and sexual joy. Tennstedt achieves these effects through absolute flexibility of tempo and acutely detailed modulation of dynamics. In this he was one of the last who embodied the romantic German school of conducting which came from Wagner himself, then through Nikisch to Furtwängler. Today only Thielemann is really of this school, and he reminds me more of Mengelberg in many ways. Although Thielemann’s Wagner is wonderful, I get the impression of a rather cold, pre-planned imposition of effects in the symphonic repertoire rather than a rhapsodic response to the emotion of the moment. The LPO respond magnificently to Tennstedt’s vision. One of the things I vividly remember from all his concerts was the way in which members of the orchestra would regularly look at each other and smile. They obviously adored him and knew that he was getting something very special out of them.

The singers, although none would be a desert island choice, do not let the side down. Kollo, one of the pre-eminent Wagner tenors of his time, was 54 in 1991 and had many years experience in this role behind him. The voice is still is good condition and the top is solid and without strain, though his vibrato was always a little wide and slow for my taste. I do not particularly take to some of his sliding up into notes, though; this is not the use of a proper portamento but an ugly imprecision of attack. Bundschuh, at 50, was slightly younger than Kollo and also vocally well-preserved. Her timbre was more solid than Kollo’s. Like he, she gives a very musical and accurate performance without ever quite doing anything truly memorable. John Tomlinson was younger still, at 45, and in 1991 had already begun his move from true bass roles like Hunding to the bass-baritone roles such as Wotan and Sachs in which he achieved such renown. He is on excellent form in this concert, not as brutish as some Hundings, but with a tangible sense of danger right from his entrance.

The recording is a little opaque at times, but the voices come over very well, and any imperfections do not in any way impair the enjoyment. I have often thought that while I was too young ever to have heard Furtwängler live, at least I heard Tennstedt. This issue allows us to hear what is, so far, a unique example of his way with a complete act of Wagner, and as such it is indispensable.

Paul Steinson

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