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Pristine Classical

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870)
Brünnhilde: Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Siegmund: Jon Vickers (tenor)
Sieglinde: Gladys Kuchta (soprano)
Wotan: Otto Edelmann (bass)
Fricka: Irene Dalis (mezzo-soprano)
Hunding: Ernst Wiedemann (bass)
Gerhilde: Carlotta Ordassy (soprano)
Grimgerde: Mary MacKenzie (mezzo-soprano)
Helmwige: Heidi Krall (soprano)
Ortinde: Martina Arroyo (soprano)
Roßweiße: Margaret Roggero (mezzo-soprano)
Schwertleite: Gladys Kriese (contralto)
Siegrune: Helen Vanni (mezzo-soprano)
Waltraute: Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. live, 23 December 1961, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Full score, vocal score and libretto available as downloads
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO153 [3 CDs: 212:02]

This was the second instalment in the first complete Ring cycle since Leinsdorf had conducted it uncut in 1940 and Nilsson’s first complete Ring, too, although she had sung individual Brünnhilde previously at the Met and in Bayreuth.

The sound is very clear, if a bit brittle with wiry strings, but the greatest drawback is the persistent, irritating coughing throughout the whole performance: the beautiful orchestral passages in Act 1 in CD 1 track 9, following Siegmund’s narration, just before Hagen’s baleful good night and through “Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater” and the Todesverkündigung both sound as though they were recorded in a TB sanitorium. There is also the constant sound of running water through the first two Acts, which was presumably a feature of the stage set and unavoidable flaws in the tape, but these distractions are mitigated by Pristine’s typically effective Ambient Stereo XR remastering. The voices are very forward but the balance with the orchestra is good enough. The break at the end of CD 2, presumably for the purpose of allowing transfer onto three rather than four CDs is abrupt and unfortunate. The obvious comparison is with Leinsdorf’s studio recording for Decca with the LSO in Walthamstow Town Hall earlier the same year, in which Vickers and Nilsson sang the same roles but all the other parts are sung by different singers, including, of course, George London as Wotan. That has long been my favourite studio recording of this opera and the stereo sound is of course superior.

Leinsdorf is gentler and more inclined to bring out the poetry of Wagner’s music here than in that studio recording. His singers – especially Vickers in his Act 1 narrative – are similarly more reflective and poetic; however, they rise to the moments of high drama, too. I cannot fault his pacing or phrasing and the Met orchestra plays magnificently, especially in the final scene.

The young Jon Vickers is in sovereign form and his “Nun weißt du, fragende Frau, warum ich Friedmund nicht heiße” is sung in a meltingly poignant half voice. He had already triumphed as Siegmund at Bayreuth three years earlier under Knappertsbusch and at Covent Garden for Solti and at the Met the previous year, but there are fewer errors here and his voice is, if anything, even finer, both tenderer and more powerful.

Kuchta has a fuller, warmer voice than we sometimes here, closer to Leonie Rysanek in timbre – and she does her own version if the “Rysanek scream” when Siegmund wrenches Nothung from the trunk of the ash tree. She is secure if a tad stately compared with nervier, more febrile readings from such as Rysanek or Brouwenstijn but firm and secure.

Wiedemann has a big, rounded bass and inhabits the role of Hunding credibly, without the variety of tone we hear from Frick or Talvela. Irene Dalis is as good as any Fricka on record, her mezzo rich and vibrant; she was singing anything and everything superbly around this time at the Met – Brangäne, Venus, Amneris, Azucena and Eboli – because she could. The Valkyries are an impressive bunch, including the instantly recognisable voice of Martina Arroyo. Obviously the star of the show is Nilsson and her familiar laser-tones and voluminous projection carry the day. She is not as verbally acute as in later performances but vocally she is resplendent and the audience roars its appreciation at the curtain calls.

Edelmann is more than adequate as Wotan, using the text expressively and showing considerable stamina in the role but his bass is without the massive authority of Hotter or London; he is not always ideally steady and his voice is more nasal and distinctly baritonal in timbre where perhaps a darker bass-baritone sound is better. His “Wo ist Brünnhild’, wo die Verbrecherin?” lacks might and menace and to my ears he occasionally sounds over-parted but he mostly rises to the grandeur of “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind”. Unfortunately, he then falters badly over the words and music in “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”, crooning and sliding, muddling the text then stopping to sing altogether until he can recover his place with the help of the prompter, and finally getting a frog in his throat on “muss es scheidend sich schließen”. These are really quite big blots on what should be a climactic passage and it takes him a while to recover his equilibrium and deliver a good summoning of Loge and his fire.

I confess to finding the incessant coughing from the Met audience a disincentive to listening to this but it is otherwise great performance, catching the singing of two great Wagnerians on the wing very ably supported by their co-singers and conductor. For an even more satisfying listening experience, however, with a better Wotan, I would recommend the studio recording of the same year.

Ralph Moore


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