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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870) [206.46]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Brünnhilde: Jon Vickers (tenor) – Siegmund: Gladys Kuchta (soprano) – Sieglinde: Otto Edelmann (bass) – Wotan: Irene Dalis (mezzo-soprano) – Fricka: Ernst Wiemann (bass) – Hunding: Carlotta Ordassy (soprano) – Gerhilde: Mary McKenzie (mezzo-soprano) – Grimgerde: Heidi Krall (soprano) – Helmwige: Martina Arroyo (soprano) – Ortlinde: Margaret Roggero (mezzo-soprano) – Rossweisse: Gladys Kriese (mezzo-soprano) – Schwertleite: Helen Vanni (mezzo-soprano) – Siegrune: Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute: Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 23 December 1961
PRISTINE PACO 153 [3 CDs: 195.46]

I note that Ralph Moore, reviewing for this site the first instalment of Erich Leinsdorf’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961-2, was highly enthused by the ensemble there, describing the performance of Das Rheingold as close to perfection. These discs of Die Walküre which, like those of Rheingold, are derived from a single performance, are a rather more mixed bag: superbly handled in parts, but then in places displaying to a distressing degree the hazards of live recording. Where I can agree with Ralph Moore is in his enthusiasm for Leinsdorf’s frequently-criticised conducting. Those who regard Solti’s approach to Wagner as overly impulsive will recoil in horror from Leinsdorf’s even more propulsive attack and headlong pace, but the excitement he generates seems to me to be far preferable to the more smoothly integrated sound of Karl Böhm’s similarly speedy approach to the music. All the same, one does miss the sheer grandeur of the more architectural approach to Wagner typified by Furtwangler, Knappersbusch, Klemperer and Goodall, all of whom find more in the textures that the sometimes generalised washes of sound that Leinsdorf produces, even with the excellent articulation of the Met orchestra (far superior in that respect to the London Symphony Orchestra, in Leinsdorf’s contemporary studio recording, at the end of Act One). But I do feel short-changed by some of Wotan’s outbursts in Act Two (for instance at CD2, tracks 8 and 11), and even more seriously so by the almost superficial treatment of Sieglinde’s ‘O heiligste Wunder!’ in Act Three (CD3, track 5). This is after all highly musically significant as the first statement of the “redemption” motif – only to be finally revealed in its full glory in the closing pages of Götterdämmerung – but here it goes for almost nothing, in a reading which skates over the passage in question without much sense of heightened tension at all.

For much of the time, however, the sheer theatricality of Leinsdorf’s approach is enthusiastically abetted by the singers; I don’t think I have ever heard such a headlong approach to Siegmund’s Act One account of his last conflict than the excitement generated here by Jon Vickers, who seems positively to revel in the conductor’s plunging speeds (CD1, track 8). Birgit Nilsson, too, enters enthusiastically into the fray as she promises Siegmund her support in the coming fight at the end of Act Two (CD2, track 18). But the serious drawbacks of live performance are unfortunately all too evident in the out-and-out conflict that seems progressively to develop between the conductor and his Wotan, Otto Edelmann. In Act Two the two seem to get along fine, even though Edelmann’s rather bullish tone and his roughshod progression over Wagner’s many requests for a muffled voice leave a rather generalised impression; but at the opening of his Act Three farewell (CD3, track 14), where Leinsdorf applies the brakes fiercely as he moves into the passages of impassioned lyricism, the singer and orchestra seem to part company conclusively. Edelmann is clearly unhappy with Leinsdorf’s tempo, persistently pushing ahead of the beat; and then, during the quietest lyrical section (CD 3, track 15), he suddenly launches off in a completely different direction – jumping ahead by some bars, realising his mistake, and when he finally reconnects with the accompaniment continually hectoring his conductor in a quite unpleasant manner, totally at odds with the music. I find it startling to hear a singer with such experience in the role making such a mistake in a very well-known passage, something which can only be ascribed to carelessness or tiredness; I suspect the latter, as his breath runs out altogether in his final phrase during the opera. Be that as it may, I cannot imagine anyone having once encountered this disastrous mistake wanting to hear it again. Pristine, on their website, print a contemporary 1962 review from Musical America which describes Edelmann’s “memory slip” as “troublesome”. Quite so.

Edelmann is fortunately very much the exception in this performance; indeed, the only other error which I noticed in the performance was made by the otherwise excellent Ernst Wiemann, who misses the first note of his entry in Act Two as Hunding (presumably he was otherwise distracted by the sheer business of getting onstage while singing – CD3, track 2). In Act One his encounter with the Wälsung twins is superbly handled, with not only the expectedly superb Vickers but also the little-known Gladys Kutcha as his sister both conjuring up an atmosphere of white heat and passion. Vickers, too, brings some elements to his performance – his exquisitely lyrical conclusion to his Scene Two narrative as well as his delicate launching of the ‘spring song’, a point handled less convincingly in his studio recording with Leinsdorf – which bring an emotional lump to the throat (CD1, track12). Irene Dalis, generally known nowadays from her Bayreuth Kundry in Knappersbusch’s Parsifal, is a vitriolic Fricka who dominates Edelmann’s Wotan as much by sheer force of personality as by argument. The Valkyrie girls too are a strong bunch, dominated by such names as the young Martina Arroyo and Mignon Dunn, but well-matched and clearly well-rehearsed as well. We are told that this performance was the first complete Walküre (that is, without any cuts) given at the Met for many years, and Leinsdorf is to be congratulated on insisting on the restoration of the ‘standard deletions’ in Acts Two and Three which disfigured many other live Met relays of the period.

The central attraction of this release, of course, is the young Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde; she recorded the role again shortly afterwards, with Leinsdorf for RCA on commercial LPs, and then again for Solti in the studio and with Böhm in an assembly from several live relays from Bayreuth as well as a number of other live performances. It has become a habit of reviewers to observe that she deepened her interpretation as she got older, but to be quite honest there is plenty of careful observation of the text at the outset of her career and the freshness of her voice here is remarkable – all the more so in the context of a live performance. So far as I am aware this is the second recording she made with Vickers of their great ‘Annunciation of Death’ scene from Act Two before the RCA version from London, and although the stereo sound is richer in the studio the intensity of the stage interaction between these two great Wagnerians is even more thrilling here (I have not heard the live Covent Garden performance conducted by Solti in September 1961, which of course would have been even earlier).

The recorded sound too is excellent; it was clearly well observed by the engineers of the original broadcast, but the tapes appear to be in good condition and have responded well to the restorative attention of Andrew Rose. Given the fact that this is a mono recording only (transferred in ambient stereo), the internal balance between stage and pit, and between sections of the orchestra, is very good indeed with only very rare occasions when thematic material is masked. There are even points, such as the percussion rhythms at the end of the Act Two prelude (CD2, track 1), where unexpected points of orchestration are revealed. Leinsdorf’s speeds have a further advantage, in that they make it possible to have only one CD change during the course of the music (at the beginning of Act Two, Scene Five); the actual break itself is fairly obnoxious, but I cannot suggest any alternative that might have improved matters.

So, if the listener is prepared to take the CD out of the player at the beginning of Wotan’s farewell, he or she will find this to be a thrilling performance of the Valkyrie, by no means overshadowed by the studio recording made the following year with the same conductor, Brünnhilde and Siegmund. The documentary material, as is usual with Pristine, is basic in the extreme; but purchasers will also be able to access mp3 files including both full and vocal scores as well as the normal texts and translations. The discs retain the original radio announcements at the beginning and end of the broadcast, but these add nothing of value to the set. Ralph Moore hailed the Rheingold set as a “recording of the month” – I am afraid that the contribution of Edelmann prevents such an encomium for this second instalment, but it is most welcome nonetheless.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore


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