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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876)
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Brünnhilde, Hans Hopf (tenor) – Siegfried, Norman Mittelmann (baritone) – Gunther, Gottlob Frick (bass) – Hagen, Gladys Kuchta (soprano) – Gutrune, Irene Dalis (mezzo-soprano) – Waltraute, 2nd Norn, Ralph Herbert (baritone) – Alberich, Martina Arroyo (soprano) – Woglinde, 3rd Norn, Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) – Wellgunde, Mignon Dunn (mezzo-soprano) – Flosshilde, Jean Madeira (contralto) – 1st Norn, Charles Kuestner and John Trehy (tenor, baritone) – Vassals
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. Metropolitan Opera, New York, 27 January 1962
PRISTINE PACO156 [4 CDs: 246.02]

This archive recording from the Metropolitan Opera in 1961 has formed a most interesting and informative juxtaposition with last year’s Naxos recording made in Hong Kong which I reviewed only a matter of weeks ago. In the first place it shows how much the standard of orchestral playing in Wagner has improved in the past sixty years. Granted that the Naxos set was compiled from a pair of concert performances, while the Leinsdorf recording under consideration here is a ‘warts-and-all’ taping of a single live performance in broadcast sound, even so the quality of the playing in Hong Kong comprehensively trounces the efforts of the Met orchestra – which at the time was regarded as one of the world’s finest. The internal balance which rises from the pit is far from clear, even given the exigencies of mono sound (excellently remastered here), and in the opening bars of the Prologue just before the entry of the voices one is uncomfortably aware of some decidedly queasy tuning in the lower strings – not to mention the playing of Siegfried’s offstage horn as he arrives at the Gibichung Hall, with inaccuracies that are far from the “munter” sound that Hagen describes.

Where this performance does stand out, however, is in the other contrast it provides with the Naxos set, and that is the sheer nature of the singing. This becomes apparent from the very beginning at the Met, with a group of three Norns that can stand challenge with the best on record: Jean Madeira (Erda in Solti’s Rheingold as well as Leinsdorf’s cycle), Irene Dalis (Kundry in Knappersbusch’s stereo Bayreuth Parsifal), and the young Martina Arroyo just beginning on her international career. With Leinsdorf in the pit pushing the tempi dramatically forward, the climax of the scene, as the rope breaks, achieves a real sense of urgency which is so often lacking in other performances which recall Anna Russell’s description of the trio as a set of “gloomy aunts”. This urgency then propels the music forward into the ‘dawn duet’ and a thrillingly excitable Rhine Journey which can almost make the listener overlook the bronchitic coughing of the audience as the light begins to grow in the sky. As in the previous instalments of this cycle which I have reviewed – Walküre and Siegfried – Leinsdorf proves to be a thrillingly impulsive interpreter of this music, with less sense of the rhythmic rigidity which can so often mar his studio recordings.

It goes without saying, although it still needs to be said, that Birgit Nilsson is absolutely without any peer in the role of Brünnhilde. Here her interpretation of the final immolation comes over at white heat, with a marvellous sense of freshness that had perhaps receded slightly when she came to record the role commercially in later years, even when later performances brought new insights. Hans Hopf, who was surprisingly good in the title role of Siegfried (where the surprise came from comparison with his generally unimpressive performances in his studio recordings), seems less comfortable in the role of the hero in the sequel; his baritonal timbre is more in evidence than before, and he hardly seems to require a Tarnhelm to assume the role of Gunther when he is disguised. For some reason his voice appears to lighten in the final Act, where he rises to his top C with aplomb. Norman Mittelmann is a stronger than usual Gunther, occasionally taking the opportunity to sing quietly at dramatic moments, although in terms of sheer decibels he struggles against Nilsson and Frick in the closing trio of Act Two. Similarly, Gladys Kuchta is a very positive Gutrune in character, although her voice seems to have shrunk since her Sieglinde in Walküre a few nights before. Irene Dalis returns as Waltraute, and again her delivery is highly dramatic; she needs that steely quality to challenge the brass in her description of Wotan waiting for the end in Valhalla – the brass throughout the evening seem reluctant to play quietly when the music demands it, and the Hong Kong players knock spots off their performance here.

Gottlob Frick sounds younger here than he did three years later when he took the role of Hunding for Solti, and also produces more volume than he managed to contrive as Fafner in the Met. Siegfried, confirming my suspicions that his problems there were the result of poor microphone placement. The trio of Rhinemaidens in Act Three are, like the Norns in the Prologue, a heroic bunch – Martina Arroyo returning to lead a team comprising also Rosalind Elias and Mignon Dunn – delivering their stentorian warning of doom to Siegfried with a real sense of menace; these are certainly not just “pretty water-maidens”. The only seriously weak link in the line-up of soloists is Ralph Herbert as Alberich; his limited range of dynamic delivery means both that he finds himself submerged beneath the orchestra in more agitated passages (and the contrast with Frick is grotesque), but also that his persistent failure to sing quietly completely dissipates the sense of nightmare as the dream evaporates with the coming of morning. His final echo of “Treu!” completely disregards Wagner’s instruction that his voice should “become more and more inaudible”, and the intended effect is ruined. The persistent coughing of the audience in the closing pages of the scene perhaps betrays their sense of boredom with what should be a gripping moment.

The chorus is good, but the most commendable element here is that Leinsdorf insists on having two solo voices for the vassals’ interrogation of Siegfried in Act Three; this is specifically required by Wagner in the score, but his instructions are nearly always ignored to the detriment of dramatic sense, even by conductors with the Wagnerian credentials of Solti, Levine, Barenboim and Goodall. Similarly, the effect of the vassals gathering at Hagen’s summons in Act Two is enhanced if Wagner’s instructions for one voice, then more, slowly assembling, are adhered to – as is amply demonstrated here. It is with the same sense of fidelity to the composer’s wishes that Leinsdorf abandons the crude cutting of the score that had been the rule at the Met. prior to the performances of this Ring cycle in 1961. Perhaps with an eye on the clock and the possibility of hefty overtime bills, Leinsdorf presses ahead in some places (such as the arrival of Gunther and Brünnhilde in Act Two) where a more solemn approach might have paid dividends, but it cannot be denied that the effect is exciting even when the climaxes do appear to come rather too closely upon each other’s heels.

The strengths and weaknesses of this Leinsdorf Ring from the Met may perhaps best be epitomised by the final minutes of his performance. The speeds which the conductor adopts are not so extreme – from “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!” to the end is despatched in just under seven and a half minutes, only one minute short of van Zweiden’s duration on Naxos – but his forward pressure is nonetheless always in evidence, and only a soprano of Birgit Nilsson’s supreme gifts could have managed to keep up with him with such accuracy. Gottlob Frick, with his almost inaudible final line only just penetrating the orchestral tumult, comes close to missing his cue altogether. And the surging string lines which accompany the destruction of Valhalla by fire are absolutely too fast for clarity of articulation. Like so many conductors, Leinsdorf inserts an unwarranted moment of silence eight bars before the end; but it is so brief that one wonders why he bothers, and at least his haste at this moment has the advantage that the descending bass line remains almost unbroken. Even without the unwanted Luftpause Reginald Goodall at the English National Opera allows nearly two minutes more than Leinsdorf for the same music and gains immeasurably in dignity and grandeur thereby. It is not surprising, given the propulsive excitement that Leindorf generates, that the Metropolitan Opera audience bursts in with applause before the final chord has died away; nor that their cheering is sufficiently loud to render the voice of the radio announcer almost totally inaudible, hardly one word in ten being decipherable until his final phrase acknowledging the support of Texaco – who I would imagine would have thought their sponsorship well justified. Those allergic to applause on records may care to note that we have very nearly five minutes of it here.

The recordings are well laid out on disc, with only Act One split between CDs – the break comes ten bars earlier than would be indicated by the track titling at this point, but in fact this is an improvement. The sound of Andrew Rose’s remastering is obviously not up to the superlative standards of the new Naxos release, but is nonetheless most pleasurable and well in advance of many vintage live recordings of this era. If I had been in the audience, I would most certainly have been one of the cheering customers.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review: Ralph Moore

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