Birgit Nilsson appeared on my horizon first of all as a person, then as a singer.
She was much discussed in the press in the early 1980s as she prepared to retire from her singing career following a thundering series of performances at the Met in New York where at the age of 60 her powers were, by all accounts, undiminished. I was hooked by the story of a Swedish farm girl who graduated from milking cows to become a legend in her own lifetime on the operatic stage. I liked Nilsson’s wit. The anecdotes are legion: from her quip in response to the question ‘What does it take to be a great Isolde?’ (‘Comfortable shoes!’); to the ‘do not disturb’ sign that she wore on her breastplate as the sleeping Brünnhilde, much to the consternation of Siegfried as he came to the rescue. Nilsson’s recordings reveal a true, vibrant and steely quality that pierces straight to the heart of the matter. Her phrasing is indefatigable, spinning out Isolde’s long vocal lines in a breathtaking arc, wherein the tone doesn’t waver. Her Salome and Turandot seethe with feminine power. Nilsson’s dramatic thrust in these roles still leaves me shattered, so that I regard these discs as rare treats rather than constant friends.
The recordings with Solti, made in Vienna in the late 1950s and early ’60s, are the most remarkable: a wonderful Ring cycle, blessed by Nilsson’s incandescent Brünnhilde; and above all an Elektra that grabs you by the throat and then squeezes, not so gently. Nilsson is sometimes described as a ‘cool’ singer. The quality of her voice can be characterised by a glacial brilliance and purity. But frigid? Absolutely not: here is a singer who, even on record, connects totally with the roles that she is portraying and communicates them with a dazzling generosity and intensity that sets the music ablaze.
In her own words: ‘I do nothing special. I don’t smoke. I drink a little wine and beer.
I was born with the right set of parents.’
Greatest recording: Wagner Tristan und Isolde cond. Solti Decca 470 8142 (4 discs)