Kirsten Flagstad

Glorious power, tonal beauty: the great Norwegian set a vocal standard in Wagner and Strauss that has never been surpassed.

‘Her intonation, phrasing, unhesitating attack of every declamatory utterance and sweeping dramatic style aroused constant admiration,’ a New York critic raved in 1935 when Flagstad, then already 40, made her Met debut. They still do. Flagstad’s critics paint her as the diva of decibels – and as a naïve woman who needlessly got herself tarred with the Nazi brush by returning to German-occupied Europe in 1941. But just listen to the dark, burnished beauty of that voice, especially as captured on early career recordings. Consider the refined musicality that allowed her to scale it down for Gluck (or even Purcell!) or beef it up to thrilling dimensions for Brünnhilde’s battle-cry. It was for this sublime instrument that Strauss wrote the greatest orchestra Lieder of the 20th century – the Four Last Songs (which Flagstad premiered). No wonder that grown men wept when she sang. Her view? ‘Men are all romantics at heart.’

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Richard Morrison.

In her own words: ‘I was never ambitious. I always wanted to be a private person.’

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Greatest recording: Wagner Tristan und Isolde (1952) Naxos 8.110321/4