LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Die Walküre: Acts I & II
PERFORMER: Lotte Lehmann, Marta Fuchs, Lauritz Melchior, Hans Hotter, Emanuel List, Margarete Klose; Vienna PO/Bruno Walter (1935), Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Bruno Seidler-Winkler (1938)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110250-51 ADD mono
The most welcome discovery in this current crop of historical Wagner releases is the improved source material Guild has located for the 1936 Met broadcast of DIE MEISTERSINGER. Artur Bodanzky’s performance persistently cuts chunks both small and large from Wagner’s score, but his nimble touch is generally appealing, and he isn’t impatient with inward moments – his Act III Prelude, which incorporates generous string portamento into the theme Wagner treats imitatively, is particularly striking. The cast is largely ordinary or – in the case of Emanuel List’s Pogner– having an off-day, but exceptions include Julius Huehn (a Kothner who, for once, can treat coloratura passages with vocal mastery), the memorably substantive Eva of Elisabeth Rethberg and the Hans Sachs of Friedrich Schorr. With a voice less seamless and consistent than it once was, Schorr fashions introspective depth through subtle understatement, by tapering already quiet phrases and by treating music as an extension of the pronunciation of the words. In Act III especially, one can find telling insights into Sachs’s character in nearly every inflection.
Arturo Toscanini dismissed Schorr during rehearsals for the Salzburg Meistersinger production a few months after this performance. That incident has been portrayed variously as a clash of artistic wills, stubbornness on Schorr’s part, a symptomatic demonstration of Toscanini’s musical limitations, or a simple case of Schorr’s voice becoming less reliable. He does sound considerably the worse for wear in Die Walküre Act II even later in 1936, included in a new Guild set of SAN FRANCISCO broadcasts, and Toscanini wrote during the Salzburg rehearsals that Schorr was ‘hoarse and breathless on the high notes’.
The Salzburg broadcast of MEISTERSINGER from the following year (1937), now released on Andante, features Schorr’s replacement, Hans Hermann Nissen, whose full, reliable voice is as pleasing as his impersonation of Sachs is plain. Although Toscanini clearly differentiates between the liveliness of the apprentices and the gravitas of Pogner, he frequently sacrifices dramatic light and shade on the altar of musical continuity (most obviously in the David-Walter scene in Act I), and the horn-heavy recorded balance obscures his achievements in the realm of sonority.
TOSCANINI’s 1941 Wagner concert on Guild – intense, clean-textured and viscerally exciting – is more representative of his best work. If he makes the climax of the Lohengrin Prelude too brutal for some tastes, the searing lyrical force in this account of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde is sui generis. In duets from Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior are superb vocal athletes who thrillingly realise the outsized vigour that Toscanini’s approach demands. Guild’s sound is less precise than RCA’s rival issues of the duets, both for good and for ill.
Under Bruno Walter’s warmly lyrical direction in the famous HMV recording of DIE WALKÜRE Act I (released in very clean transfers on Naxos), Melchior’s Siegmund is a more rounded realisation – or perhaps inspiration for his richer palette stems from association with Lotte Lehmann’s Sieglinde, one of the greatest of all Wagnerian characterisations. Can there be anything more vividly yet subtly expressive than her ‘Der Männer sippe’? The accompanying recording of Act II is not as indispensable despite the mellifluous dignity with which the young Hans Hotter endows Wotan – Melchior sounds more convincing in the Guild/San Francisco performance of this act, and despite a little more roughness Lehmann, too, makes at least as powerful an impression there.
The gem among the non-Wagner selections on that Guild set is Manon Act II with Tito Schipa and Bidù Sayão. As with Lehmann, it’s valuable to hear the extent to which a live performance setting intensifies the polished singing of Schipa – and does not seem to affect the Brünnhilde of Kirsten Flagstad, which sounds just as rich and sovereign here as in later studio recordings. Both at the end of the Walküre act in this set and at Sachs’s ‘Euch macht ihr’s leicht’ in the Meistersinger set, Guild inserts other recordings to create greater completeness than that contained in the original source material or performance – a confusing practice for those who would prefer to see these sets as documents of a given occasion.
OTTO EDELMANN possessed a singular bass voice, wide in range but not very deep in sonority, and with a rather ‘white’ sound on some high notes. Preiser’s reissue of his early LP programmes of (mostly Wagner) arias has some successful vocal moments, but from a dramatic standpoint Edelmann’s readings seem superficial – no torment emerges from his Dutchman or Amfortas, and, beside Schorr, even his famous Sachs seems faceless and blithely unperceptive.