Wagner: Wagner in Stockholm, 1899-1970

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Bluebell
WORKS: Wagner in Stockholm, 1899-1970
CATALOGUE NO: ABCD 091 ADD mono/stereo
With the original Teldec and Columbia recordings now out of copyright, Naxos has taken over some classic accounts of Wagner’s operas made at the 1951 post-war reopening of the Bayreuth Festival. Knappertsbusch’s conducting of PARSIFAL, often simplistically tagged as just plain slow, is by turns grandly Classical – fully in command of Act I’s tricky pauses and monumental choruses which less sure hands can make sound bitty – and achingly romantic (the Klingsor/Kundry scenes). He is ever alert to the stage drama which Martha Mödl’s frenzied Kundry, George London’s painfully noble Amfortas and Ludwig Weber’s rugged old soldier of a Gurnemanz bring to thriller-like life. If you want Karajan- and Levine-styled sonics in this work, you may think the sound dated, but Naxos’s transfer maintains the spacious atmosphere captured by Decca’s original team.

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Karajan was often at his happiest in comic opera. In Walter Legge’s taping of his MEISTERSINGER, tempi and sonorities have an appropriately jaunty swagger – Karajan’s is a more modern Wagner than Knappertsbusch’s – with some deliberately lighter voices (Edelmann’s baritonal Sachs, Schwarzkopf’s clever Eva) presenting conventional but carefully studied portraits of their characters. Alongside, there’s Kunz’s classically comic Beckmesser and the awesome power of the Wilhelm Pitz-trained festival chorus to add more traditional weight. The sound remains boxy, but it’s a classic souvenir of Wagner performance at a time of change.

In a 1950 New York HOLLÄNDER, long circulating on rough pirate discs, Hans Hotter’s poet of a seaman, by turns hero and victim, rivals his earlier performance (for Clemens Krauss, on various labels) from Forties Munich, while Astrid Varnay (her debut in the role) is the archetype of the passionate, unneurotic Senta for which the composer specifically called. Reiner’s reading – fluidly paced, precisely executed – works the drama of the score without recourse to overblown rhetoric. Although the sound is never exactly seductive, you can always hear what everyone is up to: it’s one of the work’s few great recordings.

Reiner’s and (we must say) Ljuba Welitsch’s first collaboration in SALOME has been adequately transferred by Guild in the context of its 1949 Saturday matinee running mate at the Met, a starrily cast but less than enthrallingly conducted (and recorded) GIANNI SCHICCHI. Quite some afternoon! The Strauss grabs the attention because Welitsch’s silvery soprano and suitably unhinged vocal acting really sounds like the elusive ‘teenage princess with the voice of an Isolde’ that the composer always wanted. Reiner has the orchestra fully on this eerie wavelength, the rest of the cast less so.

In Naxos’s wholly Russian Eugene Onegin, recorded (probably) in 1937 under two conductors, transfer producer Ward Marston has brought a compulsive (and rare) document of style back to life in sound where the voices always speak clearly. That ‘style’ is opéra comique: words and their delivery take precedence over pure vocalism; suddenly many other Onegins seem melodramatic by comparison. Nortsov’s handling of the title role has all the leonine dark splendour we expect from Russian interpreters, but retains a moving (almost Brechtian) distance from the emotional journey of the role; similarly KruglikovaTatiana, while young, is no teenage hysteric in the letter scene. Melik-Pashaev (who leads about 75 per cent of the performance) maintains a light hand and never rushes fences; there is little of the huge string sound and death-knell brass and drums of later Russian records. Essential listening.

If you have hesitated before about really old records, Preiser’s survey – the soundtrack to a book by Einhard Luther – is a good starting point, representing (in mostly careful and previously available transfers) a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of early WAGNER TENOR SINGING. Turn to any reference book of opera history or old production photos and put a voice to the familiar faces and names of Ernest van Dyck, Erik Schmedes (a Mahler favourite), Carl Burrian (Strauss’s first Herod), Alois Burgstaller and Leo Slezak (of ‘what time is the next swan?’ fame).

Perhaps outside Germany it is only SWEDEN (with some significant Norwegian help) that could command attention for four full discs’ worth of Wagner singing – and Bluebell’s compilation still stops short of Berit Lindholm, Catarina Ligendza (though we get both her father, tenor Einar Beyron, and mother, soprano Brita Hertzberg), Helge Brilioth and Sven Olof Eliasson. Alongside more familiar records (Göta Ljungberg’s blazing Sieglinde narration with conductor Albert Coates, or massive Norwegian bass Ivar Andrésen’s Hagen’s Watch with Leo Blech in Berlin) come early Birgit Nilsson Brünnhilde excerpts, a chunk of Beecham’s thrilling 1947 Walküre broadcast (for the Brünnhilde of Irma Björck) and some 20 minutes of Nicolai Gedda in Act III of Lohengrin (characteristic musicality in a convincingly Italianate interpretation). Consistently fine conducting, adequate notes and biographies, effective and not too interventionist transfers.

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Finally there is Guild’s ‘The Dream Ring Cycle’ GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, an extraordinary collage taken mainly from three extant performances (Covent Garden 1937, New York Metropolitan 1939 and 1951) with intermittent help from other broadcasts and studio recordings. Despite the booklet’s special pleading, the result can never be regarded as a single performance but can (and should) be listened to as a kind of professionally achieved pick-up tape of great 20th-century Wagnerian singing. The sound, after intensive work (some of which seems to have involved, bizarrely, making an original less clean!), is serviceable and that on the London excerpts – incredibly subtle playing by Beecham’s LPO for Furtwängler – often more than that. At the price, it’s a curio you might find irresistible – but I hope Guild will now concentrate on the real (and rarer) Met performances it claims to have.