Reviews for IPCD 1010-4
Fritz Stiedry, Arturo Toscanini, others, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Siegfried); Helen Traubel (Brünnhilde); Dezsö Ernster (Hagen); Herbert Janssen (Gunther); Regina Resnik (Gutrune); Margaret Harshaw (Waltraute); Gerhard Pechner (Alberich); Metropolitan Op O; NBC SO
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1010-4, mono (4 CDs: 241:41)
July / August 2011
Continuing the idea of “dream” performances of Wagner, Richard Caniell has reconstructed Melchior’s final performance as Siegfried on December 20, 1948, at the Metropolitan Opera House, a performance alas not put down for posterity. Caniell works like some sort of inspired Tonnmeisterisch magician to, Norn-like, weave a Wagnerian web of such complexity that detailed enumeration here would make for dry reading, and which yet leads to an inspiring, exciting, and (perhaps most importantly) theatrical experience. That the night in question was Melchior’s last as Siegfried adds hugely to the importance of that event (although no one in the audience could surely have guessed that this might be so). Note it was not his final Met appearance (that was to be a Lohengrin in 1950). Opposite him is one of the great Brünnhildes of the day, Helen Traubel.
Most of the cast members are drawn from a 1951 Met performance, but we get almost the entire 1948 cast (Resnik replaces Polyna Stoska as Gutrune and Margaret Hershaw replaces Jeanne Palmer as Third Norn; Erna Berger takes over from Dorothy Manski’s Woglinde and Maxine Stellman’s Wellgunde is replaced by Lucine Amara). Fritz Stiedry conducts the lion’s share, but Caniell states that “Stiedry was unable to draw from the Met orchestra a performance of sufficient intensity” of the Funeral Music, and so “the Met performance was not sufficient to memorialize such a hero as Melchior has put before us, thus the broadcast of this flaming and triumphant passage is led in this re-creation by Toscanini, exalting this passage to monumental proportions” (it is, in fact, a mesmerizing, emotionally draining account with a deep sense of trajectory). As Caniell states regarding the December 1948 performance, “if the Met’s house lines had been activated that night, this CD is largely what would have been heard.” Details of Toscanini’s contributions are the Melchior-Traubel Dawn Duet from a 1941 broadcast; Funeral Music (1949); and Traubel-Toscanini Immolation (1941). Stiedry conducts the rest, and it is he who is responsible for the cuts. Caniell has on occasion interpolated to cover these, but 18 exchanges between Brünnhilde, Gunther, and Hagen did not have acceptable substitutions available. Melchior, as Caniell so aptly puts it, “comes from” the Met 1936 performance augmented by two 78s, “as well as the 1937 Covent Garden performance.” There has been repair work here, too. Traubel’s final “Heil” is an insert from a 1941 Toscanini performance; even a “bad horn note” (a split, presumably) has been put right in the Rhine Journey.
Occasionally changes in recording quality can raise an eyebrow (disc 1, track 13 being a case in point, where Siegfried’s entrance is marred by increased acetate noise and distancing), but it is a small price to pay.
The three Norns are well cast; Stiedry paces their opening music well. Despite the fact that tempos are on the swift side to contemporary ears, he never rushes, and never dawdles, either. There are some notable moments; “Schwinget, Schwester” is audibly reflected in Stiedry’s orchestral part. There is some lovely voice-leading in the Rhine Journey. Jean Madeira’s First Norn is particularly strong. It is Ernster’s Hagen that really sticks in the memory, though; night-hewn from the coals of Hades, his voice commands instant attention. His low register is perfectly focused and full, yet he can lighten his tone to great effect (“Ein Weib weiss ich”). Stiedry works well in partnership, as the approach to Hagen’s Watch finds the orchestral textures becoming darker and darker. There is a momentous feel to the Watch itself, even if this is not the blackest I have heard this passage.
Helen Traubel’s Brünnhilde is unfailingly lyrical, supported in no uncertain terms by the orchestra (“O heil’ge Götter” is a case in point). Yet lyricism does not preclude intensity, and she proves that Hell hath no fury like a Valkyrie scorned. She is still strong come the Immolation. Here, in the opera’s final moments, is magnificent, open-throated singing, portraying a character full of dignity. There is an amazingly beautiful “Ruhe du Gott,” and a piercing, arresting “Fliegt Heim, ihr Raben.” The fall of Valhalla is graphically depicted in the orchestra. Throughout, Melchior is not only a lusty, never-tiring Heldentenor here; he is the very incarnation of the hero himself.
Regina Resnik’s Gutrune shines in act II. One can hear her every emotion. Waltraute’s Narration is gripping, and carefully paced. Gerhard Pechner is an ardent Alberich against Ernster’s magnificent Hagen, and the second-act scene is perfectly managed.
For all Wagnerites, this will provide a fascinating experience. The set also includes an edited (nine-minute) interview with Melchior, in English. The name of the interviewer is not known, and we are told that Melchior was in his 80s at the time of the interview. Melchior comes across as absolutely delightful, witty, merry, and yet also deeply wise.