Reviews for IPCD 1022-1
Wagner GOETTERDAEMMERUNG Act II
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Frida Leider (Brünnhilde); Lauritz Melchior (Siegfried); Herbert Janssen (Gunther); Ludwig Weber/Wilhelm Schirp (Hagen); Alois Pernerstorfer (Alberich); Maria Nezadal (Gutrune)
Covent Garden Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra 1938
Bonus: GLUCK Armide: Ah! Si la liberté.1 BEETHOVEN Fidelio: Abscheulischer!1 SCHUMANN Widmung: Du meine Seele.2 Wunderhorn: Marienwürmchen.2 Frida Leider interview • 1John Barbirolli, cond; 2Michael Raucheisen
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1022-1, (1 CD: 79:44)
If you think those who talk about a greater age of Wagnerian singing than we have experienced in the postwar era are suffering from the “it was always better in the good old days” syndrome, this disc will cure you of that misconception. This is Wagner as I have never heard it in live performance anywhere, and I’ve heard Wagner in Bayreuth, at the Met, and in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, Tokyo, Chicago, and many other places over 50 years of listening. Would that it were the whole opera.
Parts of the 1938 Covent Garden Götterdämmerung have been issued before, but never in sound this good. And never the whole second act. Richard Caniell, who oversees Immortal Performances’ releases, could be more specific in his notes about what scene comes from what performance. There were two performances in 1938 at Covent Garden conducted by Furtwängler, and two in 1937 also conducted by Furtwängler but with Flagstad instead of Leider. One each year was broadcast. What survives from both, however, is not only not the complete opera, but not even the complete second act. What Caniell has done is take the first scene (between Hagen and Alberich) from the 1950 La Scala Furtwängler performance, which shares the same Hagen (Ludwig Weber), and the only other character is Alberich, who doesn’t return in any later scene. Caniell seamlessly marries this opening scene to a second scene from the 1937 performance (because it wasn’t preserved from 1938), and then turns to 1938 from Hagen’s greeting to Brünnhilde. I wish Caniell was clearer in his explanation—somehow tying it to the track listing rather than attempting it in narrative form would clarify things. It took this kind of alchemy to get a complete second act of Götterdämmerung with this kind of cast and Furtwängler on the podium.
Some of the edits from one source to another are audible, but he has done the best job possible in minimizing the changes of sonority and recording quality. Where it was important to allow surface noise from old acetates to remain so as not to diminish the quality of the voices or orchestra, he has done that. This is as fine an example of treating historic material with respect and integrity as I’ve encountered, and frankly most listeners will be shocked at how good this sounds, and at how unnoticeably the 1950 La Scala performance flows into the 1937 Covent Garden one.
It is hard to know where to start when discussing the performance. Perhaps with Leider, if only because recordings of her in major Wagnerian roles are rare, and live recordings of her even rarer. This is magnificent singing, with a warm, full tone and a soaring majesty that leaves the listener agape. The top rings free, even at age 50, the tone is solid and even from top to bottom, and she sings with presence and intensity. There is a warmth to the voice, a glow, that is unique—neither Flagstad nor Nilsson could duplicate those qualities to this degree. Then you have certainly the greatest Heldentenor of the 20th century, Lauritz Melchior. He was often criticized for sloppiness, lax rhythms, inattention to detail, and lapses in concentration. We hear not an iota of that. What we hear is a golden voice, attentive to text and dramatic context, and able to produce both a beautiful legato and warmth of tone combined with a vocal weight, a heroic timbre, in a way that has never been duplicated.
The rest of the cast is excellent and little needs to be said about Furtwängler’s Wagner conducting, since it has all been said before. He is overpowering here, and the Royal Opera House Orchestra plays beautifully for him. This is not remarkably different from his Ring performances in Italy in the 1950s, except perhaps just a touch lighter in texture and swifter in spots. But this was what John Steane, in his wonderful book The Grand Tradition, calls “one of the best of opera nights.” Everyone is clearly inspiring everyone else.
The filler is a nice bonus. The brief (1:20) comments by Leider are disingenuous, claiming that she didn’t return to the Met because the company refused to do the non-Wagnerian repertoire she desired (Fidelio, Mozart, etc.) and that Chicago had a much more varied repertoire for her. But in fact, she didn’t go back to Chicago, either—she went back to Austria. She probably didn’t return to the Met because they had engaged the Norwegian newcomer Kirsten Flagstad. However, the arias and Schumann songs offer more evidence of the unique beauty of her voice (even if the two songs do not seem to sit in her musical comfort zone easily).
Immortal Performances provides superb notes on the performance, on Leider in particular, and on the specifics of this recording. The booklet is so much better than what we usually get from labels like this (though it should be noted that Music & Arts also tends to lengthy and intelligent essays) that the company deserves genuine praise for it. But mostly it deserves praise for the remarkable quality of its restoration work, and for bringing us this phenomenal example of Wagner performance.