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Die Walküre Met 1944 | IPCD 1081-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1081-3


WAGNER Die Walküre • George Szell, cond; Helen Traubel (Brünnhilde); Rose Bampton (Sieglinde); Kerstin Thorborg (Fricka); Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund); Herbert Janssen (Wotan); Alexander Kipnis (Hunding); Jeanne Palmer (Waltraute); Beal Hober (Helmwige); Thelma Votipka (Gerhilde); Irene Jessner (Ortlinde); Lucielle Browning (Rossweise); Martha Lipton (Grimgerde); Hertha Glaz (Siegrune); Margaret Harshaw (Schwertleite); Ch & O of the Metropolitan Op House, New York • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1081 mono (3 CDs: 190:09) Live: Metropolitan Op House, New York 12/02/1944

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
September / October 2017

George Szell’s Walküre is at the opposite end of the spectrum from what you would hear from Furtwängler, Walter, or even the fairly quick Böhm. What Szell provides, in addition to fast tempos, is an incisiveness of attack that adds a tough rhythmic spine to Wagner’s music. In addition, Szell clearly has a deeply embedded sense of theater and is alive to the text and drama at all points. We hear it in the very opening storm music, and we hear it throughout. The orchestra interacts with every character, and even adapts the psyches of those characters. The word that springs to mind when hearing this performance is ensemble. It is a performance in which every singer and every orchestral musician is interacting with a similar mindset, and that mindset is firmly established on the podium. Of all the Melchior performances of this role that have been preserved (and I have seven), the tenor is at his most heroic, even bellicose, here. The whole performance is marked, vocally and orchestrally, by crisp rhythms, sharp orchestral attacks, and drama at white heat. The opening of act II conveys the frenzy of the wild ride of the Valkyries with a sharp rhythmic snap and prominent timpani. When things do relax (“Winterstürme” for example) it is all the more effective.

Melchior is a miracle. This performance took place after he had been singing Wagner’s heaviest roles for two decades, and when he was 54 years old. But the tone remains firm and centered, the top rings brilliantly, and he never phones in a single phrase. He ranges widely between tenderness and intimacy to bold and heroic, even fierce. Melchior defined for the second quarter of the 20th century what a Heldentenor was supposed to sound like, and we haven’t heard his like since. The heroic brilliance he brings to the end of the first act is irreplaceable.

What is somewhat astonishing about this performance is that the two female leads, great as they are, represented the second level of Wagner singing in their time. These were the ladies who performed when you couldn’t get Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, and Marjorie Lawrence to sing! One would happily encounter this pair in any performance of Die Walküre today and feel fully gratified at the experience. Bampton may not be the most feminine of Sieglindes, but her voice rings gloriously, and she is dramatically sensitive as well. The upper-middle part of her range shines brilliantly while never thinning out. The richness of color it retains gives her portrayal a warmth and femininity that balances the power of her singing.

As for Traubel, the beauty of her voice is a well-known commodity. She equalized brilliance and richness of tone more evenly than almost any dramatic soprano. Her one weakness was an unreliable top, sometimes sounding forced. This problem appears hardly at all in this performance, and it didn’t stand in the way of a major career at the Metropolitan. Although she preferred the role of Sieglinde, Traubel sang Brünnhilde about 40 times with the company, and this performance documents the strengths of her interpretation. Unfortunate cuts in the score, surprisingly permitted by Szell, deprive us of important parts of her role (and Wotan’s), but there is much here to admire. One’s attention is first drawn to the sheer glamour of the sound; even in the opening battle cry she sings the music more than shrieking it, as often seems the case. In her big scenes with Wotan, Traubel enters the drama fully, inflecting with meaning. In her final scene before her punishment is imposed, she almost breaks our hearts with the sincerity of her pleading her case.

Herbert Janssen’s voice lacked the heft of most Wotans, a point noted in Dewey Faulkner’s superb essay about this performance included in the accompanying booklet. And of course one cannot help but compare Janssen to the standard Wotan of that era, Friedrich Schorr. What is impressive is that except for depth of tone, Janssen comes off well in that comparison. Until his great farewell scene, Wotan runs the risk of boring us with his long stretches of music that verge on being conversational. Even with the unfortunate cuts in this performance, these narratives can seem directionless. Between Szell and Janssen, however, every bar has meaning and direction, and leads inevitably to the next. Faulkner points out a passage in Wotan’s scene with Fricka, beginning “Not tut ein Held,” as an example of perfect expression, and he is right. What seems so evident here is that Janssen and Szell are working together, in concert with each other, creating a dramatic and musical momentum that is quite extraordinary. His softened tone as he closes Brünnhilde’s eyes is heartbreakingly touching, and then hear the deeply touching string playing in the orchestral interlude after that moment. This is Wagner at his most poignant, and Szell captures it perfectly.

If there has ever been a greater Hunding than Alexander Kipnis, I haven’t encountered him. The dark depth of tone of which he is capable, combined with the extraordinary insight of a great Lieder singer, he creates a character of pure evil but one who never spills into caricature. His specificity of inflection of every phrase make the character a real person. Kerstin Thorborg’s rich contralto voice, long experience as a Wagnerian singer, and intelligent musicality add up to a sixth wonderful characterization (as Fricka) in this cast. Like the other two leading ladies, Thorborg’s tone has an inner glow at its core that defines an operatic ideal.

The Valkyries include the likes of Thelma Votipka, Martha Lipton, Hertha Glaz, and Margaret Harshaw, surely as starry a group as one would ever be likely to find. They too perform as a true ensemble, blending and interacting with each other and the orchestra. And so it is that we get back to where we started in this review: George Szell and the Met Orchestra. I remember the first time I heard the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell in concert. I was stunned. Here was a small chamber group writ large. The final piece on the concert was the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, and when four trumpets played in unison sounding like one very large trumpet I was convinced I was hearing musical greatness at a level not experienced before. It is this sense of musical interplay, whether between sections of the orchestra or between stage and orchestra, that distinguishes this performance. The orchestra is not “supporting” the drama nor “commenting” on the drama, but rather it is an integral part of the drama—another character, if you will. This is manifested by careful attention to phrasing, inflection, and dynamic shadings. While Szell is often accused of “coldness,” nothing could be further from the truth here. He brings an almost unbearable humanity, warmth, and heartbreak to the final scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde, to Wotan’s farewell, to the Todesverkündigung. It is a quite unique balance between precision and clarity on the one hand, and dramatic intensity and humanity on the other, that makes this unique among recorded performances Die Walküre. The only criticism one can rightly make is his agreement to make the cuts he did.

One might ask why Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, would bother with this broadcast, since the Met had issued it on a fundraising series of high-priced releases. The answer is that Caniell has improved significantly on the Met’s edition (and on Myto’s apparent copy of the Met’s work). The voices are notably richer here, and there is more color and richness to the orchestral sound. The original is still on the hard-toned side (Caniell himself uses the word “coarse” to describe the original sound), but he has given it a life that it has never before had. Also included, to bring us all back to our youth and the experience of sitting at the radio on Saturday afternoons, is Milton Cross’s commentary (separately tracked for those who wish to bypass it). Add to that the usual level of informative and insightful notes and beautiful historic photos in the accompanying booklet, and you have a release of great importance.


WAGNER Die Walküre • George Szell, cond; Helen Traubel (Brünnhilde); Rose Bampton (Sieglinde); Kerstin Thorborg (Fricka); Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund); Herbert Janssen (Wotan); Alexander Kipnis (Hunding); Jeanne Palmer (Waltraute); Beal Hober (Helmwige); Thelma Votipka (Gerhilde); Irene Jessner (Ortlinde); Lucielle Browning (Rossweise); Martha Lipton (Grimgerde); Hertha Glaz (Siegrune); Margaret Harshaw (Schwertleite); Ch & O of the Metropolitan Op House, New York • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1081 mono (3 CDs: 190:09) Live: Metropolitan Op House, New York 12/02/1944

Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine
September / October 2017

George Szell might not be the first conductor one associates with Walküre, but his account is gripping. As one might guess from a conductor who idolized Toscanini, speeds are swift. The power of the act I Prelude is properly visceral, the climactic timpani rolls (more like rapid-fire bullets here in truth, or perhaps a deep-pitched side drum) remarkable. Urgency is immediately established; one feels that the little contribution from a wind machine towards the end of the Prelude (2:24, just before Siegmund enters) is perhaps unnecessary. The febrile strings, taut with tension, that underpin the exchanges between Sieglinde and Siegmund are remarkable in their contained tension; one hears them with preternatural clarity in this Immortal Performances issue. Detail throughout is astonishing, whether strings (even punctuating chords are clearly carefully balanced) or the lines of the Met’s creamy brass section. Surface noise is kept to a minimum, and this combined with Szell’s ear for detail enables one to hear the score with maximal clarity. His speeds are rapid (Melchior occasionally struggles to keep up), yet he can find stunning and surprising moments of stasis (“Nun weisst du, fragende Frau”), and there are concessions to tradition: Melchior’s cries of “Wälse” have massive fermatas over each repetition. Perhaps Szell rushes headlong through “Siegmund bin ich” too much, and Melchior is late on “Fern von mir”; a small price to pay for the energy generated at this point. Yet Szell’s preparation for the entry of the Wälsung twins in act II is exemplary, as is the woodwind detail after Melchior’s act II “So grusse mir Wotan.” The Walkürenritt is notable for the energy and also the presence and accuracy of the woodwind trills.

As Sieglinde, Rose Bampton sounds remarkably, and appropriately, impressive. Her lyricism in “Der Männer Sippe” is simply wonderful; the way she can taper a note underlines the emotive heart of this passage. The moment she names Siegmund is well done. Bampton and Melchior are well matched, their exchanges rising in intensity. In the final act, Bampton rises to the challenge of her big, orchestra-riding phrases. Alexander Kipnis’s Hunding is noble at first; he moves to the occasional barking in anger. Clearly combative, even petulant at times, this is not a Hunding of imperious vocal depth, but rather a very human alternative. Kipnis uses the gamut of his vocal resources in this intense portrayal.

The second act finds Szell fabulous at setting the stormy, intense atmosphere at the outset. Traubel and Janssen are the Brünnhilde and Wotan. Traubel is incredibly strong, her voice as well as her character shot through with steel. Her Todesverkündigung (“Siegmund, sieh’ auf mich”) is remarkable; she manages the more interior parts of the role, too, as in “Hier bin ich, Vater” from act III, laden with meaning. Kerstin Thorborg is a wonderful Fricka. What stands out about Janssen’s contributions is that there is a rare sense of narration, and while “Götternot” is involving, it certainly is not of the gravitas-laden Hotter kind. He misses the magic of the quieter second statement of “Das Ende” in his exchanges with Brünnhilde.

Szell judges earlier stages of the final act well, aided and abetted by a properly fearsome bunch of Valkyries, although as the act progresses one is aware that he sometimes glosses over the profundity of some of Wagner’s harmonic progressions in his eagerness to move on. Wotan’s later speeches are really fast, and to compound matters Traubel’s “War es so schmählich” is rather bleaty; perhaps in compensation for this Janssen offers one of the more in tune renderings of “So küsst er die Gottheit von dir.” Right at the work’s close, Szell keeps the orchestra together with impeccable discipline while maintaining a sense of his characteristic tautly controlled lyricism.

This performance offers a vital part of the Szell discography; there are, incidentally, lots of points of contact between the cast here and Szell’s 1942 Met Tannhäuser, heard on Immortal Performances 1053 and reviewed by myself in Fanfare 39:2.

Milton Cross is the announcer, efficient as ever and a vital part of the atmosphere created (I love his description of the Valkyries as “Amazons”). The essay “Form and Fate” in the booklet is notable for its explanation of the links between the story and the original Norse tales. An important addition to the discography of Die Walküre.

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